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 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

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

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.

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Week 14 Recap

 Posted by
Dec 102012
 

Week 14 offered us some amazing individual performances while also managing to make the playoff picture a bit murkier. The AFC division winners are all but set, as is the fifth seed, but the sixth seed became more competitive when both the Steelers and the Bengals lost on Sunday. In the NFL, Atlanta blew an opportunity to wrap up a first round bye, while the NFL wildcard race become more ferocious, and the NFC East is promising a pitched battle in the season’s final few weeks.

Here is our Week 14 recap:

Nov 262012
 

Week 12 brought us one of the more entertaining Thanksgiving Day slate in recent years, as the Texans and Lions played a contest full of controversy and missed opportunities, the Redskins showed they are a time on the rise while the Cowboys proved they have no idea who they are, and the Patriots slaughtered the Jets, likely bringing closure to the Tannenbaum/Ryan era in the Meadowlands.

Not that Sunday wasn’t entertaining as well…

Here are your Week 12 results:

  • The Texans beat the Lions 34-31 with some held from Jim Schwartz and a real stupid rule; Ndamukong Suh again shows us that he has “issues”
  • Robert Griffin III is too much for the Cowboys to handle as the Redskins hold off the Cowboys 38-31; Alfred Morris has another big day for the ‘Skins
  • The Patriots once again get solid efforts from offense, defense and special teams while pasting the Jets 49-19; Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and Steve Gregory complement Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork in a total team effort
  • Jay Cutler returns to lead the Bears past the listless Vikings 28-10; Bears exit the game with some injuries to be concerned with
  • Bengals crush Raiders 34-10 as Carson Palmer loses to former team; Green-Ellis rushes for 129 yards and a score on 19 carries
  • Steelers turn over the ball seven times, enabling the Browns to pull of the 20-14 upset; Weeden sustains head injury
  • TY Hilton is first Colt to score on offense and special teams as the Colts bounce the Bills 20-13; Fitzpatrick loooking less and less like the future starting quarterback in Buffalo as he again struggles
  • Chad Henne seems to be the spark that the Jaguards need as he guides Jacksonville to a 24-19 win over Tennessee; Jags snap seven game losing streak
  • Broncos win sixth straight, edging Kansas City 17-9; Brady Quinn holds on to the ball, but not much else in defeat
  • Davone bess catches 7 passes for 129 yards, helping the Dolphins beat the Seahawks 24-21 and stay in contention in the AFC; Seahawks look like playoff pretenders as they are now 1-5 on the road
  • The Falcons don’t win pretty, but they do win; they edge the Buccaneers 24-23 as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones enjoy big days
  • Chargers squander lead, give up a 4th and 29 en route to a 16-13 Baltimore win in overtime; Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, and Ray Rice all have big games to lead the Ravens back
  • Janoris Jenkins has two pick sixes to lead the Rams past the Cardinals 31-17; Steven Jackson rushes for 139 yards on 24 carries
  • 49ers beat the Saints 31-21 with five sacks of Drew Brees and Colin Kaepernick wins his second game; only the Saints’ offensive line looked worse than their defense
  • Giants hammer the Packers 38-10 as Eli Manning throws for three scores; Packkers missing multiple starters but Aaron Rodgers looks pedestrian in the loss
  • Still to come: Panthers-Eagles
Nov 052012
 

Week 9 saw the Atlanta Falcons tip the Dallas Cowboys and bring their record to 8-0. Although the Falcons are unlikely to run the table, they have a very favorable chance at a first round bye and hold a one game advantage for home field throughout the NFC playoffs. Charles Tillman alone is keeping the Chicago Bears in striking distance, though he had plenty of help from his teammates in their blowout of the Tennessee Titans.

