BALTIMORE — Ray Lewis is retired, Bernard Pollard is playing elsewhere, and Tom Brady won’t have Ed Reed to kick around anymore.
Much like the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots have also undergone a radical transformation since the teams met last January in the AFC title game. Brady’s targets no longer include Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker or Brandon Lloyd, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is done for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Despite the absence of these key players, Sunday’s rematch between the Ravens and Patriots should have a familiar feel because both teams have plenty incentive.
With a victory, New England (10-4) can clinch a fifth straight AFC East title. Baltimore (8-6) is seeking a fifth consecutive win and will remain in the hunt for the AFC North crown by beating the Patriots in the latest installment of this rivalry between teams that perennially rank among the finest in the NFL.
“You’d like to think the thing that defines rivalries are great games played by great teams over an extended period of time, and there’s a lot of stake,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I feel like that’s been the case in our rivalry with the Patriots. We feel honored to be on that, considered a rival with them. I’m not sure how they feel about it, but we sure feel that way.”
The feeling is indeed mutual.
“We’ve had some pretty memorable games against them,” Brady said. “You get a little bit of a rivalry, and then you’re always paying attention to what that team’s doing. If you play a team once every four years, you don’t pay attention too much. But when you know you’re going to see them at some point during the year, you always kind of follow them.”
Brady saw the Ravens twice last season — and lost both times. After a 31-30 defeat in September, the Patriots fell to Baltimore 28-13 in the AFC championship game. Lewis had 14 tackles, Pollard caused a key fourth-quarter fumble and Brady was ultimately fined $10,000 for kicking Reed at the tail end of a quarterback slide.
Two weeks later, the Ravens beat San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
Here are more things to know about the Patriots-Ravens matchup:
Getting their kicks
Two constants from last year are each team’s placekicker, both of whom are considered among the best in the game.
Justin Tucker kicked six field goals last Monday night in Detroit, including a last-minute boot of 61 yards that sealed Baltimore’s 18-16 victory. He has made 33 field goal tries in a row since missing twice in Week 2.
“Obviously, the kicker is having a big year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
So is New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, who led the NFL with 153 points last season and this year is 32 for 35 on field goal attempts — including 5 for 6 from 50 yards and beyond.
Making the adjustment
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has reached the postseason in each of his five years and is on course to make it 6 for 6, despite losing his favorite target of a year ago, Anquan Boldin.
Brady has already won 10 division titles and appears poised for No. 11, even though he’s had to adjust to various changes around him, including the loss of injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“You’ve got to credit those guys. When they haven’t been full strength, they have found ways to win football games,” Flacco said. “I think we’ve had a lot of those same situations, and we’re just now starting to capitalize on them and win them. So, you’ve got to credit Tom and his ability to just adapt and bring everybody’s level up a little bit.”
Brady’s new favorite target is Julian Edelman, whose 89 receptions are 20 more than in his first four seasons combined.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has gone six straight games without a sack, his longest drought since 2006.
“I think about it a lot, but in those six games we’re 5-1,” he said. “It’s definitely in the back of my mind, but I can’t let that be my No. 1 focus. As long as we’re winning, I’ll accept that. It’s bittersweet.”
Newcomer Elvis Dumervil has picked up the slack. Despite being sidelined for a game with a sprained ankle, Dumervil has 9½ sacks compared to Suggs’ nine. Daryl Smith, who replaced Lewis at middle linebacker, ranks third with 4½.
In spite of Suggs’ slump, Belichick said, “You certainly have to be aware of him. I think he and Dumervil have gotten a lot of attention out there on the edge.”
Now in his second season, Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones already has a career-high 11½ sacks and was AFC defensive player of the month for November.
His brother, Ravens tackle Arthur Jones, has four sacks and 44 tackles.
There hasn’t been much trash talk between the two leading up to this game.
“I actually haven’t spoken to him in a week or two,” Chandler said Wednesday. “He might call me, or he might not. I don’t know.”
Ngata on a roll
Ravens lineman Haloti Ngata matched his season high with five tackles against Detroit and appears to be fresh for the home stretch.
“Haloti certainly is healthier than he has ever been in December,” Harbaugh said. “He’s played in a pretty dominating fashion the last number of games.”
Belichick is well aware of it.
“I don’t think there are many that are better than him at his position, let’s put it that way,” he said. “And I think he is having a good year.”