Sep 032013
 

Peyton ManningLet me get our annual writer’s picks started with my own. After an off-season of controversy and roster turnover, my beloved Patriots enter the 2013 as a certain favorite in the AFC East and are likely to make another deep playoff run. With an improving defense to help offset offensive uncertainty, the Patriots look solid but uncertain. Even as a die hard fan, it’s hard to envision the Patriots winning the Super Bowl this season.

Baltimore made some strategic decisions after winning the Super Bowl, and have sought to put all of their eggs in the Joe Flacco basket, which I find problematic. While they have cobbled together what is likely to be a top ten defense again, the offense after Ray Rice looks problematic. Letting Anquan Boldin leave was a huge mistake, and the loss of Dennis Pitta for most of the season is a huge blow to this team.

Thus, the Broncos look like the class of the AFC, even if their defensive front seven leaves me a little bit squeamish. I know people are thinking the offense will be unstoppable with Wes Welker complementing Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as receivers for Peyton Manning, but the loss of Dan Koppen leaves the line a little shaky and I am not sure the running game will consistently produce. Still, the Broncos would appear to have the edge in the battle for the Super Bowl.

On the NFC side, the 49ers will be a fashionable pick, but Colin Kaepernick no longer has the advantage of being an unknown, and now defenses will get their chance to adjust to his style of play. The loss of Michael Crabtree hurt, forcing Boldin into the role of being a primary receiver rather than a complement. The Niners can run the ball and have a stout defense, so they have to be considered a favorite to get back to the big game. That’s possible, but San Francisco may not even win their division given the resurgent Seahawks, who have their own answer to Kaepernick in Russell Wilson, who seems to be a star in the making. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks have an efficient receiver corps that doesn’t scare people but manages to get the job done, and a bruising running game embodied in Marshawn Lynch with a sleeper in reserve Christine Michael. The Seattle defense looks to be just as good as the one in San Francisco, so this team must be considered a serious threat.

Finally, we get to Atlanta,, who flamed out in the playoffs last season after a very successful regular season campaign. The Falcons added Stephen Jackson in the off-season and have the best receiving tandem in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White, complemented by the ageless Tony Gonzalez. The defense is the big question mark on this team, with a re-engineered secondary and a lack of impact players in the front seven. It’s entirely possible that the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl, but it would be really helpful if they could gain the top seed and avoid the 49ers and Seahawks for as long as possible.

This is a wide open year in the NFL, with no one clear favorite to win it all, so it should be an exciting season. But for those of us craving some certainty this year, let me provide it for you; the Jets will end the season by jettisoning Mark Sanchez, they will have already figured out that Geno Smith isn’t the answer, and Rex Ryan will be in search of a coordinator job.

So with all of that said, here are my 2013 predictions:

AFC EAST
New England124
Miami79
Buffalo610
New York Jets214
AFC NORTH
Cincinnati115
Baltimore97
Pittsburgh97
Cleveland79
AFC SOUTH
Houston115
Indianapolis97
Tennessee610
Jacksonville313
AFC WEST
Denver124
Kansas City88
San Diego511
Oakland214
NFC EAST
Washington106
New York Giants97
Dallas97
Philadelphia511
NFC NORTH
Green Bay106
Chicago106
Minnesota88
Detroit79
NFC SOUTH
Atlanta133
New Orleans97
Carolina79
Tampa Bay79
NFC WEST
Seattle115
San Francisco106
St. Louis88
Arizona610
AFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
Cincinnati over Indianapolis
Houston over Baltimore
Divisional Round
Denver over Houston
New England over Cincinnati
AFC Championship
Denver over New England
NFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
Washington over Chicago
San Francisco over Green Bay
Divisional Round
Atlanta over San Francisco
Seattle over Washington
NFC Championship
Seattle over Atlanta
SUPER BOWL
Denver over Seatttle
NFL POST SEASON AWARDS
Most Valuable Player -Adrian Peterson
Offensive Player of the YearDrew Brees
Defensive Player of the YearJJ Watt
Offensive Rookie of the YearTavon Austin
Defensive Rookie of the YearDesmond Trufant
Comeback Player of the YearMaurice Jones Drew
Coach of the YearBill Belichick
Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Sep 242012
 

Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do….

