The New England Patriots did not even have to take the field to seize control of their postseason destiny and they can solidify the front-running status when they host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. Oakland’s loss to Kansas City on Thursday night put the Patriots one-half game up for the No. 1 seed in the AFC entering the final quarter of the season.
New England has won three in a row and can wrap up the AFC East title for an eight consecutive season — which would be an NFL record — with a win over Baltimore and a loss by Miami. The Patriots own a deceptive 7-1 regular-season record in the series against the Ravens, who have been a major nemesis for New England and quarterback Tom Brady. Four of the last six meetings (playoffs included) have been decided by four points or fewer and Baltimore owns a pair of postseason victories over the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. The stakes are equally high for the Ravens, who are tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North but currently hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers.
ABOUT THE RAVENS (7-5): Baltimore improved to 4-1 in its last five games following its most impressive victory of the season, a 38-6 demolition of Miami last week that snapped the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. Muddling through a season of mediocrity to that point, quarterback Joe Flacco established season highs with 381 yards passing and four touchdowns while setting a franchise record with 36 completions. Tight end Dennis Pitta had nine catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns, part of a unit that features veteran Steve Smith, speedster Mike Wallace and promising Breshad Perriman at wide receiver. The Ravens have the league’s top-ranked defense (296.1 yards per game) and rank No. 1 against the run (73.8 yards).
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (10-2): New England has won three in a row, although the combined record of those opponents entering Week 13 is 8-28. Brady has 19 touchdown passes versus only one interception since returning from his four-game suspension, but he is without his No. 1 receiving target in tight end Rob Gronkowski and has 12 scoring passes versus 11 picks in 10 career games (playoffs included) versus Baltimore. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell continues to emerge as a bigger threat in the passing game with a season-high eight receptions in last week’s 26-10 win over Los Angeles while LeGarrette Blount is 43 yards shy of his second 1,000-yard season. The Patriots’ defense is tied with Baltimore with 17.3 points allowed — second in the NFL.
1. The Patriots can secure a first-round bye with a win and losses by both Miami and Pittsburgh.
2. Ravens K Justin Tucker has converted all 28 field goal attempts, including eight of at least 50 yards.
3. With Danny Amendola (ankle) out, the Patriots signed fellow WR/PR Griff Whalen.
PREDICTION: Patriots 23, Ravens 20