Mar 142013
 

The sky is fallingYesterday’s signing of Wes Welker by the Denver Broncos has prompted quite an outcry of hysteria from Patriots’ fans, and from the Boston media in particular. I know I will find myself in the minority view on this one, but I am shedding no tears over Welker’s departure.

I hold no malice towards Welker, and think he has been a sensational player while in New England, racking up Hall of Fame caliber numbers while revolutionalizing the slot receiver position. An unproven talent coming out of the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins franchise, Welker caught 672 passes in six seasons with the Patriots for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. In the post-season Welker has been equally deadly, catching 69 balls in nine game for 686 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in Welker’s reliability as a punt returner, and it is clear that the Patriots have had the luxury of having one of the best all-purpose players in the NFL for the last six years. Critics will note that Welker led the league in dropped passes this season and has had some big post-season misses, and this is a fair criticism, but not one that suggests that the Patriots would be better off without Welker on the roster.

So what has changed?

Wes WelkerThere were a number of factors that led to Welker’s departure from Foxboro. From a strictly business perspective, the Patriots were not thrilled with spending over $9 million on a franchise deal last season after the Patriots offered Welker a two year deal worth a reported $16 million. Welker wanted a three year, $22 million deal, but the Patriots seemed concerned with a player on the wrong side of 30 in an offense that was designed to become less reliant on his talents. Welker chose not to take $8 million a year when it was offered, setting the stage for the showdown this off-season.  In the end Welker lost leverage and money, averaging just over $7 million a year for three years when he would have gotten $16 million from the Pats in two years and still had an opportunity for an extension. By contrast, the Patriots landed Danny Amendola for five years at $6.2 million per year, less than what Welker was initially offered, but more than he was offered ($5 million a year for two years) after the Patriots (from their perspective) overpaid in 2012. Like it or not, the Patriots are cold calculators of positions and talent, and felt that Amendola, a more proven but less durable receiver than Welker, was worth the risk.

One can also not know whether or not Welker had worn out his welcome with Bill Belichick. Welker famously got into trouble for his foot comments in the 2010 post-season, and was benched for the first drive of the Patriots’ divisional game against the Jets, a drive that resulted in a Brady interception on a play where Brady normally would have been looking for Welker. The drive helped set the tone for an embarrassing playoff loss. And while many fans were angry with Belichick for the benching, the head coach had been explicit in instructing his players to avoid the topic of Rex Ryan’s personal woes at all costs. Then we had the contract dispute last season, followed by Welker being miffed over the expansion of Aaron Hernandez’ and Julian Edelmans’ roles in the slot early in the season. At the end of the season Welker quipped how good it was to “stick it” to Belichick with his productivity, and I have no doubt that those words still linger in Bill Belichick’s memory.

Danny AmendolaEnter Danny Amendola. The Boston media is in hyperbolic full throttle about how Amendola will never “replace” Welker, and isn’t fit to hold his jock. While I can’t form an opinion on the latter part of that, the former is obvious. Of course Amendola will never replace Welker. No one could. But we need to consider what it means to “replace” Welker in the NFL’s best offense.

In his best season in New England (2009), Welker caught 123 passes in only 14 games. Last season, Welker was destined to see fewer balls thrown his way until injuries to Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski deprived Tom Brady of key targets. He ended the season with 118 receptions. So, just for giggles, let’s assume that the Patriots are looking to replace 120 catches in Welker’s absence. So where is that coming from?

In 2010, when Amendola was healthy for every game, he caught 85 paases (for 689 yards and three touchdowns). Amendola has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in just twelve games over the past two seasons. But in those games has has caught 68 passes. When he is on the field, Amendola is money, and easily worth the financial investment made by the Patriots to secure a younger (27) and taller, slightly quicker talent. Yes, he hasn’t proven to be as durable as Welker, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. And Amendola is more proven as a receiver than Welker was when the Patriots acquired him for a second round pick, which at the time was viewed as a wild gamble on the part of Belichick.

