AP Sports Writer
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady’s recent problems against the Baltimore Ravens came when they still had Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
They’re gone now, but the New England quarterback still expects a tough time against one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses.
And one of the league’s hottest teams.
“They’re doing some new things and they’re kind of on a hot streak right now,” Brady said Wednesday. “We’ll try to figure out different ways to get them. We haven’t had the most success against them the last few times we’ve played them, offensively.’
New England has played Baltimore in each of the last four seasons, going 3-3, including a loss in last season’s AFC championship game.
Their game Sunday has playoff implications for both.
“A lot’s on the line, playoff hopes and all that type of stuff,” New England safety Steve Gregory said. “Any time you get games down here in late December, early December, going into January, those are big-time football games. So they just keep getting bigger as we go on from here.”
The Patriots (10-4) can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title even before their late afternoon game if Miami loses or ties at Buffalo.
If Miami wins, the Patriots can lock up a playoff berth if Cincinnati loses or ties its early game against Minnesota. And if Miami and Cincinnati both win, New England still can clinch the division by beating Baltimore.
The Ravens (8-6) have won five of their last six games to get into the playoff race. The defending Super Bowl champions can clinch a playoff spot if they win, Miami loses and San Diego loses or ties against Oakland.
Since that title game, linebacker Lewis retired and safety Reed signed with Houston, was released and joined the New York Jets.
“Last year they both missed time” with injuries, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think they were the best players on that team. I think they were obviously good players. They had great leadership and certainly (their) personalities had a big impact on the team and so forth. But I wouldn’t say they were their best players.”
Some of those are still around — nose tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Ladarius Webb.
Brady knows how difficult it can be to move the ball against a Ravens defense with those three, plus linebackers Jameel McClain and Elvis Dumervil and defensive backs Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith.
With Suggs and Dumervil rushing him, Brady must be aware of throwing the ball quickly. That’s not easy against a secondary that covers well and without tight end Rob Gronkowski, sidelined for the season with a knee injury.
“It would be nice to go out there and play this team and play them well for once,” he said. “They’ve always had great players there. They still have some great players that are carryovers from last year’s team and different guys that they’ve added this year. It’s a really good group and they put a lot of pressure on you.”
The Ravens defense is among the NFL’s best in many categories — tied for first in rushing touchdowns allowed, third in third-down defense, fourth in red-zone touchdown percentage and first downs given up and fifth in average rush allowed.
In three postseason games against Baltimore over the past four seasons, Brady is 1-2 with three touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
In the last regular-season meeting on Sept. 23 of last season, the Ravens won 31-30 after trailing 30-21 with just over four minutes left as the Patriots punted on their last two possessions.
In their second straight AFC championship meeting with the Patriots last January, the Ravens won 28-13 by overcoming a 13-7 halftime deficit. Brady threw interceptions on his last two series.
After nine seasons with Jacksonville, linebacker Darryl Smith signed with Baltimore and leads the team in tackles.
Lewis, Brady said, “is one of the best players I’ve ever played against, but Darryl Smith has really stepped in and been a big leader for them.”
Rookie safety Matt Elam, a first-round draft pick, has taken Reed’s free safety spot.
“He’s made some big plays for them,” Brady said. “He’s gotten some pretty key interceptions, made one last week. He’s a really good player.
“They’ve always got a good defense. We’ve played against them for so long.”
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