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Pats, Ravens vie to rebound in AFC title game rematch

An unsuccessful field goal attempt left the New England Patriots with a gut-wrenching loss last week and a feeling of immense frustration afterward.

It's something the Baltimore Ravens can certainly relate to.

The two AFC powerhouses go toe-to-toe for the first time since last season's memorable conference title game in a Week 3 headliner from M&T Bank Stadium . And although the stakes won't be quite as high this time around, there's still a sense of urgency on both sides based on the most recent results of each team.

New England and Baltimore fought to the wire in this past January's AFC Championship, with the Patriots punching their ticket to Super Bowl XLVI after surviving a 23-20 nail-biter best remembered for Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff misfiring on a 32-yard field goal try in the final seconds.

The Patriots received an ironic dose of comeuppance in their first appearance at Gillette Stadium since that contest, with the usually reliable Stephen Gostkowski pulling a 42-yard effort wide left with one second remaining in last week's matchup with Arizona. The failed kick enabled the Cardinals to come away with a stunning 20-18 triumph and hand the reigning AFC title- holders only the second loss in their last 37 regular-season home games in which quarterback Tom Brady has been a part of.

The defeat became doubly painful for New England with the news that valuable tight end Aaron Hernandez sustained a serious ankle sprain that could reportedly keep the versatile Pro Bowl honoree out for as much as six weeks.

"He's a great player," Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said of Hernandez. "He makes so many plays for us and he's really come into this training camp and really done really well. He's a really tough guy to match up against, and I think everybody across the board has got to pick up the slack and make some plays out there in his place."

Baltimore is dealing with both a significant injury and a difficult loss of its own. In their second outing without reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, the Ravens squandered a 10-point halftime lead and faltered down the stretch in a narrow 24-23 setback at Philadelphia in Week 2.

A usually stout Baltimore defense gave up 486 total yards to the Eagles, 70 of which came on a go-ahead drive capped by a Michael Vick touchdown run with 1;55 left to play. The unit still appears to be in the process of adjusting to the absence of Suggs, who tallied 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season and won't be available until at least November while recovering from a partial Achilles tendon tear.

"We have a lot of new faces in our front seven," said Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "We're just trying to get used to each other. It definitely is a work in progress. Once we continue to gel more, I think we'll seem more dominant."

Cundiff, released by Baltimore during the preseason, has so far been easier to replace. Undrafted rookie Justin Tucker has connected on all six of his field goal attempts through the first six games, all of which have been from 40 yards or beyond, and made good on both a 51-yarder and a 56-yarder against the Eagles.

Baltimore did intercept Brady twice in last winter's playoff tilt, and should have its chances of exacting revenge enhanced by Sunday's game taking place at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens have prevailed in 11 consecutive bouts and 19 of their last 20 tests including the postseason. Baltimore rolled to a 44-13 destruction of 2011 playoff entrant Cincinnati in its 2012 home opener on Sept. 10.

"I think we have a pretty tough environment to play in," said Ravens running back Ray Rice. "I'm sure our fans will be rocking and rolling Sunday night."

Baltimore also hasn't been bested in consecutive weeks since a three-game skid in October of 2009, having gone 13-0 following a loss after that slide. The Ravens have never beaten New England in six all-time regular-season clashes between the clubs, however, though they did hand the Pats a 33-14 loss in Foxborough during the 2009 AFC Playoffs.

New England enters Sunday's showdown attempting to avoid its first 1-2 start since head coach Bill Belichick's second season at the helm in 2001, while the Ravens haven't dropped two of their first three games since 2005.

