FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens last met in the AFC championship game eight months ago, a game not decided until the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

They play again Sunday, this time at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, in a game that may have some of the same drama, but none of its stakes.

Both teams are 1-1 entering the game, both coming off draining losses: the Patriots losing 20-18 at home to Arizona when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yard field goal with one second left; the Ravens losing 24-23 at Philadelphia last week on a late touchdown.

Neither team is feeling any pressure.

“Two losses isn’t going to eliminate any team in the league this year,” said Bill Belichick, coach of the Patriots. “I can’t imagine that. And two wins won’t win anything either.”

Ed Reed, the Ravens Hall of Fame-bound safety, echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t think it’s that much of a pressure game for anybody,” he said. “I know we don’t need to go changing anything major if we don’t win this game … It’s still early and there’s a lot of football to be played.”

But this game could go a long way in determining what direction the Patriots offense goes.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez, considered by many to be the most important cog in the Patriots offense because of his versatility, suffered a high ankle sprain in last week’s loss and will likely be out four-to-six weeks.

Tom Brady isn’t sure what the Patriots offense will look like without him.

“We’re going to have to see how it plays out,” he said. “I don’t know.”

But Reed scoffs at the idea that the Patriots will be weaker without him.

“That’s one less person to throw to but they will send somebody in and get somebody else some more catches,” he said. “Somebody has to step up. It’s a professional league.”

Then he added, “There won’t be all this talk about Wes (Welker) and all these other guys who are not getting catches, so somebody has to step up right now.”

Welker, of course, caught 122 passes from Brady last year, one shy of the team record he set in 2009. He has been the NFL’s most effective receiver over the last five years, catching 554 passes.

But this year, he’s almost an after-thought. He has only eight catches after two games, third on the team. Julian Edelman seems to be lining up in his spot more often, although the Patriots don’t quite see it that way.

“If you look at his production through the time he’s been here, it’s been pretty consistent,” said Belichick, not really answering the question as to why Welker isn’t playing as much as in the past.

Brady, the triggerman in the passing game, didn’t seem concerned either.

“I love Wes and he’s a great player on this team and has been since the day he arrived,” he said.

Which, of course, doesn’t answer why Welker isn’t getting the ball more.

But it goes without saying that Welker is going to have to play a bigger role in the offense if Hernandez is out for a while. The Patriots sought to add some depth to the passing game when they signed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., and brought back wide receiver Deion Branch, last Wednesday.

Branch has always had great rapport with Brady and knows the offense. Winslow, when healthy, was one of the best tight ends in the NFL, averaging 72 catches over the last six seasons.

But he was released by Seattle at the end of training camp, and now has to learn a new offense — quickly — with the Patriots.

If he catches on, he can provide the same type of double-threat as a receiver that Hernandez did, able to go across the middle or deep.

Whoever is on the field, Brady said the Patriots simply have to be better in the red zone.

“It’s not that we’re not moving the ball,” he said. “We had quite a few yards last game and the first game. It’s a matter of taking advantage of really critical opportunities on third down in the red area and putting touchdowns on the board instead of field goals.

“That’s how you score a lot of points. You kick six field goals and that’s 18 points. Six touchdowns is 42 points, plus the extra points … I think that’s how you eventually really get into a flow as an offense, when you get the ball in the end zone.”

 

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