Take a look around the AFC and you might be disappointed in the level of play this season.
That isn't to say every team is underperforming. Of course, there are the Patriots who many believe will go to the Super Bowl. There are also the Chiefs, Raiders, and Broncos, which makes the AFC West easily the toughest division in the AFC.
But there's a team in the AFC North that has gone a bit under the radar this year but finds itself fighting with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a division title and playoff berth: the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens invade Foxboro for a Monday Night Tilt against the Patriots that pits the two rivals against each other with plenty on the line.
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That's right. Rivals.
It's hard to call the Broncos a rival now that Peyton Manning is gone. You can use the same logic for the Colts - and also the fact that they just aren't very good. The Jets? Ha! They're only rivaling the Giants… The Little Giants, that is.
But the Ravens check off all the boxes. They have an outspoken head coach in John Harbaugh, they have outspoken players like Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith, they see the Patriots often enough, and they're competitive with them. Though the Brady-led Patriots are 5-1 in the regular season against the Ravens, they're 2-2 in the playoffs.
But now there's even more. Nobody will forget the Patriots tricking the Ravens in the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff Game with their ineligible formations, prompting Tom Brady to tell the irked Ravens after the game to "read the rule book and figure it out."
Obviously, that didn't sit well with Harbaugh. The word is the Ravens then tipped off the Colts about the Patriots alleged deflating of footballs.
The rest is history.
And it brings us to tonight, with the Patriots and Ravens unable to call this one just another game.
MVP up for grabs
It pains a lot of the national media and those in NFL offices, but with a win tonight, Tom Brady will become the frontrunner for the NFL’s MVP Award, this with four less games under his belt. It won’t be easy against the league’s top defense. The Ravens come into the game ranked first in total defense, allowing just 296.1 yards per game. Much of that is due to their stingy rushing defense, as they only allow 73.8 yards on the ground. They are tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL with 14, but Brady has only thrown one this year. Something has to give. Ravens defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, formerly that of the New England Patriots, makes things difficult for Brady.
Is Joe Flacco Elite?
That question took a big hit a couple weeks ago when former Ravens linebacker and loud mouth Ray Lewis questioned Flacco’s passion for the game. We won’t get into that, but we can get into the fact he’s got enough talent around him to at least appear elite. Mike Wallace is well on his way to his first 1,000-yard season since 2011, and everybody knows what Steve Smith Sr. is capable of with his hands and also his trash talk. Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta found the end zone twice last week. All that said, Flacco’s quarterback rating this season is just 84.1, ranking him 26th among qualified QBs.
There are some out there who feel that clinching the playoffs is enough and seeding doesn’t matter for the Patriots. They’d sit Brady and players like Martellus Bennett to make sure they were good for the playoffs. But as we saw last season, seeding – and homefield advantage – is huge. The Patriots lost four of their last six games last season and because of that travelled to Denver for the AFC Championship Game and lost. Now that the Raiders lost, the Patriots control their own destiny. The Patriots have the best record in the NFL in December since 2001, at 55-10, and they should make a point to improve on that with their available players going forward. You don't want them traveling to Kansas City.