Posted September 19, 2012 on
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New England Patriots
A late missed field goal sunk the Baltimore Ravens in last season's AFC championship game, sending the New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived in Foxborough.
A similar ending has the Patriots feeling a bit of early season angst heading into Sunday's rematch with Baltimore, which is trying to shake off another heartbreaking defeat in time for a prime-time showdown that will drop one of these AFC heavyweights to 1-2.
Billy Cundiff's 32-yard chip shot likely would have sent last year's conference title game to overtime if it had gone through, but Cundiff missed the kick - giving New England a 23-20 win - and eventually lost his job.
The Ravens have been thrilled with rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who is 6 for 6 this year - including three from long distance this past Sunday - but Stephen Gostkowski was the goat for the Patriots last weekend after badly yanking a 42-yard attempt in the closing seconds of a shocking 20-18 home loss to Arizona.
"You get opportunities like that not very often and I have to do a lot better job of coming through for the team," Gostkowski said.
His miss wasn't the only bad news for the Patriots, who settled for four field goals and only had a chance at the end because they recovered a fumble.
New England lost versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez to an ankle injury, although the severity and timetable both remain unclear. The team signed former Cleveland and Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow on Wednesday, which may indicate that Hernandez could miss significant time.
"I just met Kellen (Tuesday) for the first time, so I'm excited to get out there and practice with him," Brady said. "Aaron has been a huge contributor for us and every time he's in there, he seems to be making plays. We'll see how it goes without him or with him, I don't know."
The Patriots also brought back wide receiver Deion Branch this week to an offense that looked awfully ordinary against the Cardinals. The Patriots went 5 for 15 on third down and didn't find the end zone until Rob Gronkowski scored with 2:06 remaining.
Julian Edelman started over Wes Welker, who ended up catching five passes for 95 yards but has been playing fewer snaps than he's accustomed to after leading the NFL in receptions by a wide margin last year.
"It's a long season and you do things in a certain way preparing for the weeks to come," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "I wouldn't read too much into it. Wes Welker's still a great receiver and I'm sure New England, Brady and everybody knows that. It's just that people probably want to make news of something that's probably not something big in the organization."
While New England's normally prolific offense sorts through some problems, Baltimore's typically dominant defense is doing the same. The unit allowed 486 yards in last Sunday's 24-23 loss at Philadelphia, its most in a defeat since 1998.
Michael Vick's touchdown run to cap an 80-yard drive put the Eagles ahead with 1:55 left, and Joe Flacco's offense couldn't respond. Flacco was 22 of 42 for 232 yards, an average of just 5.5 yards per attempt that contributed to a dismal 66.8 passer rating.
"Anytime you lose it creates an opportunity," coach John Harbaugh said. "... When you lose, man, that sting really forces you to dig deep. All of us. It's human nature.
"If we can take this week and make the most of the fact that we didn't win the game and find ways to do a lot of things better and grow as a football team, in the long run that's how you get to where you're going. We're going to try to make it into a positive and come back swinging."
Regardless of Hernandez's status, Baltimore likely needs to do a better job of covering tight ends after Philadelphia's Brent Celek caught eight passes for 157 yards. Gronkowski had a team-high 87 receiving yards against the Ravens last postseason.
Baltimore's defense, run by former Patriots coordinator Dean Pees, is trying to adjust without reigning NFL defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs, who remains out with an Achilles injury, and fellow linebacker Jarret Johnson, who moved on to San Diego in the offseason.
"We have a lot of new faces in our front seven and we're still trying to get used to each other," defensive lineman Haloti Ngata said. "It definitely is a work in progress."
If Ravens safety Bernard Pollard can play through a bruised rib cage, this will be his third game against New England since his hit injured Brady's knee and knocked him out for nearly the entire 2008 season.
Pollard picked off Brady in Houston's win over the Patriots during the 2009 season and had 12 tackles in last season's AFC title game, with one of those leading to an ankle injury for Gronkowski.
Brady has a 69.1 passer rating in six career games against Baltimore including postseason - his worst against any opponent - but the Patriots have still won five of those games.
The Ravens haven't dropped back-to-back games since a three-game skid in 2009, winning 13 straight following a loss. New England hasn't been 1-2 since 2001 - the year Brady eventually became the starter - while Baltimore has won at least two of its first three each year since 2005.
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