AFC Championship Preview – Ravens (13-4) @ Patriots (14-3)
Going back to the days of Brian Billick, it’s been a staple of Baltimore Ravens teams: they play better as the underdog. Linebacker Jarret Johnson, a Raven since 2003, admitted as much during an interview this week, and any devoted purple faithful can attest to it – they’ve just never handled being the favorite well. They’ll have to continue that tradition on Sunday, as the New England Patriots enter the AFC Championship game as touchdown (or more, depending on who you ask) favorites.
Many are pointing to the Ravens’ 33-14 win at Foxboro in the 2009 Wild Card game as evidence that the Ravens can go to New England and get the job done. However, that game seems more like an aberration than the norm, especially when you consider other recent Ravens-Patriots contests. Aside from that game, the other two times these teams have played since 2009 both came down to the wire. In the 2009 regular season, the Ravens were a Mark Clayton dropped pass on 4th down in the final moments away from a 1st-and-goal situation needing only a touchdown and an extra point to come away with a 28-27 victory. In the 2010 regular season, the Ravens took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter only to see Tom Brady will his team to 13 unanswered points and a Steven Gostkowski game-winning field goal at the two minute warning of overtime.
These teams play close games. Expect a tight one Sunday.
On the other side, most national – and even some local – pundits are already dismissing the Ravens, based solely on their relatively “poor” showing against the Houston Texans last week in the Divisional Round. However, anybody that watches the Ravens regularly – especially this year – knows that what happens one week has very little bearing on what transpires the next.
This is a team that beat Pittsburgh 35-7, then lost at Tennessee 26-13, then pasted St. Louis 37-7 to start the year. They had a terrible loss in Seattle sandwiched by key divisional wins in Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati. The Ravens got physically whooped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against the Texans. What eases my mind is that not only is that an extremely rare occurrence for the Ravens, but it’s almost unheard of for it to happen two weeks in a row. They’ll be going up against a New England squad that is much more known for their finesse than their physicality, so the Ravens’ heavies that got their feelings hurt last week should be up for the challenge of having a solid rebound game.
And they’ll need to – again, on both sides. On offense, they’ll need to do a much better job of opening up holes for Ray Rice and Ricky Williams to control the clock and keep Brady and his arsenal on the sidelines. They’ll need to protect Joe Flacco a lot better against a Pats’ pass rush that racked up 40 sacks during the regular season, and give him time to make throws to move the chains and take shots down the field to Torrey Smith or Lee Evans when they present themselves.
On defense, linemen Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, and Cory Redding, and linebackers Johnson, Terrell Suggs, and Paul Kruger will have to do a much better job of getting in Brady’s face than they did against T.J. Yates. Suggs has historically been a monster against New England and his favorite “pretty boy” Brady, and he’ll need to continue that string of dominance. In the past, the Ravens have had great success in getting Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. Even former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison had Brady on the run the last time these teams met, only to revert to his patented 3-man rush at the worst possible times.
Inconsistent or non-existent pressure on Brady will is a recipe for disaster against New England, as it has been for years now. The Patriots’ offense boasts dangerous weapons at pretty much every position – from Wes Welker and Deion Branch on the outside to beast tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in the middle.
A huge question in Baltimore this week has been “how will the Ravens deal with the New England tight ends?”
While the Ravens have basically NO linebackers who can be considered strong in coverage, they’ve still somehow managed to have success against opposing tight ends this year. They’ve given up the second fewest yards and touchdowns to tight ends in the NFL this year, and no tight end gained more than 73 yards in a game against them all season. It will take someone much smarter than me to explain that contradiction, but there you have it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to moderately contain Gronkowski in a 25-17 win over New England earlier this year, and they did so by matching a rookie cornerback – not a linebacker or safety – on Gronk. As I said in my interview with Foxboro Blog earlier this week, I think the Ravens would be well served by doing the same thing with their own rookie CB Jimmy Smith. Smith is big and physical, and is probably the Ravens’ best bet to match up with the size and speed of the second-year tight end. The question is whether or not the team trusts a rookie to cover such a key cog in an explosive offense in the most important game of the season.
Pittsburgh also got physical with the Patriots at the line, specifically cornerback Ike Taylor on Welker. Personally, I’d put Lardarius Webb on Welker all afternoon; Webb has been the Ravens’ best corner all year, and seems to be peaking here in the postseason based on his two interceptions last week. The Ravens don’t typically match up their corners though, so it will be interesting to see how Chuch Pagano decides to try to attack New England.
Brady is undoubtedly one of the best ever, but he’s struggled against the Ravens. In his last four games against the purple and black, he’s managed just six touchdown passes while throwing six interceptions and being sacked 12 times, for a quarterback rating of 72.1. Compare that to his career rating of 96.9 against the league’s other 30 teams, and it’s obvious that he’s just not able to do the things he’s comfortable with against this Baltimore defense.
The Patriots defense, on the other hand, takes a lot of heat for giving up tons of yardage – 31st in the NFL. However, they were just 15th in points allowed, so you have to think that a lot of that yardage was due to the fact that teams were frantically trying to catch up to New England on the scoreboard after falling into an early hole. Still, after the defenses the Ravens have faced this season (10-2 against the teams that finished in the top 10 overall), going up against the Pats should be like swinging a baseball bat after taking the donut weight off; that is to say, much easier. There is no reason to expect the struggles they experienced a week ago against Houston to carry over to Foxboro. The last time Flacco went against this Patriots defense, he was 27/35 (77%), for 285 yards, 2 TDs, 0 turnovers, and a 119.3 quarterback rating. Similar success will be critical on Sunday.
I haven’t picked against the Ravens this season – while I’ll freely admit I’m a homer, I also honestly believed that every time they took the field, they had the talent and personnel to win the game. This time is no different. Sure, the Patriots have the pretty stats, but the fact is that they’ve only played two teams with winning records all year (three, if you want to count the now 9-9 Denver Broncos), and they lost both of those games (again, 1-2 if you count the Tebows). The Ravens, on the other hand, are now 7-0 against teams that made the postseason. They’ve proven they can hang with – and beat – the league’s best squads.
Sunday is another chance to do just that, and while it should be a nail-biter to the end, I believe they will.
Ravens 27 Patriots 24