Vince Wilfork, Defensive Line Could Be Biggest Factor Against Ravens, Ray Rice and 19 Other Patriots Thoughts

Vince Wilfork, Defensive Line Could Be Biggest Factor Against Ravens, Ray Rice and 19 Other Patriots ThoughtsFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots are a victory short of redemption against the Ravens, and they'd reserve a weeklong trip to Indianapolis, which is nice this time of year.

With so much happening around Gillette Stadium, let's just get right to it with this week's Two-Minute Drill.

1. It's true, to an extent, when the Patriots say they're a different team this year from last year's group. But it's the rock-solid truth when comparing this team to the 2009 version. Consider this: There are only 19 players who are on the active roster right now and were also on the active roster during the 2009 postseason. Just 35.8 percent of the roster remains intact from that 2009 loss to the Ravens.

2. Those 19 players are cornerback Kyle Arrington, defensive lineman Ron Brace, quarterback Tom Brady, safety Patrick Chung, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back Kevin Faulk, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, linebacker Gary Guyton, quarterback Brian Hoyer, left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, linebacker Jerod Mayo, linebacker Rob Ninkovich, wide receiver Matthew Slater, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, offensive lineman Ryan Wendell and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.

3. Plus, you could run through the list and detail the ways a majority of those players' roles have changed over the last two years. Even look at Brady, who was a shell of himself that season after coming back from the knee injury.

4. So, while a lot is made of how wide receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will help the Patriots' offense this time around, remember the differences between the 2009 and 2011 teams aren't even close to restricted to just three players.

5. Obviously, the Patriots' defense will put a huge point of emphasis on stopping Ravens running back Ray Rice, who had 1,364 rushing yards and 2,068 yards from scrimmage during the regular season. He was easily the Ravens' leader with 76 receptions — 19 more than wide receiver Anquan Boldin — and he's just about the only pass catcher who makes quarterback Joe Flacco look comfortable.

6. In the regular season, Rice caught 76 of 104 passes (73.1 percent) thrown his way, which is a superior percentage to the other three Ravens who caught at least 50 passes in 2011. Tight end Ed Dickson caught 54 of 89 passes (60.7 percent). Boldin caught 57 of 105 passes (54.3 percent). And wide receiver Torry Smith caught 50 of 95 passes (52.6 percent).

7. This speaks to Flacco's inefficiency as a passer, which is his own doing and the work of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who doesn't exactly put Flacco and the receivers in the best position to succeed.

8. Let's compare those numbers to the Patriots' receivers. Welker caught 122 of 172 passes (70.9 percent). Gronkowski caught 90 of 124 passes (72.6 percent). Hernandez caught 79 of 113 passes (69.9 percent). And wide receiver Deion Branch caught 51 of 90 passes (56.7 percent).

9. Now, let's get back to the importance of stopping Rice on the ground. Can the Patriots do it? Over the last five games, including Saturday's victory against the Broncos, the Patriots have allowed an average of 158.3 rushing yards. To add some context to that number, the Buccaneers had the worst run defense in this NFL this season, allowing 156.1 yards per game.

10. That average includes that abysmal Week 15 performance against the Broncos. Even if you want to chalk that up as an aberration, which is fair to an extent, and ignore that game, the Patriots have allowed an average of 135.3 rushing yards per game since Week 14. (That average includes Week 14 against Washington, Week 16 against Miami, Week 17 against Buffalo and Saturday against Denver.) That average would rank as the seventh-worst rush defense in the NFL this season.

11. It's tough to tell right now whether or not the Patriots' strong defensive performance against the Broncos will carry over this week. Denver's offense is so different that the successful game plan could have been a one-time thing. But if the defensive linemen keep one-gapping and the outside linebackers are asked to continue bringing pressure from both sides, well, they'll certainly be happy to take on those assignments.

12. Gap control is always crucial to stopping the run, evidenced by Wilfork getting blown off his block during Rice's game-opening, 83-yard touchdown run in the 2009 playoffs. Wilfork and defensive tackle Kyle Love will need to be stout again, but you can bet the Ravens will attack guys like Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis and Mark Anderson. It will be important for linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo to give the linemen some help to prevent long gains.

13. Rice is good friends with fellow Rutgers alum Devin McCourty. Last week, I asked McCourty about his favorite memories while watching the playoffs before he got to the NFL, and he mentioned watching his former Rutgers teammates succeed in the postseason. And yes, he was watching Rice do work on the Patriots in 2009. It's always strange how these things work out.

14. Interesting quote Monday from Welker: "Definitely after the '07 year, I thought we'd be going to the Super Bowl every year, and that's just not the way it works. It's hard to get to a position like this. You definitely have to take full advantage of it and not take it for granted and I'm definitely not going to do that."

15. The factor of playoff experience is so overblown with this Patriots team. Sure, it's great to have guys like Brady, Faulk and Light who all have three Super Bowl rings. But until Saturday, they only had eight players on the active roster who won a playoff game in New England (Brady, Faulk, Light, Branch, Wilfork, Mankins, Gostkowski and Welker).

16. Amazingly, Patriots right guard Brian Waters, who has been in the NFL since 1999, had never won a playoff game in his career until Saturday.

"It's a great feeling, but it's one of those things where we know this is just the beginning," Waters said Saturday night. "I can be happier, and hopefully next week I will be happier. But I am excited about the possibilities of helping this football team."

17. I wrote a story Sunday about the way the Patriots have been inspired by the memory of Myra Kraft, the late wife of owner Robert Kraft. Initially, I didn't have the name of the painter, Brian Fox, but I got a ton of emails and tweets from people mentioning Fox's name. I've got to say, he's got a heck of a following.

18. The Ravens have an attack-style defense that thrives off dictating the pace of the game, but the same is said for the Patriots' offense. For Brady and the offense to succeed, they'll need to control the tempo, come out fast in the no-huddle and go, go, go. That's the best way to counter Baltimore's ferocious defense.

19. With the Saints' playoff loss, the Patriots know they'll have the 27th overall pick in April's draft. So, the Patriots, in a way, moved up a spot. They traded the 28th pick in last year's draft, which the Saints used on running back Mark Ingram, for the 56th pick (running back Shane Vereen) and this year's first-rounder. The Patriots' own pick will be between Nos. 29-32.

20. Brady has 15 playoff victories as a starting quarterback, setting a record for the most wins by a quarterback with one team. With a victory Sunday against the Ravens, Brady would tie two postseason records. He'd match Joe Montana with a 16th playoff win, and soon after, he would tie John Elway with five starts in a Super Bowl.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe  or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

 

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