A wise man once said, "Do not intentionally provoke the beast." Yet that's what the Baltimore Ravens' official Twitter account did late last week, claiming that the Ravens have "been a thorn in the side" of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The two teams are set to meet on Monday night in Foxborough, a matchup between two AFC powerhouses trying to carry momentum into the postseason; a win for either team would cause the entire conference's playoff bracket to shift. The Chiefs and Raiders (at 10-3 each) have put heat on the 10-2 Pats for the top seed in the conference and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Meanwhile, the 8-5 Steelers have won four straight to take the top spot in the AFC North away from Baltiimore, who sits in second place at 7-5.
The Ravens have acknowledged Brady's history of dominating nearly every opponent he has faced, but their claims of bottling him up on a regular basis aren't entirely founded. Baltimore has faced the Brady-led Patriots six times in the regular season and the Pats have come up winners five times. In the postseason, the Ravens have fared better, winning two of their four contests, most recently in 2013, when Baltimore went on to become Super Bowl champions.
In the six regular-season meetings, the Ravens have done an admirable job of trying to control Brady. He has a completion percentage of just 58.3, is averaging 247.7 yards per game and has been sacked 14 times. Four of these matchups -- three Patriots wins and one loss -- have been decided by a touchdown or less. Still, Brady has thrown six touchdowns to three interceptions against Baltimore in their previous regular-season matchups. The Ravens' dominance has mostly only showed itself in the playoffs, where Brady's six touchdowns were tempered by him throwing eight interceptions and having taken six sacks.
It will certainly be a playoff atmosphere on Monday night, given how high the stakes are, the profiles of these teams and how well both squads have played this year. But looking to the past is only so helpful -- these are the 2016 Ravens and Patriots, and what has happened before has little bearing on what could happen in Week 14.
One thing is certain, though: If the Ravens are going to walk away with the win, their defense must treat Brady more as it did during their previous postseason meetings. Baltimore's defense does seem up to the task; its 28 sacks on the season ranks12th in the league and the 14 interceptions ranks second. Terrell Suggs is Baltimore's sack leader with eight and he and Brady are certainly no strangers to one another (Suggs won't say Brady's name; Brady, meanwhile, thinks Suggs is a future Hall of Famer). Safety Eric Weddle and linebacker C.J. Mosley each have three interceptions apiece. But there are a few problems with this equation.
One is that even though Baltimore's defense has had little trouble affecting the performances of opposing quarterbacks, both via pressure and generating turnovers, it has still allowed 21 passing scores this year, ranking it 19th. The other is that Brady has been nearly flawless in his eight games this season, throwing 19 touchdowns to one interception and taking only 11 sacks in 302 passing attempts. Of the Patriots' two losses, only one came with Brady active (the other was in Week 4, while Brady served his suspension).
Indeed, the Ravens' best course of action to limit Brady might involve stopping the run, something that Baltimore has done masterfully this year and something that the Patriots have employed in order to open up the passing game. Especially without tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola on Monday, the Patriots will be hoping the LeGarrette Blount-led ground attack will be able to tire out and lull Baltimore's defense, freeing up Brady's arm as it has throughout the year.
Baltimore's defense is best in the league at stopping the run. They are allowing a league-leading 73.8 rushing yards per game (and just 886 yards on the year) and their four rushing scores allowed are also tops in the NFL. But containing Blount will be a problem. His 957 rushing yards on 230 carries are the fifth-most in the league, and his 13 rushing scores lead all backs this season. He is averaging 79.8 rush yards per game, or six more than the Ravens are giving up to rushing offenses on a per-game basis. If Baltimore's defense really is the run-stopping juggernaut they've been advertised as, Blount and the Patriots are in trouble. But if Blount is the unstoppable force, then the Ravens are in for a long night.
The need for the Ravens defense to carry the load against the Patriots is significant. Baltimore's offense ranks only 21st in scoring this year, 20th in passing touchdowns and 24th in rushing scores. Quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown 15 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and has been sacked 23 times (he was sacked only 16 times through 10 games last year and 19 times in 16 in 2014). Baltimore's leading rusher is Terrance West, who is averaging four yards per carry but has only 650 rushing yards on 163 attempts, as the team ranks only 25th in rush attempts this year, compared to second in passing attempts. The Ravens have frequently found themselves in close games, leading to increased passing, and with mixed results.
And it should be noted that New England's defense is nothing to scoff at. The unit ranks second in points allowed and ninth in yards, as well as 10th in touchdown passes allowed and third in rushing scores allowed. The defense has just seven interceptions but has fared well bringing pressure, totaling 26 sacks. Therefore, Baltimore's defense will need to match the Patriots' stop-for-stop in order to keep its offense competitive.
Points will be at a premium for Baltimore's offense, especially given the difficult road venue. The Ravens' newly-vaunted defense will have to put forth a near-flawless performance, hope to keep the score close and rely on the leg of kicker and team MVP Justin Tucker in order to unseat the AFC's top seed, remain playoff relevant and send a message that this is a team worth fearing come January.