Here is your Week 9 recap:

  • Norv Turner keeps his job for another week as the Chargers roll over the Chiefs 31-13 behind a solid defensive effort and a good night from Philip Rivers
  • Broncos edge Bengals 31-23 as Peyton Manning rallies with three touchdown passes; Eric Decker has 8 catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns
  • Ravens beat Browns 25-15 behind Ray Rice’s 98 yards in a game that the Browns lost as much as the Ravens won; the game spoils a 105 yard rushing effort by Trent Richardson
  • Packers on right track and Cardinals on wrong one as Green Bay pounds Arizona 31-17; Rodgers under 50% completion rate, but still puts up four touchdown passes
  • Texans dismantle Bills 21-9 in the return on Mario Williams; Arian Foster runs for 111 yards and a score
  • Andrew Luck sets rookie passing record with 433 yards in Colts’ 23-20 win over the Dolphins; Donnie Avery and TY Hilton both tally more than 100 receiving yards in the win
  • Lions impressive in second straight game as they rout the Jaguars 31-14; Mikel Leshoure runs for three touchdowns in the second quarter as the Lions find a running game
  • The Bears crush the Titans 51-20 as Charles Tillman forces four fumbles, Brian Urlacher grabs a pick six and Jay Cutler connects with Brandon Marshall for three touchdowns
  • Panthers sack RG3 four times as Carolina beats a sloppy Washington team 21-13; Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams stay classy in win (not)
  •  Doug Martin rushes for franchise record 251 yards as Buccaneers hold off the Raiders 42-32; Carson Palmer (414 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) schizophrenic in loss
  • Seahawks power past Vikings 30-20 as Marshawn Lynch rushes for 124 yards and Russell Wilson throws three touchdown passes; Adrian Peterson rushes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in defeat
  • Steelers rally to edge Giants 24-20; Isaac Redman runs for 147 yards and a touchdown and Eli Manning has a woeful passing day
  • Falcons beat Cowboys 19-13 to stay perfect; Michael Turner rushes for 102 yards and a score and Matt Bryant connects on four field goals in the win
  • still to come: Eagles @ Saints
Nov 022012
 

The New England Patriots enter the bye week at 5-3, a mildly surprising development that is made more surprising by the teams that the Patriots have lost to so far. While the thought of a loss on the road to the Ravens at the start of the season would have been considered a “quality” loss, the fact that the Patriots should have put that game away makes the loss a tough one to swallow even weeks later. Such was also the case in the Patriots’ effort against the Seattle Seahawks, where the Patriots had control of the game and allowed the Seahawks the opportunity to pull off a dramatic come from behind win. The loss to the Cardinals would be the one game that most could swallow, given that the Cardinals outplayed the Patriots for much of the contest. But the Patriots had their opportunity to pull out the win at the end, only to be held back on two calls against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal that sealed the deal.

Three of the Patriots’ five wins have been dominating performances (Titans, Rams, and second half against the Bills), but the two others have left Patriots’ fans just as frustrated as with the losses. The win over the Denver Broncos was a decisive victory in terms of the Patriots outplaying the Broncos, but a game effort by Peyton Manning made the game much closer than it should have been. Even worse, the Patriots struggled mightily at home against the Jets, allowing the Jets to hang in the game long enough to nearly pull off a comeback win. Only late heroics from Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski saved the day for the Pats, while the secondary continued to struggle. Although the win over the Rams was a well needed boost going into this week’s bye, the secondary remains a huge question mark for the second half of the season.

With all of that said, the signs are present that the Patriots could well be primed for a second half run that would result in their sixth appearance in the Super Bowl in 12 years. Let’s take a look at the factors that might give Patriots’ fans cause for hope in the second half of the season.

