FOXBORO, Mass. — Tom Brady has been waiting for the Ravens longer than you’d think.
Last January, Brady and the Patriots were at home during the wild card round of the playoffs preparing for every possible opponent who might visit Gillette Stadium in the divisional round. Among them was Baltimore, the AFC North champion. The Ravens hosted the Chargers, who pulled off an upset to punch their ticket to Foxboro and then were promptly punched out by the Pats.
Brady’s scouting report on Baltimore read like many on the Ravens before it: tough, physical, well-rounded. Preparing for Sunday night’s showdown, he dusted it off this week.
“I went back to a lot of those notes,” Brady said. “They’re playing good this year – good offense, good defense, very good special teams, good coaching. Very tough, physically and mentally, so we know we’re in for a very tough game.”
Brady’s favorite target, Julian Edelman, took it one step further.
“This is going to be a tough team, probably the best team we’ve played thus far. They’re completely different,” Edelman said. “They’re coming off a bye week. If you like football, this is the game to watch.”
The Ravens (5-2) are not only coming off a bye, but their best win of the season. Behind second-year dynamo quarterback Lamar Jackson, Baltimore toppled the Seahawks, 30-16, on the road. Safety Earl Thomas also made his return to Seattle that day, after calling the city home for nine years and signing with the Ravens as a free agent this offseason.
The three-time All-Pro is far from the only talented defensive back in the secondary, which is currently headlined by cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey currently ranks as a top-15 cornerback, per Pro Football Focus player grades, owns two interceptions and a matching pair of forced fumbles. According to PFF, he’s shadowed opponents’ No. 1 wideouts in five of Baltimore’s seven games this season.
“This Humphrey guy is a stud. I’ve been watching a lot of him,” Edelman said. “They have (cornerback) Jimmy Smith. I think he could be coming back. He’s always been a really good football player just from the years played in the past. They have a front that can get after the quarterback. Coach (John) Harbaugh always has them prepared, ready to go, especially against us.
“It’s going to be a huge matchup. It’s going to be a huge, tough matchup. It’s a tough game.”
Edelman’s matchup with Humphrey, whether the young corner shadows him or not, should be critical. The 33-year-old slot receiver is on pace for a career year has been carrying the Pats’ pass offense, with a revolving door at the wideout spot across from him. Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett and undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers have all swung through.
None have stuck around.
Mohamed Sanu is the latest to try. After being acquired in a trade with Atlanta last week, Sanu played 37 offensive snaps in his team debut and caught two passes against the Browns. Brady described their second week together as a good one, while noting there’s a long way to go.
“The more we work together, the better it’s going to be,” Brady said. “It’s hard to be on the same page within a week, so we’re just going to try to communicate through things and talk through them. There’s a lot of things that come up in that game, practice, past games, things that he’s done, things that we’ve done that – football’s a game about anticipation.
“So, the good part is that a veteran player, you know how to play football. It’s not like a rookie that they don’t know what the real expectation is. I mean, he’s been a part of some great offenses, so it’s really incorporating him into what we do and him learning the terminology, so that he can play fast and we can play with anticipation together.”
Anticipating what the Ravens will do is a different story.
Baltimore’s defense, while less stingy than in years past, remains a talented unit that disguises its intentions well. Defenses that can fool Brady historically throw the entire Patriots offense off balance. Over the years, the Ravens have done that.
Brady has completed 59.44 percent of his passes against the Ravens in regular-season meetings, the lowest mark against any one team for his career. In turn, even armed with the league’s best defense, the Pats are only slated as 3-point favorites. Sunday’s game could unfold in any number of ways.
At least this much seems to be clear: Like most Patriots-Ravens clashes, the stakes will be high, game play should be a struggle and the finish ought to be close.
Said Brady: Two good, hard-nosed football teams that probably have pretty similar styles, that are coached very well and that are playing on a big stage. It’s a very important game for both of us.”