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It’s not by accident that the Patriots and Ravens are facing off in the AFC Championship this weekend. They were clearly the two best teams in the conference and have been on a collision course for about a month now. Once the season gets down to the final four, I find the ongoing discussion of what’s going to happen Sunday to be…well, boring. In the end most of these games come down to a couple of plays or a turnover or two. It usually decided by the best players, making their best plays in the biggest moments. So, I admit it when I hear ongoing discussion on the matchups or the slot receivers or the Z slot, I just zone out.
What does interest me about this matchup are the teams themselves and how they got to this point. In New England, we are pretty familiar with the story of Bill Belichick. Belichick resigned exactly one minute after he was about to be named head coach of the New York Jets. He returned to New England where he was once an assistant under Bill Parcells and after a tumultuous first 20 games, he got the Patriots on track with the help of certain quarterback and the rest is history.
In this matchup, what happened in the past is the prologue to the story. A long time ago, on a team far away, Bill Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Ozzie Newsome, former Hall of Fame tight end and current GM & Vice-President of the Ravens, was a personnel director working with Belichick.
“I came through as a player,” Newsome said, as reported by the Carroll County Times via the Boston Herald. “I spent time on the road, but for the most part, I’ve been in locker rooms and I’ve been at practice. I was taught, by Bill Belichick, at a very early age that scouting begins on Sunday. You need to know your football team. The only way you get to know your football team is you’ve got to be able to watch them at practice, I watch the practice tape, so that’s why I do that. That’s my niche. But the only way I can do it, I have to trust (director of player personnel) Eric (DeCosta) and (director of college scouting) Joe (Hortiz) and the scouts and their ability to go out and do their job.”
There was not a lot of crossover between the two. Belchick was gone after the turbulent 1995 Browns season, their last before they relocated to Baltimore. Ozzie Newsome followed the team to Baltimore, where owner Art Modell made him Vice President of Player Personnel.
Newsome’s reputation as a talent evaluator is probably the strongest in the league. He was the architect of the 2000 Super Bowl team, which included two Hall of Famers in Jonathan Ogden (4th overall) and Ray Lewis (26th), that were taken in Newsome’s first draft with the Ravens. The most impressive statistic of Newsome’s tenure with the Ravens is that in 16 years from (1996-2010) he has selected 16 players in the first round who have played in 46 Pro Bowls.
The Ravens like the Patriots have had to retool and swap out personnel during the past decade. Ogden is retired, as are such greats as Peter Boulware, Mike McCrary, Chris McCalister, Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe. The only leftover from that Ravens Super Bowl team is one of the biggest obstacles for the Patriots this weekend. Ray Lewis is the best linebacker of his time and a player that has been the cornerstone of the Ravens franchise for sixteen years.
As the Patriot championship run was dialing down, the Baltimore Ravens were bottoming out. They missed the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, but rebounded with a strong 13-3 finish and number two playoff seed in 2006 with Steve McNair at quarterback. But then age, injuries, and a lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball led to a 5-11 season in 2007. It would be head coach Brian Billick’s last season with the Ravens as he was fired at the end of the year. Newsome had a difficult decision on his hands; many of the Ravens defensive players were hoping that Rex Ryan, then the defensive coordinator, would be elevated to head coach.
Newsome went in a different direction, hiring a lesser known coach who wasn’t even a coordinator in the NFL, but had a stellar reputation and a football pedigree. John Harbaugh is the son of Jack Harbaugh, who coached 41 years at Western Kentucky in Division 1-AA. His brother Jim, now famously know as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers and prior to that the Stanford Cardinals was the better known brother. Jim, like Tom Brady, was a star quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines and played 14 years in the NFL, including an AFC Championship game appearance with the Colts before beginning a second career in coaching. Despite being a dark horse candidate, John blew away Newsome and Owner Steve Bisciotti in the interview and shortly after was named the second coach in Ravens franchise history.
In many ways 2008, was a rebuilding year for the New England Patriots, except at the time no one in New England had realized it yet. Patriot Nation was still stunned by the heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. It was a chance for a perfect season that the Patriots let slip through their fingers, literally! From Asante Samuel’s near interception to Jarvis Green’s failed grasp of Eli Manning to Rodney Harrison’s inability to jar the ball out of the facemask of David Tyree. Most of New England fans and media realized that the opportunity for a perfect season was gone probably forever, but there was still overwhelming faith in a 2008 Patriot Super Bowl Championship. The Patriots were essentially returning the same high powered offense from the previous season and were almost even money in Las Vegas to be playing in the Super Bowl. All those plans collapsed along with Tom Brady’s knee early in the first quarter of the first game when Safety Bernard Pollard, now ironically a Raven, dove on Tom Brady’s knee.
