Yes, 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:
When 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
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
When 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
When 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
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.
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.
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