Let’s assume that Amendola catches 80 passes in 2013; we can argue higher based on being in the Patriots’ (and Josh McDaniels’) “system” or we can argue lower based on injuries. But 80 catches seems to be a good place to start. That leaves us 40 more to find. Our eyes next fall on Aaron Hernandez, who caught 51 passes in 10 games last season after struggling with an ankle sprain. Assume Hernandez, who is a hybrid tight end and slot receiver, plays 15 games this season. On last year’s pace, that puts Hernandez at 75 catches, netting 24 more from last season and leaving us looking for another 16. Rob Gronkowski caught 55 balls in 11 games, so let’s assume he plays in 14. Gronk should be expected to catch 70 passes next season, and we are suddenly only one reception off of what we had with Welker. The jury is out on Brandon Lloyd, who had a solid season with 77 catches, but was deemed to be a “problem” in the locker room. Still, with Josh McDaniels as the coordinator, I rather suspect the Patriots will pay the $3 million roster bonus to keep Lloyd and his acrobatic catches in town. The only question left is who plays opposite of Lloyd, and the Patriots are likely to look at a number of players, including Donald Jones (scheduled for a visit), David Nelson, and possibly bringing back Julian Edelman. Throw in the fact that the Patriots have a very talented backfield duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and the idea that this offense is any less dangerous without Welker is a big stretch. Vereen’s play-making talent is extraordinary, and may well let the Patriots walk away from Danny Woodhead in the off-season. Leon Washington is being considered to replace Edelman and Welker on special teams, as well as to be a third running back.

All of these numbers are speculation, of course. But the fact remains that the league’s best offense in 2012, as good as it was, did not live up to its potential, particularly in big games.  Meanwhile, this wise expenditure of resources leaves the Patriots with enough cap room to bring in a small draft class (five picks) and still improve on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots’ defense is again on the rise, and there is every reason to believe that the Patriots will again contend for another AFC Championship and Super Bowl bid.

Finally, there is the whole angle about the “sacrifice” made by Tom Brady to clear up cap room to retain Welker. With all due respect to Tom Brady (and a LOT is due), Brady freed up cap money to improve the team, not just take care of his friend. And improving the team means continuing to improve the defense, maintaining a potent offense, and getting younger as a team. And just for the record, Brady did not “sacrifice” money; it just got paid out to him up front. Not dissing on Brady, mind you, but instead suggesting that the anonymous source “close” to Brady who is spouting off against the Patriots  really needs to get a grip. I’m sure Tom will when training camp rolls around.

Wilfork jerseyFew Patriots players (Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, and hopefully Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork) make it to the end of the road as Patriots. Just ask Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Asante Samuel and many others. The Patriots’ business model says they would rather get rid of players a year too early than a year too late, and that model has served the Patriots well, as they continue to dominate the AFC East and are perennial championship contenders. We cheer for the laundry, folks, and any attachment to the players comes at our own risk as fans.

I greatly value the contributions made by Wes Welker and thank him for his service to the Patriots’ organization, the team that I love. I also wish him well in Denver, though I will hope he drops a key Peyton Manning pass in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship to seal a Patriots’ win. :-) Still, it is time to move his jersey to the back of the closet until he retires, when I can once again wear it with pride. And if Wes Welker does make it to the Hall of Fame (and he should), I fully expect him to be enshrined as a New England Patriot.

And now I finally have my justification to buy a Vince Wilfork jersey. I wonder if my loving wife will fall for that.

Jan 302013
 

Just Shut 'Yer MouthIt’s been a while since I have felt the need to comment on some of the commentary coming from the mouths of current and former NFL players, but this Super Bowl week seems to provide endless opportunities for people stick their feet in their mouths. So let’s let at our most recent batch of guys who squawk first and think second, or third, or… ok, maybe not at all. And just so you’ve been warned, I’m not exactly feeling a lot of tolerance for some of this silliness.

Randy MossRandy Moss
I love Randy Moss as a player, and really enjoyed him as a member of the New England Patriots when he had his head on straight. The trouble with Randy is that he seems to be one very weird dude, if we judge by his antics on and off the field over the years, his bizarre video-pooping (there’s a term we don’t use every day) incident on MOSS-TV, and his ability to talk his way out of New England after reviving his troubled career.

But now Randy has made (and re-made) the claim that he believes that he is the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. Now, it’s great that Randy believes that, and he is certainly welcome to do so. But given his up and down career, the fact that his numbers come up short of Jerry Rice, and the fact that Moss has still not won (at least for a few more days) a championship, it seems to be a dubious claim at best. Yet Moss continues to make it.