In the end, the Ne England Patriots cannot blame this loss on utterly horrific officiating. Not when their run defense got lit up by Ray Rice and their secondary got torched by Joe Flacco, the result of an inability to apply meaningful quarterback pressure throughout the game. And not when, instead of running the ball at the end of the game, the Patriots went to the air and provided the Ravens with additional timeouts, nor when Josh McDaniels outguessed himself instead of placing his trust in the game plan that placed the Patriots comfortably in front of the Ravens midway through the fourth quarter. No, these things were on the Patriots, not on the officials.

But the officials sure didn’t help.

There were no fewer than four phantom calls*** on the Patriots, all of which led to Ravens points; the worst of which was a defensive holding call on linebacker Brandon Spikes when it was clear that Spikes was the one being held. That call led not only to Ravens points, but also to the best line of the night, when Spikes let the officials know after the game (in most unflattering terms) that Foot Locker was calling and it was time to get back to work.

(*** Update: Here is a great analysis of all the penalties called in the game. This doesn’t get into the ones not called, much to the relief of Michael Oher.)

Other than Ed Reed’s two vicious head shots (as noted by a reader… since when does Reed turn dirty?), the worst behavior of the night however belonged to Patriots Head Coach, who physically grabbed one of the officials after the game, seemingly to get an explanation as to why the winning field goal (which clearly went over the crossbar and was good)*** was not reviewed. In truth it was not a reviewable play. Of course, Belichick could have been grabbing the official to demand an explanation about a thousand different things, but he made the mistake of making physical contact. While Belichick stated after the game that he didn’t expect to be fined, the fact is that he should be, and he should be fined heavily.

(*** Update: According to former NFL Vice President for Officiating Mike Pereira,”The entire ball must pass inside the outside edge of the upright… A FG that goes over the top of an upright is not reviewable because you cannot determine when exactly the ball is directly over the pole” Judging by that interpretation, and this photo (or the video here), the Patriots may well be right that the field goal was in fact wide right. Pereira guessed that it was good, and I would say that replay would not have been able to establish otherwise. In any event, the announcers got the rule wrong.)

While I can appreciate Belichick’s frustration, he acted no better than John Fox on Monday night, or than the Ravens did in their post-game interviews after they fell to the Eagles last week. It’s not the officials fault that they suck; they just do. It is the fault of the NFL that the replacement officials are on the field to begin with, and the fault goes specifically to Commissioner Roger Goodell. But in his post-game interview, Belicjhick got far more conciliatory and wouldn’t go there, at least not as strongly as he did on the field.

“It’s our job to just go out there and control what we can control,” said Belichick following the game. That’s what we’re going to try to work on. You can’t control anything else. You’d have to talk to those guys. Go talk to the officials about the way they called the game. Go talk to the league about the way they called it. I don’t know, but we’ve got to go out and control it the best we can.”

That’s a wise statement from a head coach following a loss (are you listening, John Harbaugh?), but a coach who can keep that cool under media scrutiny, and who is as accomplished as Belichick, should have kept his head on the field as well. Frankly, I will be shocked if he isn’t fined at least $50,000 for the incident.

Back to the game… yes, there was a game last night… the Patriots will look back on this as a wasted opportunity. They dominated the first quarter to get out to an early 13-0 lead. The Ravens struck back in the second quarter to grab a 14-13 lead, only to have the Patriots drive to field right before the half to take a 20-14 lead into the half. And the third quarter and the first half of the fourth belonged to the Patriots, who struck back after an early Ravens touchdown to stake a 9 point lead, possess the ball, and seemed to be driving home the final nail in the coffin after John Harbaugh got called for Unsportsmanlike Conduct when he went on the field to intimidate an official. No John… no one (not even you) believes that you were calling a time out. The Patriots had the game locked up, and then could not convert first downs to put the game on ice. Coupled with red zone opportunities in which the Patriots were forced by the Ravens defense to settle for field goals, and you had a recipe for Joe Flacco to carve up the Patriots secondary and score 10 points in the closing minutes and pull out the one point win.

And it never should have happened. Josh McDaniels devised a game plan that took advantage of the Patriots strengths, and had an aging Ravens defense looking every bit of old and tired. And then McDaniels, for the second straight week, got in his own way and infused unneeded trickery, too much Woodhead instead of Ridley, and too many tight formations without Aaron Hernandez***. Maybe McDaniels thought he was back in Denver with the likes of Kyle Orton. Whatever it was, McDaniels’ play-calling helped the Patriots miss opportunities, and the Ravens were more than capable of taking advantage. Joe Flacco may not be the best quarterback in football, but he was good enough on this night to out-duel Brady and win the game when the Patriots failed to cash in.

