Breaking down the AFC wild-card matchup, Ravens at Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
1. Big names and bad blood -- The Patriots and Ravens have been two of the most enduring and influential franchises of the past decade, with four Super Bowls between them since the 2000 season (OK, the last three by the Patriots). Yet the teams have never met in the postseason (and just five times in the regular season since the Ravens were born in '96, with New England winning all five).
There will be at least five future Hall of Fame players on the field in Foxboro, Mass.: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Randy Moss and (now seldom-used) linebacker Junior Seau; and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Those are just the locks Canton, along with one Hall of Fame coach, Bill Belichick. It is a rare collection of historic talent and some of them are approaching last-chance time in pursuit of more championships.
Even better, there's some bad blood. After the Patriots' 27-21 victory over the Ravens in Foxboro back on Oct. 4, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh and veterans Lewis and Reed complained Brady was getting easy late-hit calls after two Patriots' touchdown drives were helped by personal fouls. This week Lewis said, "I don't have time to dwell back into any of that,'' which probably means that he has.
2. Ray Rice is a rising star -- Rice, a 5-foot-8, 210-pound second-year tailback from Rutgers, displaced seven-year veteran Willis McGahee as the Ravens' featured back. His totals of 1,329 rushing yards and 702 yards on 78 pass receptions made him the second-most productive combined run-catch player in the NFL. (The most productive was Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who rushed for 2,003 yards and caught passes for 503, which means that while Rice's numbers were slightly lower, his statistical balance was even better). "There's no question about Rice's receiving skill,'' Belichick said this week. "He just wasn't used that way in college.''
Rice is an old-school hammer who will run over linebackers. Some teams are particularly adept at sustaining success by choosing players who fit the franchise design. The Steelers do it. The Patriots do it. And the Ravens do it, with no better example than Rice. What makes his presence in the game all the more intriguing is the Patriots have often been very average against the run this season. "We try to make teams one-dimensional,'' says Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "This year sometimes we did it, sometimes we didn't.''
3. Wes Welker is not walking through that door -- The Patriots' dynamic slot receiver caught 122 passes in 13 games this year (he missed two games early in the season). Reception No. 123 came in the first quarter of the season-ending loss to Houston, and while Welker was gaining yards after the catch upfield, he went down with a knee injury. He was placed on injured reserve Wednesday and is out for the playoffs and probably much of the 2010 regular season.
Welker's presence would be a compelling reason to care about this game, because he is among the best slot receivers in history. His absence is fascinating. Will Moss step up and deliver an epic performance in Welker's absence, or will the Ravens simply take him away with daylong double coverage? Will rookie Julian Edelman take a huge step forward and deliver a Welker-esque performance on the biggest stage of his life? "I guarantee you he'll be nervous, because he always got nervous before games,'' says Brian Lainhart, Edelman's roommate at Kent State. "But he's a gamer. He's going to play a great game.''
Or will Brady find some other way to win the game?
A defensive assistant on one of the Patriots' late-season opponents assesses the New England offense without Wes Welker:
"One thing about Welker is that he's basically impossible to guard. He's one of those slot receivers, like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who's so aware of the defense that he'll almost do whatever it takes to defeat the coverage. It really changes the way you defend New England. And Brady and Welker are almost always on the same page. The kid, Edelman, was a great pick for the Patriots. A lot of teams had him on their draft boards, but most of them were thinking you sign him as a free agent the day after the draft. But he's not Welker. The Patriots are going to run the ball and stay on schedule, but it's very tough to run inside against Baltimore.''
This has all the makings of a nasty battle. It's going to be cold and probably windy. The Ravens are designed for January, with a solid running game behind Rice and McGahee and a play-action passing game. With Welker out, the Ravens are unlikely to let Moss beat them. Still: This is the wild-card round in Foxboro and it's hard to envision New England losing to a team that struggles to score points. Neither of these teams are going to the Super Bowl, but you have to believe Brady makes just enough plays to keep the Patriots alive. New England 16, Baltimore 14.