After a shocking and disheartening 20-18 loss at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday afternoon in their home opener at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots will be looking to get things back on track in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens. This will mark the first time that these two AFC rivals will square off since their meeting in the AFC Championship game last January. As we all know, the Patriots came out victorious in that one after former Ravens' place kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal, wide to the left. Ironically, the Pats will take on the Ravens just one week after losing in the similar fashion.
Without further ado, here are your five things to watch for during Sunday's game in Baltimore.
1) How Will The Patriots Adapt To Life Without Aaron Hernandez?
According to multiple reports this week, New England's star tight end has suffered a low ankle sprain and will be out of commission for at least three weeks. After struggling without No. 81 on the field for the first three and a half quarters against Arizona, the Pats finally put it all together for an impressive fourth quarter touchdown drive. It was almost as if they were in a state of shock at the biggest part of their game plan being absent from the lineup. Now, with a week to prepare without Hernandez, Josh McDaniels and company will be expected to have things back on track against the Ravens. It will be no small feat, however, game-planning for a star-studded defense featuring names like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata.
2) Can The Ravens Pressure Tom Brady Without Terrell Suggs?
After injuring his ankle in a pickup game of basketball over the winter, all-pro pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs found himself on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list at the start of this season. In the past, Suggs has been an absolute nightmare for the New England offensive line, often busting through blocks and creating havoc in Tom Brady's pocket. Suggs' performances against the Patriots date back to 2007 when the then-undefeated Patriots narrowly escaped defeat in the very building that they will be playing in this Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens are able to pressure Brady without Suggs in the lineup. In his place, rookie Courtney Upshaw and veterans Ngata and Pernell McPhee will be expected to fill the pass-rushing void.
3) Will Wes Welker Continue To Be Phased Out Of The New England Offense?
In the first two weeks of the 2012 season, it seems like we've had a case of cutting your nose off to spite your face on the part of the Patriots. It seems as if the Pats are phasing out their leading receiver from one year ago, Wes Welker, from the game plan altogether. Younger -- and cheaper -- slot man Julian Edelman has instead enjoyed the bulk of the playing time at the no. 2 receiver spot alongside new-Patriot Brandon Lloyd. As opposed to keeping the NFL's best slot receiver as an intricate part of their offensive scheme, the Patriots have chose to keep him off the field as much as possible, likely out of anger that he did not sign a team-friendly contract this offseason. Now, in no way am I advocating that Welker get a three-year, $27 million dollar extension, but I do believe that he was deserving of a healthy offer from the Patriots. Fans and management alike will always have the image of "the drop" in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 46 burnt into the darkest chamber of their sports memories, but to deny the production that Welker provides in the regular season would be ridiculous. With Aaron Hernandez now missing from the lineup for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots decide to increase No. 83's role in the offense. They will most certainly be a better team if they do.
4) Can The New England Run Defense Hold Up Against One Of The NFL's Top Backs?
In Week 1, the Patriots' run defense did a phenomenal job in completely neutralizing one of the league's best tailbacks, former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. On eleven attempts, Johnson could only amass four yards on the ground. Last week, the Cardinals offense combined for 105 yards rushing on 33 tries. This week, the Patriots will be up against one of the most explosive offensive players in the game, Ravens' running back Ray Rice. Rice is a dual threat, as he can both succeed in the running game and catch passes out of the backfield. Stopping Rice will be a huge litmus test for this Patriots' front seven.
5) Which Joe Flacco Shows Up On Sunday?
Last year's AFC title game was a remarkable showing for Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco. By most accounts, he outplayed his counterpart, future hall-of-famer Tom Brady. Flacco looked to have finally elevated himself into the elite category amongst NFL signal callers. In a Week 1 bashing of the visiting Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco was just as impressive, leading many to believe that he had finally arrived and reached that next level of excellence. However, a poor Week 2 performance in Philadelphia against the Eagles, including a disastrous final drive, has resurfaced those same doubts that have followed the former Delaware Blue Hen around for his entire career. If the elite Joe Flacco shows up this Sunday, the Patriots could be in trouble. If he's average -- or worse --, New England could do something that no road team has been able to do since December 5, 2010, win a football game in Baltimore.
Prediction: Ravens win this one at home, 27-17.