(*** Update: A great raised on Patriots Life: why did the Patriots never go for two? They were up by “two scores”, meaning nine points. A two-point conversion would have given the Patriots a 10 point lead and the field goal would have only tied the game. Had the conversion failed, it would have made no difference in the outcome. Bad coaching call?)

With respect to the defense, elder statesman Vince Wilfork summed it up:”We really couldn’t get off the field,” Wilfork said after the game. “Offense played their tails off and we just left them out to dry. We can’t do that.”

How the game broke down:

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots did not run the ball effectively, as Ridley and Danny Woodhead combined for just 71 yards on 28 carries.  Edelman had a huge loss on an ill-conceived end-around. Advantage: Ravens

When the Patriots passed:

This is where the game was “won” by the Patriots, as Brady went 28 – 41 for 338 yards, but only one touchdown. Wes Welker had 8 catches for 142 yards, while the acrobatic Brandon Lloyd caught 9 passes for 108 yards. Julian Edelman was effective until he was injured just before halftime, catching four passes, including a touchdown strike. Rob Gronkowski only caught two passes on the night. Advantage: Patriots

When the Ravens ran:

Ray Rice ran for 101 yards on 20 carries and was hard to bring down most of the night. His effectiveness, coupled with the lack of a Patriots pass rush, had the Patriots’ defense off balance. Advantage: Ravens

When the Ravens passed:

Flacco overcame a rough start to throw for 382 yards and three touchdowns, slicing through the Patriots’ secondary after the first quarter. Wide receiver Torrey Smith caught 6 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns on the same day that his younger brother died in a motorcycle accident. The Patriots’ secondary did a decent job in coverage, but Flacco had way too much time to throw and the receivers eventually got open. Advantage: Ravens

Special Teams:

Both teams had good nights here, with no major gaffes. The Patriots were able to pin the Ravens deep a couple of times, but the Ravens’ offense responded. Advantage: Even

Game Log –  

FIRST QUARTER

Patriots possession:

Patriots open in hurry up. After a quick first down to Brandon Lloyd, a botched snap and a sack defuse Patriot series. Solid punt return has Ravens set up near midfield.

Ravens possession:

Ravens open with Ray Rice carrying twice, then quick pass to Boldin comes up short.  Ravens punt and Patriots start at their own 10.

Patriots possession:

Brady to Edelman for a quick 8. Woodhead for only one, then squeezes out first down on next carry. Brady to Welker for big 59 yard gain to the Ravens 20. Ridley for no gain. Ridley for one, and the Ravens defensive players getting frisky after end of play. Referees need to keep control.  Edelman has TD in hands but Reed makes big play to force field goal attempt. Patriots connect to take early 3-0 lead.

Ravens possession:

First play is a Flacco pass picked off by Steve Gregory.

Patriots possession:

Brandon Boldin takes third down carry into the end zone. Patriots up 10-0.

Ravens possession:

Three plays and the Ravens again come up a yard short as Patriots secondary not giving Flacco receivers to throw to.

Patriots possession:

Patriots start backed up at own 8 after penalty on punt return. After an incompletion, Ridley runs for four. Brady converts to Lloyd.  Two plays later, a nice catch by Lloyd for another first down. Timeout by Ravens. Personal foul after cheap  head shot on Brady scramble. Patriots stalled by two awful officiating calls on Gronk and Edelman, settle for field goal and 13-0 lead.

Ravens possession:

Incomplete pass and short Rice run close the quarter.

SECOND QUARTER

Ravens possession:

Quick incomplete pass should have ended drive but PI call extends drive.Rice run for first down called back by Boldin hold. Passes to Pierce nets first down. Pierce again for 7! Then first down to Leach. Short run by Rice and incomplete bring up third down. Boldin comes up a yard short. Officials botch and give a measurement to the Ravens when the ball is a yard short. Then officials reverse call and grants first down. Two Rice runs for a first down before Flacco hits Torrey Smith for a touchdown pass. Patriots 13-7.

Patriots possession:

Gronk and Edelman net Patriots first down, then Brady to Edelman for another.  Woodhead into Ravens territory, then Edelman for huge loss on end around. Patriots punt and force fair catch inside the Ravens’ 10 yard line.

Ravens possession:

Flacco squeezes out first down on short scramble under pressure. Then a big pass play to Jacoby Jones to Patriots’ 36 yard line. Rice carries to 26 for another first down. A few plays later, Flacco to Pitta for a touchdown due to pathetic tackling attempts by Gregory and McCourty. Ravens 14 Patriots 13.

