Patriots should be prepping for battle against Ravens in AFC Championship
If you are a Patriots fan, know this: there is NO harder way for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and company to get to the Super Bowl than having to go through the Ravens.
A tough match-up
In the NFL it is always all about match-ups. There are so many nuances of the game, from offensive schemes to the size and speed of cornerbacks to the chemistry of special teams. Just as the Patriots have always done better than the rest of the league at playing against the Steelers at Heinz Field, or how they have lost some befuddling games to the sub-par Dolphins over the course of their dynasty; that is the relationship Baltimore has with New England.
It is all about matchups, and the Ravens have the Patriots’ number. Besides their two losses in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, the Ravens handed New England one of their more stunning postseason defeats when they came to Gillette and blew them out 33-14. That loss still sits in the craw of many Pats fans, and certainly the team themselves, and it serves as a reminder that the Ravens have no qualms about coming to Foxboro and laying it all on the line.
The Ravens defense is perfectly designed to frustrate Tom Brady because rather than focusing on sacking him or completely covering his receivers, the Ravens are patient and settle for a variety of blitzes and defensive packages designed to provide a consistent pressure up front that wears him down. The Ravens know that heavy and concentrated coverage in the secondary can prevent a good catch here or there, but if Brady has the time and the confidence he will eventually burn you. Ninety percent of the time, it will turn into points.
If you go back and watch the times that Brady has struggled in the most, it has been when he has been forced to get rid of the ball quickly while being hurried and knocked down; over and over and over again. That’s what Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the rest of the Ravens defense has done better than any other team in the NFL against Brady; get inside of his head.
Defensively, the Patriots are and for the most part always have been equipped to deal with what the Ravens can throw at them. The Baltimore offense is very simple. They establish how much they think they can accomplish with Ray Rice. Once they know what type of game Rice is having, they cater their passing attack. New England’s defense against the run is the best it has been since 2007, and they have built a reputation this year for big stops in the red zone. If they can stop Rice from getting into the end zone, then all they have to worry about is daring Joe Flacco to throw it.
Flacco’s skill set as a passer is marvelously limited for a guy that has been as successful in the postseason as he has. Here’s the catch though. His one really impressive proficiency also exploits the Patriots’ biggest defensive flaw: the deep ball.
Flacco may have the best deep, hail Mary, gun-slinging throw in the entire league. Just ask the Broncos, who last week watched former defensive-star Champ Bailey get absolutely demolished on one long deep pass after another from Flacco. Even the best secondary is vulnerable to a guy who can achieve that level or strength and accuracy behind the ball, and you can be sure that if the Ravens get behind on Sunday night at Gillette then Flacco will start slingin’.
That’s the bad news.
The Good News
There is a fair amount of good news as well; the first and most important being that the Patriots get to play at home. Yes they have lost at home in the postseason to this team before, but this is a different offense and more importantly a different defense than it was three years ago.
The Patriots are also coming off a far less physically demanding situation in last week’s divisional round than the Ravens are. They took the lead early against the Texans at home in Foxboro last Sunday and never looked back. The game ended with the easiest win of the round, and everyone got to go home to their own beds. The Ravens flew to Denver and fought the battle of all battles to beat the Broncos in a brutally long game that was finally won in the waning seconds of overtime. Then they still had to fly home.
Physically, the Patriots are better rested; despite the fact that they have lost one of their start offensive players for the rest of the season in Rob Gronkowski.
Still, if you think that losing Gronkowski for this game will drastically affect how the Patriots can put points on the board you are probably wrong.
Gronkowski has played three games against the Ravens with no touchdown. In his first two games, he was not even a factor. In the Patriots’ 23-20 win over the Ravens in 2010, Gronkowski had 1 reception for for 24 yards. In their very close 31-30 loss to the Ravens in the 2012 regular season, he had 2 receptions for 21 yards. His most effective game against Baltimore was in last year’s AFC Championship win, in which he had five catches for 87 yards and still no touchdowns. That type of production can very easily be replicated by the guys the Patriots do have on the field, including Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.
On the other side of the ball there is obviously the aforementioned concern regarding the secondary matching up against a dynamic and strong (and even more unpredictable) passer like Flacco. The flip side of that is that the Patriots’ secondary actually saved this game for them last year and this year they are equipped with better players like Aqib Talib at cornerback, and have made some crafty and successful rearrangements like moving Devin McCourty to play a hybrid safety position. New England is as equipped as they have ever been to impede the Ravens’ passing success.
The Wrap Up
At the end of the day, a team as talented and successful as the Patriots have been this year deserves and has earned the favor in this game. They are at home, are overall fairly healthy and they are playing in the conference championship game for the 7th time in twelve years. You just don’t bet against that.
The Patriots will win this game, but expect it to be a very hard fought battle. The Ravens will go down swinging, and you are bound to be on the edge of your seat.
Prediction: Patriots 30 – Ravens 27