PREDICTION: Ravens 27-22
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens are slowly starting to display more firepower with QB Joe Flacco opening up the passing game with WRs Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. It's a scary trio for a green Patriots secondary allowing 272.2 passing yards per game. New England's other vulnerable spot is at linebacker, and the Ravens will bring a strong ground game rotating Rice and Willis McGahee. This is the first test for the Patriots' offense minus WR Randy Moss. If second-year player Brandon Tate isn't able to stretch the field in the same manner, it could impact Wes Welker's ability to get open on the underneath routes he specializes in. The Ravens rush the passer well and have the league's No. 2 pass defense, so RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis will play a key role in keeping Brady out of third-and-long. Brady will also be relying more on WRs Julian Edelman and old trusted target Deion Branch underneath.
FAST FACTS: Flacco needs 147 passing yards to pass Kyle Boller (7,846) for the most in franchise history. ... The Patriots have won seven consecutive games following bye weeks.
The Ravens' locker room is split on whether the Patriots will use last season's 33-14 postseason rout as motivation.
"Anytime you play a playoff game at home and you lose, that's going to leave a sour taste in your mouth," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I'm sure when they saw us on their schedule, they saw red, and they're going to come at us. But we expect nothing less, especially from the New England Patriots. So we definitely look forward to that opportunity. If there's going to be a fight at 1 o'clock, we'll see them there."
Many of the Patriots won't be seeking revenge because they weren't a part of that ambush, when the Ravens jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter.
The Patriots currently have 32 players who were on their 53-man playoff roster. That means there has been a 40 percent turnover. In fact, New England will start 13 players who weren't in the starting lineup in that postseason game.
The Ravens, meanwhile, will line up 16 of the same starters from that game.
"Every year is a new year, every game is a new game," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I don't think they're going back that far to think about it that much. I just think the bottom line for them is to try to get a win, just like us."
The Ravens are in agreement that their postseason win will have one effect.
"They're not going to overlook us," coach John Harbaugh said. "It would be great if somebody would. We'd appreciate that, but that doesn't happen very often."
Meanwhile, the Ravens are getting healthier as they approach Sunday's game.
Three starters who missed Wednesday's practice -- defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee), running back Ray Rice (knee) and fullback Le'Ron McClain (shoulder and knee) -- all returned to participate Thursday.
Ngata said the injury will not sideline him.
"I'm going to play," he said. "We're just being careful about going out there too early than I need to. So we're just watching it and making sure that I got into the books and make sure that I know everything."
Ngata injured the knee in Sunday's 31-17 victory over the Broncos when he got tangled with safety Darcel McBath while on offense during a fourth-and-goal situation.
Ngata said stiffness in the knee is more problematic than the pain, and he wore a brace on the knee while walking around the locker room. But he cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the brace.
"That's just to make sure that nothing happens," he said. "Just being cautious."
The team's decision to line up Ngata as a receiving option has drawn some criticism. Ngata said no decision had yet been made about his career on the offensive side of the ball.
"I'm just more worried about (playing) defense right now," he said. "But if they want me out there, I'll go."
After the win Sunday, quarterback Joe Flacco, who was sacked on the play, said he should have thrown the ball to Ngata because he has good hands. Ngata said he was unaware of Flacco's comments.
"But yeah, I probably would have caught it anyway," he said with a smile.
They can't wipe the game from the record books, but the Patriots could get some revenge when they host Baltimore for the first time since last year's playoff loss to the Ravens.
After finishing 8-0 at home during the regular season last year, the Patriots got blown out 33-14 by Baltimore in the wild-card game at Gillette Stadium. Since then, they've been waiting for this opportunity; they'll host Baltimore in the rematch Sunday with last year's embarrassment still fresh in their minds.
"It still weighs on us," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "It was a very disappointing loss that ended our season, and they're coming back to New England, and hopefully it's not the same outcome."
Both teams have changed since last January, yet they're both off to strong starts in 2010. The Patriots are 3-1 coming off a big Monday night win in Miami, while Baltimore is 4-1 and, once again, ranked near the top of the league in defense.
Even though there have been changes on both rosters, the Patriots can still apply some of what they saw last year to this week's game plan in an attempt to reverse the outcome.
"Experience is the best teacher," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We've been looking at it and we've also been looking at what they've been doing this year. We're trying to get the answers from both sides."
The first step would be stopping the run. In last year's playoff loss, running back Ray Rice beat the Patriots up the middle on an 83-yard touchdown on Baltimore's first play from scrimmage. New England has been solid against the run this year, but its pass defense has been spotty. An inability to stop Rice again could yield similar results.
"We got manhandled by a damn good team," quarterback Tom Brady said, "and everything we said we wanted to do, we didn't do. Penalties, turnovers, we couldn't convert on third down, couldn't control the tempo of the game. I have a lot of respect for these guys. They play really hard. They're very well-coached.
"They have a very physical front, a very emotional team. They play with energy and enthusiasm for what they're doing. I think you have to be able to match that. Once they get fired up, it's tough to calm them down."
--RB Ray Rice (knee) returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday. He is expected to start and get a heavy workload against the Patriots and their 20th-ranked run defense.
--RB Willis McGahee could have his red-zone carries reduced because Ray Rice was the more effective runner around the goal line last Sunday.
--DT Haloti Ngata (knee) returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's workout. He has a brace on his left knee, but Ngata said he would play Sunday.
--FB Le'Ron McClain (shoulder and knee) returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's workout. He will start.
--DE Paul Kruger (knee) was limited in practice Thursday, and he isn't expected to play. He said that he is about a week away from returning.
--FS Ken Hamlin (ankle) was added to the injury report after being limited Thursday. He is expected to play.
--RB Fred Taylor was not at practice again Thursday due to a toe injury, leaving his status for Sunday in doubt. The Patriots are a bit thin at his position due to the loss of Kevin Faulk.
--WR Deion Branch restructured his contract, agreeing to lower his base salary to $2.2 million in 2011. Under his original deal, Branch would've made $5.95 million this season.
--CB Terrence Wheatley practiced Thursday for the second day in a row, which is a sign he should be on the field Sunday for the first time this season.
--OG Logan Mankins, according to ESPN, has been advised by the players' association to report to the team. He is one of only two restricted free agent left who've yet to sign their tenders and join their teams. The other is San Diego WR Vincent Jackson.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer will make his fifth start of the season Sunday at right tackle in place of Nick Kaczur, who is out for the season after undergoing back surgery in the offseason.
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