Patriots - Ravens AFC Championship Game on Sunday

The New England Patriots (14-3) take on the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) for the AFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon in Foxboro. Both teams were at the top of the AFC standings all season, so it is hardly a surprise that the team representing the Super Bowl from the AFC comes down to these two.

Both were victorious during the Divisional Round at home, the Patriots crushed Denver 45-10, while the Ravens beat the Texans 20-13. The Patriots have won with a high powered offense, the Ravens with a tough, stingy defense.

Although the teams have played each other very little through the years, its developed into a pretty fierce rivalry with a lot of talking on each side, although that’s been muted a bit this week.

The teams met in 2009 in the playoffs, their only post-season matchup with Baltimore blowing out the Patriots 33-14 in Foxboro. But neither team is really similar to the ones that played that day. Baltimore has added Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith to its offense. New England was without Wes Welker and has since added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It promises to be a great game….on to the matchups.

Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots haven’t been a prolific running team this season, last week against Denver TE Aaron Hernandez was the leading rusher, being used as a running back at times and reeling off a 43 yard run early to set the tone.

But the running game has been inconsistent this season, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was hobbled by a bad toe all season and it affected his game and his burst into the line. He seems to be finally healthy and that’s a good thing because the more explosive Stevan Ridley has put the ball on the ground the past two games and I tend to doubt that he’s going to see a lot of carries now. Danny Woodhead may get the majority of touches in the middle of the game if they’re looking for quick hitting plays trying to catch the Ravens pinning their ears back.

Baltimore has been as usual very stout against the run this season; Haloti Ngata anchors a stout front seven although Houston’s Arian Foster gained 132 yards last week. But Patriots fans shouldn’t point to that with great optimism, the Texans offense is based on running where New England’s is not.

The Patriots will not find much room to run the ball early, if they find success in passing, it will open up some of the quick hitting draws and traps, but Baltimore will hold a distinct advantage here.

Patriots Passing Game:
The key to the game is right here, the Patriots live and die on offense depending upon how well Tom Brady is able to throw the ball. Last week Brady was on a mission, while the television networks and press all wanted to talk about Tim Tebow, Brady although he wouldn’t admit was seething. And he came out and played that way, slicing through the Broncos like he was playing 7-on-7.

Baltimore is a much different team than Denver; the Ravens like their division rival Pittsburgh rely on a stiff pass rush to disrupt the passing game. And it starts on the outside with Terrell Suggs who had 14 of the Ravens 48 sacks to go along with seven forced fumbles. Pernell McPhee, a situational pass rusher also had 6.5 sacks this season.

Suggs will be looking to get to Brady and his matchups, depending upon which side he lines up on will be against either Matt Light or rookie Nate Solder. Both of them will have their hands full with the mercurial and oft-quoted Suggs. Another key to watch will be Ray Lewis, who didn’t blitz as much this season, but is dangerous coming right up the middle. Dan Connolly will have that responsibility as well as keeping the huge Ngata from breaking in as well.

The Ravens corners are good but not great; Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams have played well, but due to the Ravens superb pass rush, aren’t tested much. The Ravens pass defense is 4th in the NFL, and much of that has to do with Ed Reed at safety. Reed covers a lot of terrain and coupled with the pass rush, makes it an iffy situation throwing the ball anywhere near him. His 57 career interceptions are testament to that.

Another interesting stat is Baltimore’s success against tight ends this season, the two best performances against them by Heath Miller (5 recs – 73 yards) and Jermaine Gresham (5 recs -72 yards) were hardly Gronk like. So something has to give. The Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are very difficult to matchup against, as they’ve been all season. Given that the Ravens have had great success stopping TEs, is bound to be a subject of film study in Foxboro this week. But Baltimore hasn’t faced a tight end as versatile or dangerous as Gronkowski, add in Hernandez and this matchup will definitely bear watching.

How far has the Patriots defense evolved as far as tight ends are concerned? In 2008, Patriots tight ends caught just 31 passes. In 2009, they hauled in 43, this season it was 169. An interesting and great read on how to stop the Patriots tight ends was done by Matt Bowen who wrote this article for the National Football Post. The Ravens will try a few things to slow or throw off the timing of Gronkowski and Hernandez as well as Wes Welker in the slot.

If they decide to double Gronkowski as is expected it may leave Deion Branch with single coverage and no over the top help. The last time the teams met in 2010, Branch’s first game back in New England he had a big game. How well they do that and get to Brady will determine who wins this game.

Ravens Running Game:
Defensively the key to the game will be stopping Ray Rice, Baltimore remains a run-first team and they will be looking to control the tempo of the game and keep Brady and the Patriots offense on the sidelines.

Unless you’ve lived in Timbuktu this past week, you know that Rice dominated the Patriots front seven in the 2009 playoff game rushing for 159 yards and 2 TDs that doesn’t begin to tell the dominance they had on that afternoon. Last year, Rice ran for 88 yards but only averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the overtime game in Foxboro.

Down the stretch, the Patriots run defense was gashed as the injuries began to take their toll. But the return of Pat Chung and Brandon Spikes bolstered the run defense against the Broncos in the Divisional Playoff game. They will again have to step up and the defensive linemen, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Shaun Ellis will have to be at the top of their games this week.

Another player to watch is former Dolphins RB Ricky Williams who serves as Rice’s backup and has played well this season averaging 4.1 yards per carry. The Patriots will be looking to limit Rice’s success and force the Ravens to pass to win the game.

