When Joe Flacco and Tom Brady match up, more often than not the Ravens and Patriots are in for a good one.
The two franchise quarterbacks have gone head-to-head six times since 2009 with each team winning three. (Read more about the division-like rivalry between the teams here.)
But in recent seasons, the offensive casts of characters have been pretty similar. Brady had receiver Wes Welker along with talented tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at his disposal. Flacco had Anquan Boldin and a productive Ray Rice on his side.
Now the two could start a support group for coping with offensive turnover. Brady lost Welker and Hernandez, and is now without Gronkowski for the rest of the season. Flacco has seen Boldin traded away, Rice and an altered line endure struggles, and tight end Dennis Pitta spend the majority of the year on the sidelines.
And still, Brady and Flacco have played central roles in getting their teams to Week 16 above .500 and needing to win Sunday.
The Patriots (10-4) can wrap up a playoff berth with a win, tie, or Bengals loss, and also can clinch a first-round bye. The Ravens (8-6) can secure a postseason spot with a win, a Dolphins loss and a Chargers loss or tie.
Even with all the change, Brady is having an exceptional season, ranking fourth in the NFL with 4,049 passing yards while throwing 23 touchdown passes compared to 10 interceptions. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are his top two healthy receivers.
“Well, I think what I see from them is Tom Brady is having one heck of a year - I think maybe one of his best years that he has ever had, because with some of the guys and the weapons that he has had in the past being gone, they are still productive, still putting up points, still putting up yards,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
“You better play for 60 minutes with this team; they are the comeback team. Cleveland had them down two scores, and they came back and beat them with two minutes to go. I think Tom is having one of his best years ever and just really running the offense very, very well.”
Flacco was nominated for Ravens MVP even though his numbers haven’t been glowing (3,460 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 17 interceptions). Without the benefit of a running game - the Ravens rank 29th in that category - Flacco has reawakened the deep passing game and helped the offense produce just enough to help the team turn around from a 4-6 start.
With Torrey Smith elevated to No. 1 receiver and Marlon Brown leading a group of new passing options, Flacco can appreciate all the change Brady has experienced in New England.
“It has definitely probably been similar, and you’ve got to credit those guys,” Flacco said. “When they haven’t been full strength, they have found ways to win football games. I think we’ve had a lot of those same situations, and we’re just now starting to capitalize on them and win them. Earlier in the year, we probably weren’t able to win quite as much, and these guys have. They have won a good amount of football games, and the ones they’ve lost have been really close, too. So you’ve got to credit Tom and his ability to just adapt and bring everybody’s level up a little bit.”
One problem that has persisted for the Ravens, and one that will likely need to be less of an issue Sunday, is getting into the end zone.
Baltimore has just 24 offensive touchdowns in 14 games and only five during its four-game winning streak. In Monday’s 18-16 win over the Lions, the Ravens failed to score a touchdown and finished with six field goals from Justin Tucker.
“It doesn’t matter what game it is. Win or lose, we want to put that ball in the end zone. That’s our job - to score,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “We moved the ball up and down the field (Monday), but we’ve got to get touchdowns. I think that’s important. In this particular day and age, the amount of points that people are scoring ... Our defense is playing great; we’ve just got to keep finding ways to get more points on the board. Ultimately, we’ve got to score one more point than the opponent. That makes our games a little bit too tight, but touchdowns are extremely important to us. We’ve got to get better in that area.”
The Ravens head into the contest ranked 25th in the league with 21.1 points per game and 29th with 309.9 yards per game. They’re up against a New England defense that allows tons of yards (372.4 per game to rank 24th), but is tied for 10th in the league permitting 22.2 points per contest.
The Patriots have a had a tough time stopping the run all year, surrendering 132.5 yards on the ground per game. But they’ve been especially bad against the pass lately, giving up 313 yards through the air per contest over the last three games.
New England will be looking to rebound from a loss to the Dolphins, but is still 10-4 despite the iffy defensive numbers.
“I think that, like most productive defenses, they keep people out of the end zone,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what they have done. They are 10th against points. They have given up yards, but yards are not really the true measuring stick. It’s points, and they’ve done a good job with that. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, and they play good, sound football.”
Baltimore’s defense has been posting outstanding numbers for much of the year, holding opponents to 19.8 points (seventh) and 334.0 yards (ninth) per game.
Even with so much turnover on the Patriots’ side, Brady has made the unit one of the top 10 in the NFL. New England’s 390.7 yards per game rank eighth in the league and 26.4 points per contest rank sixth.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs seemed to be looking forward to going up against Brady again.
“Let’s not kid ourselves; he’s a fierce competitor. Then again, we don’t shy away from anybody. We play against the best every week,” Suggs said. “Both teams are going to be playing championship football. It’s a championship for both of us - you can expect that. Both teams will have at it come Sunday. ...
“It’s obvious they’ve got different personnel. But you all said it: It’s still the same guy under center, and pretty much they go as he goes, so to say. As long as he’s taking the snaps, you’ve still got your hands full.”