Patriots possession:

On second play, pass to Gronk for first down. Then defensive holding call for 5 yards. Patriots able to squeeze out a first down before a defensive contact penalty against the Ravens. Then Deion Branch gets his first grab for a first down. Then Welker for  a grab to get it inside the 10 with 13 seconds left. Incomplete pass on the next play before a touchdown strike to Edelman. Patriots go into locker room up 20-14. Brady has now thrown at least one touchdown pass in 35 straight games.

THIRD QUARTER

Ravens possession:

Rice out of the gate for a 15 yard gain. Then a bad defensive holding call against Kyle Arrington; phantom call. Two short gains to bring up 3rd and 2 which is converted by Torrey Smith. A few plays later, 32 yard reception to Smith for first and goal. rice runs it in on the next play. Ravens 21 Patriots 20.

Patriots possession:

Quick first down strike to Lloyd. Then Ridley for about four followed by an incomplete to Winslow before a first down completion to Welker. Woodhead to midfield for three and then for one. First down pass to Lloyd. Then a personal foul against Pollard to get the Patriots to the 21. Woodhead for 3. Another first down to Lloyd. First and goal. Woodhead to the 5. Woodhead in for the score. Patriots 27 Ravens 21.

Ravens possession:

Two plays in Flacco hits Smith for 37 yards. Holding call against the Ravens wipes out a fist down. Patriots struggling to pressure Flacco. Long incomplete brings up Ravens punt.

Patriots possession:

First pass is a first down strike to Winslow. Ridley loses a yard. Brandon Lloyd for 10 to bring up third and one. Ridley converts. Lloyd for another ten. Defensive holding for five yards. Pass to Welker beings up third and three. Pass to Branch… results in 15 yards with blow to the head by Ed Reed. Ridley carries it to the 4.

FOURTH QUARTER

Patriots possession:

Welker gets it to the two, but Patriots forced to settle for field goal. Patriots lead 30-21.

Ravens possession:

Pitta for four yards, then Rice for a first down. McCourty drops a pick on the next play and then a 24 yard gain to Boldin. Two Rice  runs bring up a third down on the Patriots 35. Rice stopped short on third down, and Ravens get stuffed by Chung on fourth down. Bad coaching call by John Harbaugh, given that the Ravens could have gotten the game to a one score difference.

Patriots possession:

Quick strike to Lloyd for first down. Two plays later, another first down to Welker. On third and long, Brady is incomplete to Woodhead, forcing a punt.

Ravens possession:

Backed up snide own ten, quick strike to Rice brings the ball to the 20. Holding on next play brings it back to the 10. Rice runs to the 15. Defensive holding on McCourty bails the Ravens out; another phantom call. Flacco to Jones for 21 yards, then Smith to the Patriots 42. Flacco hits Rice on a short pass and he brings it to the Patriots 10 yard line. Flacco sacked,Pena wiped out by defensive holding. Flacco hits  Smith in he end zone for a touchdown. Patriots 30 Ravens 28.

Patriots possession:

On second play, big first down catch and run by Welker. Three plays later, interception wiped out by illegal contact and automatic first down. Unsportsmanlike conduct against John Harbaugh nets 15 and another first down.Ridley for one yard and a Baltimore time-out. Patriots then take their first time-out. The crowd is pissed, but they have little room to complain; the Ravens have benefited from phantom calls all night long. Brady sacked to bring up third down. Ravens calls second time-out. Brady passes incomplete to bring up fourth down at 2:01.

Ravens possession:

Flacco to Jones for 24 yards. Pitta for short gain. Big pass to Pitta to get it to Patriots 35. Nothing for Rice inside, then an incomplete pass. Jones draws a PI call inside the 10 against McCourty… Very clear call on Devin.  Ravens kick field goal to win the game, 31-30.

FINAL SCORE: Baltimore 31 New England 30

Key Moment: Phantom defensive holding call against Patriots’ linebacker Brandon Spikes, which negated a Patriots sack of Joe Flacco by Chandler Jones and Kyle Love, and gave the Ravens a first and goal instead of a 3rd and 22 while the Ravens were still down by 9.

What should have been the key moment: John Harbaugh’s decision to go for it on fourth down despite needing to get within one score with 10:56 to go in the game. The Patriots stopped Bernard Pierce for a one yard loss, and seemingly had complete control of the game.

Game Ball: Torrey Smith, who played extremely well despite a heavy heart from losing his brother in the early morning hours prior to the game. It was a brave and gutsy performance by Smith and my heart goes out to him, despite Ray Lewis’ incomprehensible post-game comments that somehow compared the two events.