Ravens Passing Game:
The Ravens passing offense averages 213.9 yards per game, it should be averaging much more with the weapons at its disposal. WRs Anquan Boldin, rookie Torrey Smith as well as veteran WR Lee Evans, Rice out of the backfield and TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are a very good collection of weapons to have in the offense. It has balance between running and passing options, so why the inconsistency? Joe Flacco.

Flacco is in his fourth year as the Ravens QB and his development this season has sort of plateaued. At times he appears to be “the guy” such as the Pittsburgh game where he pulled out a late victory throwing the ball down the field on the road and then at others, he’s indecisive and prone to turnovers.

Last week against the Texans, despite being gifted with short fields to score, he played poorly and for the final 46 minutes of the game, the Ravens only put up 3 points. He’ll need to play better this week. Ed Reed called him out this week stating that he has to play better at New England for the Ravens to advance. Despite having both Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs come to his aid, Flacco was rather whiny at his press conference stating that “I could stand here with a ring and the trophy and they’ll still say that it was in spite of me.”

These are the times that the scale could very well go either way, sometimes these issues galvanize a team into pulling together and with an “us against them” mentality pushes a team into greatness. Other times, with such fragile confidence, the slightest hint of adversity could force Flacco into more mistakes. This one also will definitely bear watching. It’s imperative for Flacco to get off to a fast start this week, if he turns the ball over early and the Patriots capitalize, it could be a long day for him.

He should find success throwing the ball, the Patriots give up a lot of yards between the 20 yard lines. Last week, Flacco was under constant pressure by Houston’s defense and was sacked 5 times, while some of those could be attributed to him holding the ball too long, Houston’s defense was solid if not spectacular all year long. The Ravens were also dropping too many balls that should have been caught. Those can’t be blamed on Flacco.

With Patrick Chung returning to health and moving Devin McCourty to safety, the Patriots have solidified their back end on defense, but they haven’t faced a diverse offense such as Baltimore’s in quite a while. They will also attempt to pressure Flacco, and players such as Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson will be looked to, to force him into making mistakes. One place they will look to attack is on Michael Oher’s side. He’s been struggling a lot and the Patriots will look to take advantage of any matchup they can find.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
The kicking games are about as equal as you can get. Both the Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski and the Ravens Billy Cundiff are solid veterans who are very good in the FG department and booming the ball out of the endzone on kickoffs.

Punters Zoltan Mesko for New England and Sam Koch have the exact same gross punting average, 46.5 with Mesko with a slightly higher net average due to fewer touchbacks but both are outstanding and will help their team turn field position.

Neither kick return game has produced anything of note this season. The Patriots Danny Woodhead has struggled in that department as has Baltimore’s. The punt return unit of the Patriots has been better lately but the numbers are remarkably similar to those of Webb for the Ravens.

“X”-Factors:
The unstoppable force against the immovable object, the Patriots come in with an offense that is the best of the final four teams still standing. They lit up Denver for 45 points in the Divisional Round of the playoffs that at times looked ridiculously easy.

The Ravens boast the best Red Zone defense in the NFL with opponents scoring at just a 38.1 % of the time. Baltimore has won on the road in the playoffs; they did so here in Foxboro convincingly in 2009.  They know how to win and have done so. They’re not afraid of a grinding it out close game.

The Patriots are very, very good at home and are playing well, coming in winning 9 in a row and firing on all cylinders. A reason for optimism this week had to have been the play of the defense against Denver. Flying all over the field, and making 14 plays where they held Denver to negative yardage.

Conclusions:
Most of the Patriots – Ravens games have been close, hard-fought, hard hitting affairs. This one will be no different, no team has a better body of work against Tom Brady, regardless of their record (1-4), and Brady’s career 57 % completion percentage against the Ravens is easily his worst. The Ravens always have given Brady problems with their defense.

From a Patriots perspective, stopping Ray Rice has to be priority number 1. While shutting him down is a something that is nearly impossible to do, they have to limit his effectiveness. His 1364 rushing yards and 704 receiving yards represent 48% of the Ravens offense to go along with 15 touchdowns.

Slow down Rice (no easy task) and the game is more manageable. Although I think Brandon Spikes will be the man the Pats look to on early downs, look for Dane Fletcher to get some snaps and perhaps spy Rice out of the backfield with Jerod Mayo at times as well.

The Ravens will be looking to chip the Patriots tight ends at the line of scrimmage as well as Wes Welker in the slot to throw off their timing with Brady and disrupt the passing game in the middle of the field. Look for Brady to put them in motion to get free releases off the line of scrimmage. Deion Branch will have to step up on Sunday to take up the slack, he should find single coverage a lot in this game.

The Patriots got off to a fast start last week against Denver by going to the hurry up offense, they may opt to do the same this week and throw a few wrinkles at the Ravens that they haven’t seen yet to get off to an early lead and put pressure on Flacco.

I think the Bill Belichick and the Patriots will find a way to slow down Baltimore’s offense in the second half. They don’t do much exotic in terms of formations, it’s very basic with 1 WR on each side, no bunch formations, nothing that will demand a lot of communication in the back end. That should help matters with a secondary that has struggled.

Brady will find Gronkowski and Hernandez but not as much as they’ve been experiencing lately although a lot of that will depend upon how healthy Ed Reed is. I think Wes Welker and Deion Branch will be the wildcards here. If they choose to shut down the TEs, Welker and Branch will have big games, as long as the protection holds up. The Patriots pack for Indy but it will be a close win. Patriots 27-21