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Monday Night Football Preview: An AFC Showdown Between the Patriots and Ravens

The Patriots and Ravens are right in the thick of the AFC Playoff hunt. Which team will prevail on Monday Night Football?

Winners of three straight, the New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football in a game featuring two teams jockeying for playoff positioning.

The Ravens enter this matchup at 7-5 and will be looking to keep pace in the AFC North for the division lead with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5,) who won in Buffalo on Sunday. Meanwhile, if the 10-2 Patriots win, they will officially clinch a playoff spot while also becoming sole owners of the conference's best record.

These organizations have become familiar foes through postseason play in recent years, including two AFC Championship game showdowns since 2011. New England has been the superior team in 2016, according to numberFire's nERD metric. nERD measures just how good a team actually is based upon their expected point differential against a league average team.

The Patriots (6.34) rank second overall in this category, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys (7.00). The Ravens, on the other hand, rank 16th (0.65).

With kickoff approaching, here are four storylines to watch between these two teams on Monday Night Football.

The Patriots' Passing Attack Without Rob Gronkowski

This will be New England's second week without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is now on injured reserve after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc.

Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell paced the Patriots pass-catchers in Week 13 without him. Edelman finished with 8 receptions for 101 yards on 12 targets, while Mitchell had 8 catches for 82 yards on 10 targets against the Los Angeles Rams.

Chris Hogan chipped in 4 receptions on 5 targets for 23 yards and 1 score. Martellus Bennett, who is basically taking Gronk's place at tight end, played 68% of the offensive snaps, but drew only 4 targets, catching 2 for 4 yards.

Mitchell has seen his targets rise in each of the past three weeks (5, 7, 10) and the rookie out of Georgia has responded with 17 receptions, 222 yards, and 3 touchdowns. With Gronkowski playing limited snaps in Week 12 and out of the lineup in the following game, Hogan has become a full-time player, playing 92% and 86% of snaps. He's totaled 8 receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown during that time.

This week, though, Tom Brady and the Patriots square off against the Ravens' top-ranked pass defense, according to numberFire metrics. Baltimore is allowing only 222.2 passing yards per game, seventh-best in the league. They've also recorded the fourth-most interceptions (14) and haven't allowed a 100-yard receiver since Eli Rogers in Week 9.

Who Will Lead the Patriots' Running Game?

LeGarrette Blount is in the midst of a career year, already notching a personal high in carries (230) and nearing his second 1,000-yard season. His only previous 1,000-yard performance came as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1,007 yards over 13 games). Blount currently sits at 957 yards through 12 games.

Additionally, his 13 touchdowns have already nearly doubled his previous season high (7), which he had accomplished in his first season with the Patriots, which was 2013.

Blount has a tough draw this week, though. The Ravens run defense, allowing only 73.8 rushing yards per game (3.4 yards per carry), ranks first in numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, and they've allowed just four rushing touchdowns all year.

This appears to be a better matchup for the Patriots pass-catching backs, but Dion Lewis and James White have been splitting time since Lewis' return. Since getting back on the field, Lewis has played 28%, 32%, and 25% of offensive snaps, while White has logged 32%, 36%, and 37% of snaps.

Despite getting less opportunity, Lewis has out-touched White in each of the past three weeks (9 to 7, 10 to 4 and 8 to 6).

With this game looking like a difficult matchup for Blount, Lewis and White should be heavily involved.

Can Joe Flacco Put Up Another Big Game?

After dismantling the Miami Dolphins to the tune of 381 yards and 4 touchdowns, Joe Flacco gets to square off with the Patriots pass defense, which ranks 16th according to numberFire metrics.

It had been a rough season for Flacco before Week 13, who had only thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions before going off. In fact, his only multi-touchdown games (two) before playing the Dolphins had come against the winless Cleveland Browns.

If we use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we get a clearer picture of Flacco's 2016 performance. NEP is an efficiency metric, measuring how many points a player adds to his team's total based upon historical expectation.

Of the 36 quarterbacks with at least 100 passes, Flacco (0.05) ranks 26th in NEP per pass, sitting right behind Tyrod Taylor (0.06) and ahead of Cam Newton (0.04).

Will Breshad Perriman Find the End Zone Again?

After going the first eight games without a score, Breshad Perriman has scored a touchdown in three out of his last four games. Perriman hasn't been heavily targeted during this stretch, though -- the wide receiver hasn't drawn more than four targets in any of those past four games, topping 50 yards in a game only twice.

After missing his rookie season with a knee injury, the second-year receiver from the University of Central Florida hasn't missed a game in 2016, compiling 23 receptions for 353 yards and 3 scores. Perriman currently ranks fourth on the Ravens in targets (48), trailing Mike Wallace (92), Dennis Pitta (87), and Steve Smith (76).

Against a mediocre New England pass defense, Perriman can continue building on his recent success, as he's finally showing why Baltimore spent a first-round pick on him in 2015.

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