“What I said is what I felt, and I don’t want to get into a shouting match with Jerry Rice or anybody,” Moss said on Wednesday. “It’s my personal opinion. (Rice) has the numbers but I don’t believe in numbers.”

So Moss doesn’t believe in numbers; he also doesn’t believe in rings.

“In today’s society, it’s how we measure athletes or teams — on rings,” Moss said. “I don’t base it that way. I changed the game. But I’m not trying to make it all about me.”

Not trying to make it about you? Now that would be news. OK Randy, so you have a claim, and no objective measure for backing it up. By that standard, Rex Ryan is the best head coach in the NFL too.

There can be no doubt that Moss is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, and that he had (past tense) the ability to completely take over a game. But it was only when he wanted to… when he felt like it. His own effort and lack of effort are what define his career, and he never put forth the effort that Rice put forth on a consistent basis and that made Rice better than everyone else. Randy is trying to write his legacy on how he wants people to remember him after he hangs up the cleats, and the legacy he is writing for himself is going to be a bit more generous than what will be written by others.

Like Jerry Rice, I wish Moss every bit of luck in getting his first ring this Sunday, but he needs to drop his silly claim of being the best ever.

Tim BrownTim Brown and Jerry Rice
Speaking of silly claims, how about the one made by Tim Brown, who is currently a nominee for the Professional Football Hall of Fame?

Just over a week ago the former Raiders’ wide receiver came out and said that former coach Bill Callahan intentionally altered the game plan in Super Bowl XXXVII to sabotage the Raiders’ chances of beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Callahan’s good friend Jon Gruden.

“We all called it sabotage . . . because Callahan and [Tampa Bay coach Jon] Gruden were good friends,” Brown said. “And Callahan had a big problem with the Raiders, you know, hated the Raiders. You know, only came because Gruden made him come. Literally walked off the field on us a couple of times during the season when he first got there, the first couple years. So really he had become someone who was part of the staff but we just didn’t pay him any attention. Gruden leaves, he becomes the head coach. . . . It’s hard to say that the guy sabotaged the Super Bowl. You know, can you really say that? That can be my opinion, but I can’t say for a fact that that’s what his plan was, to sabotage the Super Bowl. He hated the Raiders so much that he would sabotage the Super Bowl so his friend can win the Super Bowl. That’s hard to say, because you can’t prove it.

Brown later added, “I can’t say the man was incompetent because he was far from that. You only leave me with one other choice so I’ll have to go ahead and take the latter of those two choices.” The latter of the two choices of course being intentional sabotage.

What made the story even more stunning was the fact that Jerry Rice then got on board with the claim.

According to Rice, “For some reason — and I don’t know why — Bill Callahan did not like me. In a way, maybe because he didn’t like the Raiders he decided, ‘Maybe we should sabotage this a little bit and let Jon Gruden go out and win this one.’”

Now anyone who watches Jerry Rice on television knows that Jerry Rice thinks a great deal of himself, but this statement was simply way over the top. First, there is simply no way in the NFL that coaches and players who work as hard as they do to win games in the NFL and advance through the post-season are going to throw a game like the Super Bowl in order to make some bizarre point or let a friend win. Second, it seems far more likely that Callahan simply over thought the situation and altered the game plan so he could be less predictable in the Super Bowl and have a better chance to win. If Callahan seems guilty of anything, it would seem to be outwitting himself.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that Brown later backtracked from his claim, stating he never made a suggestion that Callahan sabotaged the Super Bowl, but by then the damage, both to Brown’s credibility and to Rice’s, had already been done. The story has been dying a slow death over the past week, but both Brown and Rice made a miscalculation in spouting out fictional nonsense about something long since passed.

Ray LewisRay Lewis
Many people believe, myself included, that Ray Lewis is either a murderer or an accessory to two murders. We will never know the truth of the situation, given that Lewis plead to a lesser charge, that no one has ever been held criminally responsible for the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, and that important evidence in the case vanished. Lewis preempted a wrongful death civil finding by reaching a financial settlement after the filing of the suit.

But we do know this about Ray Lewis; the man is very likely an outright liar.

This week it was revealed that Lewis used a banned substance (IGF-1) to aid him in recovering from a torn triceps. According to Sports Illustrated, Lewis contacted a company owned by a former male stripper to obtain a deer-antler velvet extract after tearing his triceps in October. Mitch Ross, the owner of S.W.A.T.S, videotaped the phone call from Lewis. During the conversation, Lewis said to Ross, “Just pile me up and just send me everything you got, because I got to get back on this this week.”

