If Welker's absence and some seasonably nasty New England weather dictate a grind-it-out game, the Ravens can win by feeding the Patriots heaping helpings of Rice. He rushed for 1,339 yards and caught 78 passes from fellow sophomore Joe Flacco for another 702, giving Rice an average of 127.6 yards from scrimmage, second in the NFL. The Ravens, however, have struggled against top quarterbacks all year and lost starting corners Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington with late-season ACL injuries. All-Pro safety Ed Reed returned against the Raiders after missing a month with a groin tear. "I felt rusty," said Reed. "All I did was knock off the rust. I've still got pain."
The Patriots steadily improved on defense down the stretch, holding the Panthers, Bills and Jaguars to an average of 273.7 yards after giving up nearly 900 total to the Saints (who were at their hottest) and the Dolphins. "People started paying attention to technique and assignments," said defensive tackle Jarvis Green. "Everybody started playing as a unit. It's basic, but you've got to do it." Yet central to that work was a gimmick defense that can include as many as five linebackers and six defensive backs. It's effective against the pass but vulnerable to the run.
On Sunday during their 34--27 loss in Houston, New England yielded 439 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was a step backward for a team that, minus Welker, has little room for error.
THE PICK: Patriots 21, Ravens 20