The Ravens, meanwhile, had a terrific season under Harbaugh in his first year. The Ravens went to the AFC Championship game on the strength of their consistent defense led by Newsome’s former first round draft picks turned All-Pro veterans, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis. Earlier in the 2008 draft, Newsome acquired two key components in his makeover. Quarterback Joe Flacco was drafted 18th overall from Division 1-AA Delaware University. Then, the steal of the 2008 draft, Ray Rice, was taken late in the second round after a trade with Seattle. Flacco’s rookie year was one of his best as he helped guide the Ravens to the AFC Championship. There it ended badly for Flacco as he threw three interceptions against the eventual Super Bowl XLIII Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. It seemed like it would be the first of many trips to the AFC title game for Flacco and the Ravens, but the last 3 years they have fallen just short.
The Patriots managed an impressive 11-5 season without Brady in 2008, but did not qualify for the playoffs after finishing second to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East.
The 2009 season was chaotic for both teams. The Patriots with Tom Brady back at quarterback were once again favorites in the AFC. However, the results did not come close to the expectations. The offense and defense struggled all season. There were key departures on defense: the Patriots traded Richard Seymour to Oakland for a future first round pick and Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired to TV careers. There was also a bad locker room environment fueled by disgruntled veterans Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss and Shawn Springs. There were also injuries, as Tom Brady probably played the last 3 weeks with broken ribs (we’ll never know for sure), Vince Wilfolk was battling leg injuries and Wes Welker tore his ACL in the final regular season game. The Patriots managed a 10-6 regular season record including a early-season win against the Ravens, 27-21, in Foxboro. The record was mostly a façade; the Patriots were only 2-6 on the road and could not put together consistent football against some of the league’s top teams.
The Ravens started 2009 strong at 3-0 behind Joe Flacco, who seemed to be taking that second season step forward that great quarterbacks do. They then struggled mightily in the middle of the season, going 3-6, before winning three of their last four regular season games to secure a wild card with a 9-7 record. Flacco regressed as the season went on and the Ravens came into Foxboro as underdogs. The game was over before it started. Ray Rice ran 83 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Tom Brady had his worst playoff game as a pro, getting strip sacked and throwing two interceptions in the first quarter that led to 17 Ravens points. The game was never close and despite only 10 passes and 34 yards from Flacco, the Ravens won easily 33-14. The Ravens lost the next week in the Divisional round to the eventual AFC Champion Colts 20-3.
While 2009 was an unfulfilled year for the Ravens on the field, it was another successful one for Newsome in the draft room. His first pick at #23 overall was actually acquired a in a trade with the Patriots. The Ravens selected Michael Oher of the “The Blindside” movie fame to play right tackle. He has been a consistent starter on the line for three years. In the 3rd round, Newsome did what Belichick has failed to do since drafting Asante Samuel in 2003: find a quality defensive back in the later rounds. Newsome selected Ladarius Webb (CB) from Nichols State in the third round. Webb will be focused on heavily this week; he is becoming one of the better cover corners in the league.
The Patriots’ draft of 2009 is one of constant debate. From 2006 through 2008, the Belichick drafts produced only one solid starter: linebacker Jerod Mayo. It left the team with significant holes, especially on defense. Belichick went for quantity over quality in 2009 by trading out of the first round. He made the trade with the Ravens, picking up a second pick in the process. The Patriots passed on Clay Matthews, Vontae Davis and Hakeem Nicks, a pass rusher, a cover corner and downfield threat, three elements missing on the 2011 Patriots. Instead, they drafted four players in the second round: Patrick Chung (S), Ron Brace (DT), Darius Butler (CB) and Sebastian Vollmer (RT). Later in the draft they selected Brandon Tate (WR) in the 3rd round, one pick BEFORE Mike Wallace, and got good value with Myron Pryor (DL) and Julian Edelman (WR) in the late rounds. The draft seemed more promising in its first year as Chung, Butler, Vollmer, Pryor and Edelman were all contributors. But this year, Butler and Tate were cut, Pryor was placed on injured reserve early in the season and Chung, Vollmer and Brace have missed significant time battling injuries all year. Chung is finally back playing and is one of the keys for the Patriots on Sunday.
Note: The Patriots did pick up a second round draft pick via trade in this draft. They would later use it to draft Rob Gronkowski a year later, but in my opinion the Patriots could still have found a way to draft Gronkowski if they really wanted him. They had multiple picks in 2010 to do so.
The 2010 draft was a solid draft for Newsome and the Ravens. They missed on highly touted Sergio Kindle (LB), their first pick in the second round, who has yet to recover from microfracture knee surgery. This was a depth draft for the Ravens, DT Terrence Cody, TE’s Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were key contributors to this year’s Ravens. They also acquired superb possession receiver Anquan Boldin from Arizona for a 5th round pick, considered by many to be a steal by Newsome. He has been Flacco’s main target the last two seasons.