Lewis has rebuked the claim and pointed to his history of negative drug tests, but there is currently no testing of players for IGF-1. The video evidence seems particularly damning. Lewis’ response to this? Why of course it’s to appeal to emotion and call the accusation a ‘trick of the devil.’

“That’s the trick of the devil,” Lewis said. “The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That’s what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you’re trying to do.”

Ross, however, is adamant that Lewis was using the substance. On ESPN Radio’s “VP and Russillo” show, Ross alleged that Lewis “used every product that I have.”

“Ray did what he had to do to get back on the field, that’s what he said,” Ross told Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. “I’m not telling you he didn’t use anything. He got on a protocol, he absolutely certainly did… It was set up by me how to do it, and I even developed an armband for him to use at Day 7 to strengthen his triceps better… It sounds like he’s disputing it, I guess because he’s scared of Roger Goodell. Ray’s not the only athlete taking in the SWATS protocol.”

The report from SI is incredibly well documented, and Lewis is not the overt target of the article. The article also links IGF-1 to last year’s Alabama Crimson Tide team, and also notes Johnny Damon, Vijay Singh, and Shawne Merriman. In his interview on ESPN, Ross added Brett Favre, Carnell Williams, Heath Evans, and others to the list. You can read the article here.

Maybe the video is the trick of the devil, Ray. But I for one will believe a well-vetted report that is backed up by video evidence, particularly when compared to someone who is already convicted of interfering with a previous murder investigation. So I’m going with SI’s report, unless Ray Ray feels like producing a blood-spattered white suit to the police.

Marshall FaulkMarshall Faulk
Speaking of guys who need to shut the hell up…

Marshall Faulk was interviewed by Tom Curran of CSNNE.com and stated he still believes that the Patriots cheated the Rams out of a victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. Faulk said that he believes that the Patriots spied on the Rams’ walk-through practice the day before the game, and were able to respond to plays that the Rams had created for the Super Bowl. This is in conflict with the findings of the NFL, and Commissioner Goodell insisted there was no evidence that the Patriots obtained any information by spying on the walk-through.

“Am I over the loss? Yeah, I’m over the loss. But I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl. That’s a different story. I can understand losing a Super Bowl, that’s fine . . . But how things happened and what took place. Obviously, the commissioner gets to handle things how he wants to handle them but if they wanted us to shut up about what happened, show us the tapes. Don’t burn ’em.”

“I understand Bill Belichick is a great coach,” said Faulk. “But No. 13 (Kurt Warner) will tell you. Mike Martz will tell you. We had some plays in the red zone that we hadn’t ran. I think we got to fourth down — we ran three plays that we hadn’t ran, that Mike drew up for that game… Bill’s a helluva coach… we hadn’t ran them the whole year, and the Patriots were ready for them.”

Whatever Faulk’s feelings about the way the Commissioner handled the investigation, the fact remains that Faulk’s accounting of the walk-through seem to be manufactured memories. John Czarnecki from Fox (thanks to Tom E. Curran for the reference) has indicated that the Rams did very little of actual preparation for the game, but were more focused on taking pictures. Further, the Boston Herald, who initially published the John Tomase report that the Patriots had taped the walk-through, retracted the story and issued an apology for running a false report.

Faulk is welcome to believe whatever he wants about the events of Super Bowl XXXVI. But his continued public insistence that he was cheated despite evidence to the contrary simply makes Faulk look like a sore loser.

UPDATE: Willie McGinest has the best response yet to Faulk’s rubbish: If we would have had inside information, the game would have been a blowout. Well said, Willie! My guess is that it’s going to be a little tense on the NFL Network set for the next few days!

Rat1SmallSite News

After the Super Bowl wraps up, we have a fairly aggressive schedule of off-season topics that we will be addressing. So just because the season is over doesn’t mean our writing is taking a break. In addition, we are now planning for some podcasts that will be taking place later in the spring. Twp topics we are looking at right now are free agent moves that take place in March and April, as well as looking at the long-term viability of the National Football League, given concerns over player safety. Our first podcasts will likely be facilitated conversations without listener calls, but we are certainly hoping that this approach will be successful and that we can eventually expand to live online broadcasts and listener calls. But for now it is one step at a time…. more to follow!

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