SERIES HISTORY

Patriots lead 6-0

Streak: Patriots have won last six regular-season meetings Last Regular-Season Meeting: Patriots 23, Ravens 20, OT (Oct. 17, 2010 at New England) Last Meeting at Site: Patriots 27, Ravens 24 (Dec. 3, 2007)

Patriots HC Bill Belichick vs. Ravens: 5-1 Ravens HC John Harbaugh vs. Patriots: 1-3 Belichick vs. Harbaugh Head-to-Head: Belichick leads, 3-1

Notes: As previously stated, Baltimore has never topped the Patriots in regular-season play but did hand New England a 33-14 loss at Gillette Stadium in the opening round of the 2009 AFC Playoffs. The Patriots have taken on the Ravens twice previously on the road, having posted a 46-38 win at the old Memorial Stadium in 1996 in addition to their 2007 result. Including last season's AFC Championship Game, each of New England's last four wins over the Ravens have come by six or less points. Belichick was raised in nearby Annapolis, Md. and began his coaching career as a special assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975. He was also the Cleveland Browns' head coach from 1991-95 before being fired just prior to the franchise's move to Baltimore.

BY THE NUMBERS

Offensive Team Rankings

New England: 6th overall (388.5 ypg), 9th rushing (126.0 ypg), 8th passing (262.5 ypg), tied 12th scoring (26.0 ppg)

Baltimore: 9th overall (377.5 ypg), 10th rushing (116.5 ypg), 9th passing (261.0 ypg), tied 2nd scoring (33.5 ppg)

Defensive Team Rankings

New England: 2nd overall (264.5 ypg), 5th rushing (62.5 ypg), 7th passing (202.0 ypg), 4th scoring (16.5 ppg)

Baltimore: 27th overall (404.0 ypg), 20th rushing (129.0 ypg), tied 26th passing (275.0 ypg), 6th scoring (18.5 ppg)

Turnover Margin

New England: +3 (4 takeaways, 1 giveaway) Baltimore: +4 (6 takeaways, 2 giveaways)

Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)

New England: 42.9 percent (7 possessions, 3 TD, 3 FG) -- tied 23rd overall Baltimore: 80.0 percent (5 possessions, 4 TD, 1 FG) -- 2nd overall

Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)

New England: 50.0 percent (4 possessions, 2 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 11th overall Baltimore: 37.5 percent (8 possessions, 3 TD, 3 FG) -- tied 7th overall

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel adjusts New England's game plan with the unavailability of Hernandez, who was targeted a team-high 11 times by Brady (552 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) in January's AFC Championship and came up with seven catches totaling 66 yards. The Patriots favor a lot of two tight-end sets deploying both he and red-zone dominator Rob Gronkowski (12 receptions, 135 yards, 2 TD) that often creates mismatches for opposing defenses, but may be inclined to utilize more three- receiver sets now that the team has re-signed reliable veteran Deion Branch to pair with slot specialist Welker (8 receptions) and outside playmaker Brandon Lloyd (13 receptions, 129 yards). Going with a more run-oriented approach isn't out of the question either, as leading rusher Stevan Ridley (196 rushing yards, 1 TD, 5 receptions) has shown himself to be a quality grinder between the tackles in the early stages of his first year as the primary back and the Ravens haven't been stoning enemy ground games through the first two weeks. Establishing the run should also help out a transitioning offensive line that allowed four sacks of Brady in the Arizona loss, and the Pats were also plagued by inefficiency within the red zone last week, netting just one touchdown in three such trips. That was a bit of a problem for New England in last winter's playoff meeting with Baltimore as well, with the team settling for three Gostkowski field goals in five red-zone visits.

Though it's a very small sample size, the initial results suggest that the Baltimore defense hasn't been its usual self with sack-master Suggs unable to terrorize quarterbacks due to his injured leg. Coordinator Dean Pees, a former Patriots assistant, has tried to get by with lesser talents like Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan (8 tackles) or still-developing rookies such as 2012 second-rounder Courtney Upshaw (10 tackles, 0.5 sacks), but none have been able to fill the All-Pro end/outside linebacker's void. Pees has also tried to generate more heat by blitzing with greater frequency, but that's a risky tactic against an opponent with the sterling credentials and smarts as Brady. Baltimore was hit for a lot of big passing plays by the Eagles, many of which were produced by tight end Brent Celek as Philadelphia took advantage of strong safety Bernard Pollard's (10 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) exit caused by bruised ribs. Pollard is expected to play in Sunday's game, with he and venerable inside linebacker Ray Lewis (19 tackles, 1 sack) likely responsible for keeping the dangerous Gronkowski in check. Cornerbacks Cary Williams (8 tackles, 2 PD) and Jimmy Smith also had their hands full with Eagles speedster DeSean Jackson, who compiled 114 yards on seven catches on a Baltimore backfield that showed some vulnerability with the reduced pass rush. After ex- Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis put up 91 rushing yards and a touchdown for Cincinnati in the opener, the Ravens were able to mostly bottle up Eagles running back LeSean McCoy last week, with a front seven headed up by Lewis and Ngata (7 tackles, 2 sacks) limiting the breakaway threat to a modest 81 yards on 25 carries.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

