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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats fear the Ravens? Nevermore!

HAD Lee Evans not let a would-be touchdown catch slip through his hands, or had Billy Cundiff not hooked a chip-shot field goal in that same 2011 AFC championship game, there's a decent chance three of the last four Patriots seasons would've ended with home playoff losses to the Ravens. Thus Baltimore is certainly a team New England's fans must respect. Or fear, even.

Annually they emerge as a mentally tough, battle-tested, find-a-way type of team - and this year has become no different. A month ago they were 4-6, and floundering, but four straight wins have given the reigning champs control of their own destiny in the AFC North. Again, their grit and resilience have deservedly garnered them great respect.

But based on the way Baltimore has been winning those games, there's no reason the Patriots should fear the Ravens. And no reason New England can't go to M&T Bank Stadium this afternoon and leave with a victory.

The Patriots' 10-4 record is proof that style points aren't important, and at the end of the season the manner by which wins came matters little, so it shouldn't be held against the Ravens that their last three triumphs have come by a total of seven points. In fact, the same is true of the Pats' last three wins.

However, it has to be acknowledged that over the course of this current surge, the Ravens have in four games scored a grand total of six touchdowns - three of which came in the final 2:07 of a wild finish against the Vikings, with one of those coming via a Jacoby Jones kickoff return.

And if that brief flurry is removed from the equation, in the remaining 278 minutes and 21 seconds of game action that dates back to the second quarter of their last loss, the Ravens' offense has delivered three touchdowns over the course of 53 possessions. By comparison, the Jaguars own the NFL's lowest-scoring offense this season; they've managed nine TDs over the past 53 times they've had the ball.

That the Ravens have revived their season over this stretch is obviously a tribute to its defense - which has only twice this season allowed more than 24 points - and to kicker Justin Tucker. His 61-yard game-winner against the Lions on Monday was his sixth of the night, and he's made 15 field goals over the length of Baltimore's winning streak, so without him this game might mean little more for the Ravens than the chance to spoil things for a rival.

But there are still doubts about whether Baltimore can win without being bailed out by Tucker's leg or the defense's ability to clamp down in the red zone (where they rank fourth league-wide), particularly given that the Ravens' current run of offensive impotence hasn't exactly come against the best of defensive competition.

While scoring 30 points outside of special teams over the past four and a half games, Baltimore has lost to the Bears, who rank 28th in scoring defense; beaten the Jets, who rank 23rd; beaten the Steelers, who rank 15th; beaten the Vikings, who rank 31st; and beaten the Lions, who rank 16th.

Essentially that means the Ravens have been shut down by defenses that sit somewhere between the league average and the bottom of the barrel, and all of which are worse than the 10th-ranked Patriots.

So while it'd be hard to argue that New England's defense is in the NFL's upper tier at this point, given its injuries and its recent ineffectiveness, that status hasn't been a requisite to stopping Baltimore of late. And on top of that, if there's one area where the Patriots are weakest, it's against the run (having allowed more yards than anyone but the Bears), but the Ravens own the worst per-rush average in the league (3.0), and have eclipsed the 100-yard plateau just twice all season. Overall, they're the fourth-least productive running game in the NFL.

Obviously, the Ravens have lately found ways to overcome those deficiencies, and they're comfortable playing with little margin for error after nine of their last 11 games have been decided by three points or fewer. But what they haven't yet proven an ability to do is to win a game when the opponent is able to get ahead by a couple of scores.

In their eight wins, the Ravens have never trailed by more than seven points - so if the Patriots can get to the end zone a couple times early, the game will likely be there for the taking. And given what the Baltimore offense has been over the past month, if they get to the end zone a couple times at any point might be enough.

So, then, for all the talk of how dangerous the Ravens are, and how much of a threat they will be both today and in the postseason, there's just as much reason to think Baltimore's status is being aided by reputation and respect.

When, in reality, there may not be much to fear.

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OVERRATED: Ray Rice. The explosiveness just isn't there for the 26-year-old, who is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry (down from 4.3 for his career) and 5.4 yards per reception (down from 8.3). He exploded for 131 yards against the Bears' in Week 11, though he hasn't gained 75 yards in any other contest.

UNDERRATED: Aaron Dobson. The absence of the rookie receiver for most of the past four games has been underplayed, and if he is able to return on the outside today it should add a missing dimension to the Patriots' attack. He was starting to play well before injuring his foot against Denver.

KEEP AN EYE ON...: Jacoby Jones. With a kickoff return and a 66-yard catch, he has two of Baltimore's last six TDs, and he is perpetually a threat to make an explosive play that could turn - or decide - this game.

KEY MATCHUP: Corey Graham vs. Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman. The cornerback from the University of New Hampshire will likely be assigned to whichever of the Patriots receivers lines up in the slot, and how he handles that task is likely to have a big say in how effectively Baltimore limits New England's offense. Amendola and Edelman were Brady's go-to options last week, so if Graham is able to hold either of them in check the Ravens should be in good shape.

STAT OF THE WEEK: The Patriots defense has one turnover or fewer in four of its past five games, the first time that's true since Week 10 of 2010.

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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