The 2010 draft for the Patriots was a home run. Unquestionably one of his strongest drafts in Belichick’s tenure and his best since the departure of Personnel Director Scott Pioli to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots nabbed Devin McCourty (CB), who had a spectacular rookie year with there first pick, but getting Rob Gronkowski in the 2nd round was the steal of the draft. The Patriots also picked up Aaron Hernandez in the 4th round after “character” issues caused him to fall and the Patriots drafted two key role players in and Brandon Spikes (LB) and Brandon Deadrick (DL). The Patriots did miss on Jermaine Cunningham (DE) in the second round. He was supposed to be a pass rushing threat after a spectacular career at Florida and showed initial promise but was a complete bust in 2011, riding the bench until he was eventually placed on injured reserve for the season.
The Divisional Round was heartbreaking for both teams in 2010. The Patriots after going 14-2 during the regular season lost to their hated Division rival the New York Jets 28-21 just over a month after blowing them off the same field 45-3. It wasn’t the worst playoff loss of the Belichick/Brady era but perhaps the most embarrassing. The Jets came in talking and yapping and they left doing the same.
The Ravens had a similar meltdown on the road in Pittsburgh against their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They squandered a 21-7 half time lead with a series of second half turnovers. Flacco struggled throwing a key interception and then later fumbled. A defensive assignment was missed late, leading to the game-winning touchdown for the Steelers.
So that brings us to 2011, a backwards season that featured a lockout, then the draft, then more lockout, and finally free agency. Newsome continued to draft strong early in the draft, grabbing a couple of Smiths in the first two rounds. Jimmy Smith, a CB from Colorado, started slow but has played well in the second half of the season and Torrey Smith, a WR from Maryland, has been the deep threat that Newsome has been looking for to pair with Flacco for there years. Newsome also filled in with veterans such as Ricky Williams (RB), Bryant McKinnie (OL), Lee Evans (WR), Andre Gurode (OL) and the infamous Bernard Pollard (S).
The Patriots, unsure at that time of the contract status of Matt Light, went safe and took Nate Solder at left tackle with the 17th overall pick. They then traded their second first round pick to New Orleans for a first round pick in 2012 and New Orleans’ second round pick in the 2011 draft. It was a draft loaded with defensive lineman and pass rushers. Belichick made mention that it was one of the deepest defensive drafts in recent years prior to the draft.
The Patriots chose not to move up for the likes of JJ Watt (#11 overall) or Ryan Kerrigan (#16 overall), nor did they use any of their second round picks on pass rushers like Jabaal Sheard (#37 overall) or Brooks Reed (#42 overall). All four had spectacular rookie years in 2011. Belichick instead went with Ras-I Dowling (#32 overall), a big, physical corner out of Virginia. Dowling was hurt most of his senior year in college and pretty much all of his rookie season. He ended up on the injured reserve list by the halfway point of the season. Their next three picks were all offensive players, somewhat surprising considering some of the defensive holes on the team. Third round pick Stevan Ridley seemed to be making his move into the starting running back position, but fumbling for the second straight game has put his playing time in jeopardy this coming week. Shane Vereen, the pick acquired from the Saints, was a non-factor this season and Ryan Mallet is still a project.
In free agency, the Patriots had some spectacular hits in Brian Waters at RG and Andre Carter at DE before Carter went down with an injury. Those hits were offset by some spectacular misses as Albert Haynesworth proved all his critics right and mailed it in with the Patriots before being released. Chad Ochocinco (WR) has never really gotten on the same page as Tom Brady.
Solder, though, has been amazing for the Patriots this season. He has played up and down the line because of injuries to Vollmer, Connolly and Light. But still Belichick has been criticized (by me as well) for not drafting an impact defensive lineman/pass rusher. If the Patriots defense fails Sunday, that criticism muted right now, will surely return.
So there you have it, the two architects, Bill Belchick and Ozzie Newsome once on the same team are now facing off for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI. It’s the AFC East Champion New England Patriots 13-3 versus the AFC North Champion Baltimore Ravens 12-4. Scott Pioli and Brian Billick are gone, replaced by Nick Caserio and John Harbaugh. There is no Rex Ryan or Romeo Crennell now, as they are now head coaches in New York and Kansas City.
There still remains five future Hall of Famers who probably will play a prominent roles in deciding who advances to Indianapolis. Can future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and the Patriots high powered offense prevail against the Ravens stellar defense led by future hall of famers Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs? What role if any will Newsome’s first round quarterback Joe Flacco play in the game? And can Bill Belichick a future hall of fame coach, get his much maligned and talent-challenged defense to put together another great performance?
We’ll all know on Sunday when we see this game that has been four years (or maybe sixteen years) in the making.