History of second half runs

Looking back at the Patriots’ history since their run of Super Bowls began, New England has a history of making improvements over the course of the season, often despite significant injury concerns. Here is a look at their records since 2001:

2001 – 4-4 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2002 – 4-4 n first half, 5-3 in second half (no playoffs)
2003 – 6-2 n first half, 8-0 in second half (Super Bowl champions)
2004 – 7-1 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2005 – 4-4 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in Divisional Round)
2006 – 6-2 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in AFC Championship)
2007 – 8-0 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)
2008 – 5-3 in first half, 6-2 in second half (no playoffs)
2009 – 6-2 in first half, 4-4 in second half (Lost in Wildcard Round)
2010 – 6-2 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Division Round)
2011 – 5-3 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)

In total, during this time the Patriots have gone 61-27 (.693) in the first halves of seasons and 73-15 (.830) in the second halves. In addition to its mastery of making adjustments during the course of a season, Bill Belichick’s squad also has a schedule that lends itself to a string of Patriots’ wins. After the break, the Patriots face the Bills, Colts, Jets and Dolphins, a series of four very winnable games. Their next two games are against the Texans and 49ers, two very tough games, but both at home in prime time. The Patriots then wrap up the regular season with games against the Jaguars and Dolphins. Looking at the schedule, the improvements that can be expected in the second half (detailed below), and a history of strong second half performances, it is not a stretch to imagine the Patriots going 7-1 the rest of the way through the regular season, and finishing 12-4 with a first round bye.

Dynamic offense

While much of the early season struggling is due to a defense that is still learning to play together as a unit, not to mention the hesitancy of the coaches to allow the Patriots to blitz more given the porous secondary, a fair amount of the struggle can also be traced to an offense that has failed to put away games that they should have put away. I will attribute much of this to the play calling of Josh McDaniels, who it seems is still trying to figure out how to use all of the weapons at his disposal. Even though Stevan Ridley has established himself as the primary running back, McDaniels has gotten “cute” with play calls in key moments when the best option was to slam Ridley through the line. In other cases, McDaniels has gone to trickery such as end arounds and low percentage screen plays in situations where the best option was to stick with passes over the middle that put them in the position to win the game to begin with. While there is great value at the end of the season and in the playoffs to make sure that all of the players have contributed to the offense, crucial moments in the game are not times to start trying to pull rabbits out of hats.

The dominating 45-7 win over the Rams is exactly what the Patriots are capable of doing on a weekly basis. Not so much in score as in the method of staking the team to an early lead, giving the defense some room for error, and then putting the game away when the opportunity presents itself. Until the defense is capable of winning games, and we appear to be at least a season away from that, it is critical that the offense be exacting and unrelenting in pushing the ball down the field. While I could wax wishful and make the case that the Patriots “should” be 8-0 at this point, Tom Brady is right when he says that the Patriots are exactly what they are, a 5-3 club trying to get better every week.

It is often said that any team with Bill Belichick as the Head Coach and Tom Brady as the quarterback has a chance to win the Super Bowl. The truth is far more complicated than that. While NFL is widely regarded as a passing league, the 2012 Patriots understand the importance of offensive balance as a part of the equation for winning a Super Bowl. The Patriots possess the league’s top offense (440.8 yards per game and #1 in points scored), but are not just doing it through the air. While the Patriots have the 5th ranked pass offense (291.1 ypg), they also possess the game’s 5th best rushing attack (149.6 ypg). The Patriots’ use of the short yardage passing game over the middle, and in particular their highly disruptive tight ends, are a nightmare for opposing defenses, and keep opposing safeties and linebackers off balance throughout a game. Their offensive packages are designed to create and take advantage of personnel mismatches, while limiting the opposition’s ability to make substitutions; it’s truly an offense that gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, that is when they can sleep at all. Even in their losses this season, the Patriots have not struggled to move the ball down the field, but instead have struggled on occasion to produce touchdowns. Once McDaniels is fully proficient in his play-calling, look for the Patriots to start winning games in convincing fashion, as they did against St. Louis. We may well hear claims and complaints as the second half unfolds that the Patriots are running up the score, which would be a very positive development in New England.

Improving defense

Stopping the running game is still a key to defensive success, even in a passing league. The Patriots possess one of the league’s top rushing defenses, and have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), CJ Spiller (33 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), Shonn Greene (54 yards), and Steven Jackson (23 yards). Only Ray Rice of Baltimore has eclipsed the 100 yard mark against the Patriots (101), who rank 8th against the run, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. The combination of possessing an explosive offense that stakes the team to a lead, coupled with a stout run defense, turns opponents into one dimensional teams.