After years of being labeled as a run-first team, Baltimore is beginning to morph into a pass-heavy offense designed to take advantage of the improving skills of quarterback Joe Flacco (531 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT). The Ravens have attempted to throw on over 70 percent of their plays during the first two weeks, with the lion's share of the targets directed to dual-threat Rice (167 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) and emerging tight end Dennis Pitta (13 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD), who hauled in a career-high eight Flacco passes for 65 yards against Philadelphia. Flacco, who put up 306 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive effort in the title-game loss to New England, also doesn't lack options at the wide receiver spots with free-agent pickup Jacoby Jones (4 receptions, 1 TD) joining holdovers Anquan Boldin (6 receptions, 1 TD) and Torrey Smith (4 receptions). The imposing Boldin came up with 101 yards on six grabs against the Ravens back in January and remains a go-to guy in clutch situations, while Smith is averaging nearly 18 yards per catch as the big-play element in Baltimore's revised faster-paced attack. The pass- oriented approach seems to have made Rice more difficult to contain as well, with the talented back averaging an excellent 6.4 yards per carry over the first two games.

A New England defense that was among the league's most submissive groups a year ago has demonstrated notable improvement early on in 2012, having yielded the second-fewest total yards (264.5 ypg) in the NFL entering Week 3. The jury may still be out, however, as neither of the first two opponents (Tennessee, Arizona) feature as dynamic an offense as the multi-faceted Ravens will on Sunday. The key for the Patriots will be getting steady pressure from the front-line cast of promising rookie end Chandler Jones (10 tackles, 1 sack), counterpart Rob Ninkovich (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and veteran tackle Vince Wilfork (5 tackles), who was a huge factor in last season's AFC Championship by registering six tackles, three stops for loss and a sack of Flacco. New England must also find a way to stop Pitta, who's become Flacco's favored receiver in recent games, after allowing former Ravens tight end Todd Heap to amass 62 yards on five catches for Arizona last week, and slot cornerback Kyle Arrington (6 tackles) wasn't much of a match for Boldin in the last meeting between the teams. New England was able to take out Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald in this past week's loss thanks to sound coverage from corner Devin McCourty (10 tackles, 2 PD), and a defense that slowed down Rice back in January has limited the opposition to a mere 62.5 rushing yards and 2.6 yards per attempt thus far this year behind a strong linebacker trio of Brandon Spikes (8 tackles) in the middle and Jerod Mayo (22 tackles) and rookie first- round pick Dont'a Hightower (10 tackles) on the outside flanks.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

With these well-stocked teams rather evenly matched in talent and having a history of close games that have been determined by a handful of plays, expect another tightly contested affair that should live up to its advance billing. The determining factor may be which one is better equipped to survive without one of its stars, and Baltimore's defense has clearly suffered some in the absence of Suggs. Though Hernandez certainly won't be able to replace on the opposing side, the Patriots still have plenty of potential difference-makers in Gronkowski, Welker, Lloyd and Ridley as well as one of the game's best quarterbacks in Brady. New England's defense also looks improved from last year's troublesome outfit, and the revamped crew should provide a challenge for Flacco and the Baltimore skill players. Though betting against the Ravens on their home turf rarely leads to a profitable outcome, the Patriots appear to be the team with fewer glaring weaknesses at this stage.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 23, Ravens 20