AFC Championship Preview: Ravens Vs. Patriots
It’s no secret: these teams do not like each other. The recent rivalry has been full of bad blood, trash talk, and nail-biters, beginning on Dec. 3, 2007.
Coming into that Monday night, New England was 11-0, in the midst of its historic unbeaten regular season. Baltimore was struggling through a rare frustrating year, and entered at 4-7, with Kyle Boller at quarterback. Still, the proud Ravens gave Belichick and Brady everything they had, and the Pats needed two questionable penalties on the final drive to remain undefeated, leaving the Ravens seething.
That offseason, the Jim Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era began, and Baltimore has yet to miss the postseason since. New England, obviously, is a playoff regular, and two-time Super Bowl loser since 2007. This Sunday will be the sixth matchup between these teams since the ’07 contest, and the third postseason battle. The teams split the first two playoff meetings—most notably last year’s AFC Championship, when a dropped touchdown by Lee Evans cost the Ravens a Super Bowl visit.
Not only have these teams faced off frequently, and under high stakes; they have also produced close games, with an average margin of victory (including '07) of 4.8 points. The margin would be even smaller except for the lone game without drama: Baltimore’s 33-14 win in the 2009 Wild Card Round—arguably the worst game of Brady’s career.
This Sunday’s contest goes beyond just the matchups. For one, the familiarity between these teams should lead to outside-the-box game-planning and preparation. Also, in this particular showdown, each team has a strong motive: New England is eager to avenge its recent playoff losses, while Baltimore is obviously inspired by Ray’s last ride.
The teams did, in fact, play earlier this season, in Week 3, but it’s hard to gauge how significantly Baltimore’s 31-30 home win relates to this weekend’s rematch. Generally, in the NFL, teams go through drastic changes over the five-month grind. Inevitable injuries and increased chemistry lead to altered schemes, styles, depth charts and playmakers (see: Colin Kaepernick). In addition, the Ravens were uniquely emotionally charged that Sunday, as Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith had a breakout night less than 24 hours after learning of his brother’s death.
Since then, the veteran Ravens have accrued numerous injuries, including the loss of top cornerback Lardarius Webb. Ray Lewis returned to the field after a season-threatening injury, announced his retirement, and Baltimore had to play football for five hours last weekend. Meanwhile, the Patriots established a running game behind Stevan Ridley, traded for cornerback Aqib Talib, and lost tight end Rob Gronkowski. So while these teams aren’t completely different from their Week 3 versions, there is little to take from that game that helps determine who’s going to the Super Bowl.
At the Moment
On paper, the Pats enter this game with the clear edge (and 8.5-point favorites). First, New England’s recent schedule has clearly been lighter. Baltimore hosted the Colts in Lewis’ last home appearance (an emotionally draining game), and then played a five-hour marathon in freezing weather and high altitude. Meanwhile, the Patriots received a first-round bye, then the chance to compete against Matt Schaub, at home (another bye, basically).
Offensively, the Pats’ biggest concern is the absence of Gronkowski. But Gronk missed a significant part of the season and the team still led the NFL in total yards. Much of this is attributed to a running attack, a luxury that has eluded Brady since Corey Dillon’s 2004 campaign. Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Browner, and now Shane Vereen have provided a new layer to Brady’s unit and a major reason why New England led the NFL with a scoring average of 34.8 PPG.
Belichick has improved the defense, too, particularly by acquiring Talib midseason and shaking up the secondary (more on this later). The emergence of outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich as a quiet playmaker has also greatly impacted the effectiveness of their front-seven. Quite simply, the Patriots are just about rolling right now.
For Baltimore, the star of the playoffs has been Flacco, who has done a stellar job on deep balls and pressure throws (his third-and-13 conversion to Dennis Pitta from his own end zone was the best pass of his life). Flacco has always shown signs of being an elite quaterback on his good days and displayed mediocrity when rattled. At the moment, though, he looks as sharp as ever. In fact, after the return of left tackle Bryant McKinnie and ensuing switch of Michael Oher to right tackle, the entire Ravens offense has been clicking.
Still, Baltimore is fortunate to be here. In fact, if Rahim Moore doesn’t make maybe the worst play in NFL history, Lewis is currently retired. Still, the grittiness of their double-overtime road win in brutal conditions needs to be acknowledged, especially the aging defense, led by Lewis, that played its best football of the year in OT. Baltimore is riding emotion right now, but also possesses a veteran ability to find a different gear when it matters most, influenced by future Hall of Famers Lewis and Ed Reed. Besides the Giants, arguably, the Ravens are the most likely team to defy explanation and capture an emotional road playoff win.
The most glaring matchup is between the Patriots’ secondary and the Ravens’ deep passing attack. Flacco’s elite skill is his arm strength, and the Ravens love finding speedsters Smith and Jacoby Jones on nine-routes (ask Champ Bailey). So far in the playoffs, Flacco leads all quarterbacks in yards per attempt (10.75).
Another key battle will be between the Patriots' running game and Baltimore’s front-seven. Ridley is no longer a secret after compiling 1,263 yards this season, and now Vereen will be studied hard on film after establishing himself as a weapon with three touchdowns last week. In Gronkowski's absence, the running game has given Brady another crucial dimension to toy with, and a key to this game will be whether Lewis, Suggs, Ngata, and company can contain that ground game.
Finally, an underrated factor will be whether Lewis’ defense can keep pace with Brady’s up-tempo style. Brady likes to snap the ball before the opposing defense gets set, particularly near the goal line. He prefaces that with methodical drives featuring multiple plays, wearing the defense down on the march downfield. Already this week, Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo referred to the Pats’ speedy offense as a “gimmick.” The Ravens are coming off a marathon game and are finely aged, so Brady will undoubtedly be looking to speed it up. The Ravens' defensive players can’t afford to be catching their breath while Brady is snapping the ball, particularly in the red zone.
The Ray Lewis era comes to an end, as Brady and the Patriots execute too efficiently for the veteran Ravens. It’ll be close, and probably dramatic, but Tom Brady is sick of not winning the Super Bowl. I’ll still take the points, though, and pick the Ravens to cover.
Baltimore Ravens (+8.5): 17
New England Patriots: 24