The secondary remains the team’s greatest weakness, and the unit is still a work in progress. The Patriots ranked 31st against the pass in 2011, with only the Green Bay Packers faring worse. The Patriots aren’t a ton better in 2012, ranking 28th while giving up 281.1 yards per game through the air and, even worse, routinely giving up twenty or more yards in a single play. Although Bill Belichick is a fan of “not giving it all up on one play”, we may be seeing a shift in his reluctance to bring a blitz to apply quarterback pressure. The Patriots blitzed Sam Bradford last Sunday far more than they have blitzed in recent weeks, and the increased quarterback pressure led to mistakes by the Rams’ quarterback, missing open receivers and not being able to go through his progression of reads. Understanding that his secondary is giving up yards in chunks anyway, why not blitz and give his beleaguered secondary some assistance so that they can play tighter coverage and limit big play opportunities for opposing offenses? Additionally, the Patriots played a gamble this week and traded next year’s fourth round draft pick in order to acquire troubled cornerback Aqib Talib (and a seventh round draft pick in 2013) from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib is currently serving a four game suspension for taking Adderall without a prescription, and the 2008 first round draft pick has had a difficult history both in college and in his time in Tampa. However, there is no denying Talib’s talent, and he could be an instant upgrade in the secondary. Talib is known for great coverage and ball skills, and has recorded 18 interceptions so far in his NFL career. Talib’s addition could allow the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety, a position he seems to have a more natural talent for. The trade for Talib is not without risk, but has a high potential upside. There is little doubt that the Patriots will set a one-strike policy for Talib, and he will have to grow up if he wants to revitalize his career with the Patriots.

Flawed AFC competition

Aiding the Patriots is that all of their competition in the weakened AFC is flawed. In the East, the Dolphins are performing admirably but have too many holes to make a serious run at the division title. The Ravens’ defense has suffered serious blows and looks incredibly vulnerable. There is strong doubt that the team can win the North after being staked out to an early lead. The Steelers are the prime competition in the North, but it seems we never know which Steelers team is going to show up. Truth be told, the Steelers don’t match up well against the Patriots; their revived defense will likely give up 30 or more if they face the Patriots in the playoffs, and their offensive line would struggle to open up running lanes or protect Big Ben. In the South, the loss of Brian Cushing is a serious blow to the Texans’ defensive unit. Houston remains the greatest threat in the AFC, but giving Bill Belichick a second look at a team like the Texans has me feeling pretty good about the Patriots’ chances. Finally, Denver is a real threat out of the West. As their earlier game demonstrated, there is a discernible talent gap between the two teams that favors the Patriots, but Patriot fans know all too well that anything can happen with Peyton Manning on the field, and the defense – while far from stellar – is disruptive enough to give the Patriots problems. Right now I’d have to give the “sleeper” nod in the AFC to the Broncos.

For their own part, the Patriots have been plagued by numerous minor injuries to players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung, Logan Mankins, and others. But they have so far avoided the season-ending crushers at key positions that they have had to deal with in years past. While the team needs to use its bye week to get its players healthy, the Patriots are in far better shape than some of their opponents. This could be a key ingredient in a deep post-season run.

Conclusion

There is no guarantee that the Patriots will go on a second half tear and end up as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. But history tells us not to bet against it. The Patriots were one play away from winning the Super Bowl in two of the last five Super Bowls while possessing seriously flawed defenses. The question has always been, “how much does the Patriots’ defense have to improve for them to win it all again?” And we may get the answer to that question this season. The key for the Patriots is to put together a team that is in possession of the ball with two minutes left and with a lead in the Super Bowl, rather than having their secondary try to prevent a very talented quarterback from driving the field in the closing minutes. And in that respect, Patriots’ fans have to feel pretty good about their team’s chances.