Sep 222012
 

All of the experts it seems, with the exception of Mike Ditka and John Madden, are taking the Ravens to beat the Patriots this week. While both teams are coming off of disappointing losses in Week Two, New England’s upset loss to the Cardinals has people rightly wondering about the chemistry of the offense, particularly with Aaron Hernandez out of the lineup for the next month. With the game being in Baltimore, the home field edge in a close contest is enough to push most of the experts (including all but two GiR writers) to conclude that the Ravens will pull this win out.

But there is a perception out there that the Ravens have had the Patriots number of late, and should have won the AFC Championship Game last season save for a “drop” by Lee Evans and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. First, it wasn’t a drop, but rather a fine defensive play by Patriots’ defensive back Sterling Moore. Second, with the exception of the Ravens’ blowout win in the 2009 playoffs, the Ravens have never beaten the Patriots. Never. The Patriots are 6-0 against the Ravens in the regular season since the franchise moved from Cleveland to Baltimore. While the Ravens are a very talented and highly competitive team, to say they have had the Patriots’ number is a massive overstatement. They won once, and they have done a good job of keeping games close. But this Week Three match-up may well be Baltimore’s best opportunity to score its first regular season win in the series when the teams square off on Sunday night.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Rattling Joe Flacco. Although Joe Flacco perceives himself as the best quarterback in the game, he has not done anything yet in his career to establish that opinion as a debatable fact, and his performances lack consistency, as seen last week in the Ravens’ Week Two loss to the Eagles. The key (and this is true of any quarterback) is to rattle Flacco early and often, and force him to make mistakes. Left tackle Michael Oher is not a true left tackle, and struggles against the speed rush. Look for Chandler Jones to try and disrupt the offensive attack of the Ravens by getting shots at Flacco.

2. Can Brady be effective with his cobbled together group of receivers? Strangely, the Ravens offense is currently performing better than the Patriots’ offense and the Patriots defense is performing better than the Ravens. However, the Ravens have been susceptible to the big play, and the Patriots are a big play offense. But with Hernandez out and the Ravens being one of the best equipped teams to cover Gronk, Brady will have to utilize Brandon Lloyd (who is questionable to play), Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, the newly signed Kellen Winslow, Jr and the re-signed Deion Branch. That is a problem for the Patriots, who are facing one of the more talented secondaries in the NFL.

3. Running effectively. Given the list of receivers for Brady this week, running the ball is going to be an important part of their offense, and the Patriots run blocking is capable of opening big holes for Stevan Ridley. How will Ridley do against the slimmed down Ray Lewis?

Three keys for the Ravens:

1. Pressure Brady. I can just leave this here every week, can’t I? The Ravens’ defense has yet to really gel, and the Patriots’ offensive line did not have an exemplary game against the Cardinals. If the Ravens are going to win this game, they must take Tom Brady out of his game and not allow him the time to carve up the middle of the field.

2. Big plays on offense. The Patriots through two weeks have been able to prevent big plays when on defense, which is a major step forward from the 2011 season. Torrey Smith is a dangerous receiver who is likely to draw coverage from Devin McCourty. McCourty had a thoroughly forgettable 2011 but seems to have rebounded this season. This will be a key match-up when the Ravens have the ball.

3. Balmer’s Gronk. Tight End Dennis Pitta is a mini-Gronk but looks every bit as effective. Through two games, Pitta has 13 receptions for 138 yards and one touchdown. Just as Gronk provides a difficult match-up for opposing defenses, so too does Pitta.

PREDICTION: My head says that the Ravens have enough factors in their favor to pull out the win, or even blow the Patriots out this week. My heart says the Patriots are dangerous coming off a loss, but the Ravens are also coming off a loss. In this week’s picks, I took the Patriots, but that was more of an opportunity to gain an advantage in the standings should the Patriots be able to pull off the upset. In truth, this is a game between two very talented teams, neither of whom has gelled yet, and one of whom is going to start the season 1-2. I simply don’t want it to be the Patriots, but recognize that while the Week 17 or playoff Patriots are perfectly capable of winning this game, the Week Three Patriots are not far enough along yet in their development to hold off a Ravens team that has revenge in its sights. RAVENS 28 PATRIOTS 20

Finally, no live blog this week either for the game. It’s going to be a crazy weekend in the Ghost Rat household, so hopefully I can get back to a live blog in Week Four.