Jan 202013
 

Flacco and HarbaughThere were two ways to look at the AFC Championship Game at halftime. With the Patriots up 13-7 and exhibiting control on the defensive side of the ball, either the Patriots were on their way to a hard fought win, or else the Ravens had the Patriots exactly where they wanted them.

The latter point proved to be true.

Joe Flacco took over the game in the second half as the Ravens went to the air, scoring three times while the Patriots’ offense imploded, and the Ravens cruised to a 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The Ravens tried to run the ball in the first half, as the Patriots took away the Ravens passing attack with aggressive coverage, and Baltimore managed only two field goals in the first two quarters. But the Ravens were handed a gift late in the first half when Tom Brady inexplicably mismanaged the game clock in the final :15, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead, rather than taking one or two shots at the end zone. The Ravens’ offense came out attacking in the second half as Flacco took the proverbial gloves off and aired it out on his way to 240 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions on a 21/36 night.

Rather than a back and forth battle, the Patriots’ offense seemed to melt in the second half, as everything that could go wrong for the Patriots did. The Patriots lost the ball three times in the second half: once on a vicious head shot from Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley which forced a fumble, once when a Brady pass was deflected into the arms of Dannell Ellerbe, and once when Cary Williams undercut a Brady pass intended for Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. The Patriots were also plagued by two Wes Welker drops, one which was on a key third down play, and a poor decision by Brady to not run for a first down in the fourth quarter when he appeared to have ample room to run and extend the drive.

BoldinAnquan Boldin caught five passes, all in the second half, for 60 yards and two touchdowns, while Torrey Smith added four catches for 69 yards. The Patriots’ secondary did a good job of taking away Baltimore’s deep passing game, but tonight Flacco proved adept at taking what the Patriots would give him, as Baltimore methodically executed drives of 87 yards and 63 yards in the second half, as well as executing a quick four play, 47 yard drive to give Baltimore a two score lead with just over eleven minutes to play. The Patriots held Ray Rice to just 48 yards on 19 carries, while Bernard Pierce picked up 52 yards on nine carries. In total the Ravens rushed for 121 yards. Flacco took advantage of a Patriots’ secondary that had to play the entire second half without Aqib Talib, who left the game with a hamstring injury after breaking up a pass play.

Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with 70 rushing yards before he left the game in the second half with what appeared to be a concussion. Wes Welker led Patriots’ receivers with eight catches for 117 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added nine grabs for 83 yards and Brandon Lloyd had seven catches for 70 yards. But despite what appeared to be productive numbers, the Patriots’ offense simply never got in rhythm against the Ravens, with third down incompletions a recurring ending to numerous drives. Brady did not look sharp. and by the fourth quarter even the body language of the Patriots’ players was reflecting the score.

BradyRay Lewis led the Ravens with 14 tackles. Although the Ravens failed to record a sack, they were able to hit Brady frequently, and several passes were tipped or batted at the line. Conversely, the Patriots were able to get two sacks of Flacco (both by Rob Ninkovich), but were never able to apply consistent pressure to the Ravens’ quarterback. On one occasion when it looked like the Patriots would get to Flacco, he found Ray Rice in the middle and Rice promptly turned the play into a big 15 yard gain to extend the drive that would eventually give the Ravens a 14-13 lead.

Some Ravens were more gracious than others in the victory. While T Sizzle (Terrell Suggs) couldn’t wait to talk trash and play up the alleged disrespect card, center Matt Birk and safety Ed Reed were nothing but kind. “It’s unbelievable,” said Birk. “When is the last time anyone shut out the Patriots in the second half in Foxborough? It’s unbelievable.” Ed Reed added, “We went up against a great team today. A great organization. They’ve been champions. I was standing out in the hallway looking at Super Bowl pictures and the parades. It was a hard-fought game, and I’m grateful to be on this side of it.”

In the end analysis, the Ravens simply wanted this game more than the Patriots did, and it showed up in their execution throughout the second half.

 

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Jan 072013
 

WilsonThey saved the best for last on wildcard weekend, with the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks giving us the most exciting game of the post-season’s opening weekend. Here’s a quick recap of the four games from Saturday and Sunday.

Houston Texans 19 Cincinnati Bengals 13
The Texans didn’t look great, but the Bengals looked worse in the opening contest. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held on to win. Matt Schaub went 29/38 for 262 yards, but threw a pick six that accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the day. Andy Dalton was not sharp, going 14/30 for 127 yards and a pick. The Texans’ defense limited the Bengals’ rushing game to just 80 yards on the day. The Texans now travel to New England to face the Patriots, where they lost 42-14 last month.

Green Bay Packers 24 Minnesota Vikings 10
Clay Matthews walked the talk as the Green Bay Packers not only stopped Adrian Peterson from again eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but held Peterson under the 100 yard mark as he gained 99 yards on 22 carries. Joe Webb was the Vikings’ emergency starter due to an injury to Christian Ponder, and Webb was just 11/30 for 180 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Rodgers had another solid outing, throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown on 23/33 passing. The Packers were able to cruise despite only gaining 76 yards on the ground, and must now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that they lost to in Week 1.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Indianapolis Colts 9
The Colts hung around for the first half, but the Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack was simply too much for Indianapolis in the second half as the Ravens whipped the Colts 24-9. Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 145 yards and one touchdown to spark the Ravens and extend the career of linebacker Ray Lewis by another game. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce partially stole the show on Sunday, running for 103 yards on just 13 carries, while Ray Rice rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two scores, outdueling rookie Andrew Luck, who threw for 288 yards, but no touchdowns and one interception. Vick Ballard ran for 91 yards as the Colts shredded the Ravens’ defense for 152 rushing yards, but turnovers and sacks on offense and poor run defense stifled the Colts’ chances to pull off the upset. The Ravens now square off against the Denver Broncos. Denver beat Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Washington Redskins 14
The Redskins raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back and scored an unanswered 24 points to lead Seattle into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Russell Wilson threw for 187 yards and one score and ran for another 67 yards, while Marshawn Lynch pounded the Redskins’ defense for 132 yards and one touchdown. Robert Griffin III left the game after injuring his knee midway through the fourth quarter, though it was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of his earlier injury. Griffin went 10/19 for 89 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Seahawks now travel to Atlanta to square off against the Falcons. This will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams.