McCourty very familiar with Rice's skills

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McCourty very familiar with Rice's skills

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty wasn't with the Patriots when Ray Rice stomped on New England's plans to make the AFC title game two seasons ago.

Rice rumbled for an 83-yard touchdown on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage against the Patriots in their AFC Wild Card Playoff game that year. The run took the wind out of Gillette Stadium and kick-started the Ravens' 33-14 win.

McCourty, who was drafted by New England the following spring, wasn't in the secondary or on the sideline for that Patriots gut punch. But he still knows just how dangerous Rice can be. He knew long before that 83-yard score.

McCourty and Rice were teammates at Rutgers University for three seasons (2005-2007), and McCourty became well acquainted with Rice's skills while going up against the compact running back in practices.

"In practice he made play after play," McCourty said of Rice. "It's his versatility. He plays hard. He has good balance. I see the same things watching film on him now that I used to see up close in practice. I always knew he was going to be a great player."

Few could have known just how great Rice would be. He's become one of the NFL's premier running backs, and perhaps its most versatile. He had 1364 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing, 704 yards and 3 touchdowns receiving this season.

Still, McCourty emitted confidence on Friday when he remembered their one-on-one battles in college.

"A couple times we went against each other," McCourty said with a smile. "I won them all."

If McCourty has to make many tackles on his former teammate, it's not a great sign for the Patriots defense. In all likelihood, they would like to keep Rice bottled up somewhere closer to the line of scrimmage than McCourty's area in the secondary.

Rather, McCourty will be more concerned with limiting Baltimore through the air. The Ravens have receivers who can go downfield -- Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin are two guys who have done that in the NFL for years. But Torrey Smith, a rookie receiver from Maryland -- the Patriots actually scouted him and ran him through a private workout -- has emerged as their most consistent big-play guy.

He made 50 catches for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns over the course of the season, and the Patriots have taken notice. His 16.8 yards per catch average trails that of only Lee Evans (18.5), who made just four regular-season grabs.

"He flies down the field and runs by guys," McCourty said. "I think the biggest thing, why Joe Flacco has confidence with him, is that he comes down with the catch. We really gotta be ready to cover himdown the field, but he also makes plays after the catch. He's dangerous with the ball in his hands. We just have to be ready."

They'll have to be ready from the very beginning, ready to guard against that game-opening gut-punch, or else they could be staring at a repeat of their 2009 nightmare.

Raiders creep past Patriots in race for top seed in AFC

Raiders creep past Patriots in race for top seed in AFC

The Patriots and Raiders and neck-and-neck as the race for home field in the AFC turns for home. And, with four games left, the Raiders are ahead by a nose. The tiebreakers between the 10-2 teams in play currently? Common games followed by strength of victory. 

The first tiebreaker – conference record – is a deadlock as both teams are 7-1 in the AFC (the Brady-less Patriots lost to the Bills back in Week 4.

After conference record, it's the teams record in common games. 

PATRIOTS 26, RAMS 10

So far in common games with the Texans and Bills, the Patriots have gone 2-1 and the Raiders have gone 2-0. The Patriots play the Ravens next week. Oakland beat them. The Patriots play Denver after that. Oakland beat them as well but have one more game against Denver in Week 17.

So if it comes down to common games the Patriots really need to win these next two games.

Or hope the Raiders stub their toe a time or two in their final four games which are at the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos with a home game against Indy in Week 16.

As for strength of victory, that too goes to Oakland at this point. The Raiders’ strength of victory is at .471. The Patriots’ is at .370.

But the tiebreaker that kicks in after conference record and before strength of victory – common games – is very much unresolved.The remaining picture as it stands right now? The Ravens are the No. 3 seed with a 7-5 record that leads the AFC North. The Texans’ 6-6 record is good enough to lead the AFC South. The 9-3 Chiefs are the top Wild Card. The 8-4 Broncos are the No. 6 seed.

The Patriots play the Ravens and Broncos over the next two weeks. Currently, the Dolphins (7-5) and Steelers (7-5) are on the outside looking in.

The Titans (6-6) will have a chance to get even with the Texans in Week 17 in head-to-head matchups but they host Denver and play at Kansas City the next two weeks so they have obstacles to clear before they get there.