Originally posted on Patriots Extra  |  Last updated 9/21/12

After last week’s 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and all the blame placed around the organization for the whole Wes Welker situation, the New England Patriots get to finally take the field Sunday night against a familiar opponent. The Pats will travel without tight end Aaron Hernandez to Baltimore to take on the Ravens. Baltimore has revenge on their minds in two different ways. The first way is that they lost a tough game in the final minutes to the Philadelphia Eagles last week. The second way is they want somewhat of retribution from last year’s AFC Championship Game.

Everyone knows the strength of John Harbaugh’s team is the defense, especially with Ray Lewis looking like Ray Lewis from five years ago. The key for their success in terms of getting back to the Super Bowl is handing the ball to Ray Rice out of the backfield and running the no-huddle offense with Joe Flacco at the helm. This is a make or break year for Flacco with this being his contract year, but he made a lot of believers out of people with his play in the AFC Title Game.

With that, here are my keys to Sunday Night’s Game:

1. The Patriot Hunter: Over the last five years, there has been one name synonymous with the injuries to New England Patriots’ player. First, it was Tom Brady in 2008, then it was Wes Welker in 2009, and finally, Rob Gronkowski in 2012. His name is Bernard Pollard. Pollard suffered a rib injury against the Eagles, but from all accounts, it looks like he will play Sunday night. He has also come out this week criticizing the replacement refs as well and rightfully so. His on-the-field work this year has been solid with ten tackles and an interception. If he plays, do the ribs effect the level at which he is playing at because we know he is a tough hitter and can make plays on the field. When you pair him with Ed Reed in the back of that secondary, it is a dangerous combination.

2. Limit On The Rice:  The Patriots’ defense has done a great job at stopping the run so far this season, limiting their opponents to 62 rushing yards per game. However, they may have a little bit of help in that limitation. In two games, Rice has only averaged 13 carries per game. This complaint has lasted for almost two years from Ravens’ fans about offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s philosophy. If the Patriots can force Flacco to beat them with his arm, it will be to their advantage with this improved pass defense forcing turnovers with players like linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Tavon Wilson among others. This surprises me as well because Rice received a new contract in the offseason, but it feels like he gets more catches than carries. Actually, Rice has had the second most receptions on the team through two games.

3 . Go Wes, Tom Brady: I won’t pretend to know all the details in the Wes Welker situation. However, with Aaron Hernandez out for the perceivable short-term future, the need for Welker in the passing game becomes more crucial for this offense. So far this season, Tom Brady has struggled with the deep ball, completing just four of thirteen deep passes. With the lack of chemistry with Brandon Lloyd showing up late in game, New England needs Welker on the field for pivotal third down conversions. Plus, with the Ravens giving up 808 yards in two games, there will be opportunities for Wes down the field should he get on the field.

PREDICTION

Over the last few seasons, the Ravens have been able to contain Tom Brady, but have not been able to produce in the wins department. This is a big game for both teams because it is tough to imagine both of these AFC contenders at 1-2 to start the year. I think Flacco is going to carry his confidence from the title game into this contest and rack up some yardage. The Patriots’ defense will force turnovers, but until I see this offense bring the same balance they did against Tennessee and without Hernandez, it is tough to pick the Pats on the road in a hostile environment. Even with former Patriots’ coach Dean Pees at defensive coordinator, he will bring the same complex defensive schemes as Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano did as defensive coordinators. So for the first time in three years on this site, I am going to pick the opposition.

RAVENS 23 PATRIOTS 20

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