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Now that we know the Texans will be traveling to Foxboro next Sunday to face the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, let’s take a look at the two remaining Wild Card Round teams in the AFC.
If the winner of Sunday’s Colts-Ravens game beats the Broncos next week, they would be playing an AFC Championship Game in Houston or New England. So, let’s take a look at the other competition:
Why they could beat the Patriots: Of the AFC playoff teams, Baltimore is the only one that has already beat the Patriots this year, 31-30 in week 3. Moreover, the Ravens have given the Pats fits in each of their last two postseason meetings. They ran all over a young Patriots defense in a 33-14 wild-card win in 2009, and they were a field goal away from forcing overtime in last year’s AFC Title Game.
This year they won the AFC North despite firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron last month. Running back Ray Rice (1,143 yards, 9 TDs) will be making his third Pro Bowl appearance, where fullback Vonta Leach and right guard Marshal Yanda will start for the AFC team. The always-fearful defense has produced two Pro Bowlers this year: defensive end Haloti Ngata (51 tackles, 5 sacks) and veteran free safety Ed Reed, still going strong at age 34 with 58 tackles and 4 interceptions this season. Also making the trip to Honolulu will be wide receiver Jacoby Jones, as the AFC’s kick returner.
As far as intangibles go, few things can beat the return of linebacker Ray Lewis, who racked up 57 tackles in just six games before undergoing surgery on his torn triceps after a week 6 win over the Cowboys. If his recovery didn’t provide motivation enough Lewis, who was activated ahead of the playoffs, announced on Wednesday that he will put an end to his Hall of Fame career when the Ravens’ season comes to a close, after 17 years in the NFL.
Why they probably won’t: The Ravens are plagued by some of the same issues as the Texans: they lost four of their last five games and were 2-4 against playoff teams this year. If they face the Patriots, they will find themselves up against a much better team than the one they beat in week 3, the last game with the replacement officials, on a dubious last-second field goal.
But Baltimore has more general problems as well: the firing of Cameron cannot mask the fact that the Ravens have the worst quarterback of all the AFC playoff teams. Joe Flacco‘s numbers don’t lie: 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 87.7 passer rating are not the stats of an elite QB. The team has long relied on the running game, but the truth is that Rice, despite his Pro Bowl selection, had fewer yards this year than five AFC RBs, including the Patriots’ Stevan Ridley.
More worrisome is the state of the defense, long the cornerstone of Baltimore’s success. This year, the Ravens’ D ranked just 17th in yards allowed, nowhere near good enough to stop New England’s high-powered offense. While Lewis’s return will no doubt provide a boost, the Ravens are going to need that boost to be more than just emotional. Saturday’s game against the Colts will go a long way to revealing whether the 37-year-old can contribute in a significant way after nearly three months of inactivity.
Why they could beat the Patriots: The Colts have been the NFL’s feel-good story of the year. After cleaning house following last year’s dismal 2-14 season, which saw the general manager and the head coach fired and longtime quarterback Peyton Manning released, they turned things around in a bigger way than anyone could have imagined, going 11-5 despite being largely coached by OC Bruce Arians while coach Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia.
New QB Andrew Luck set a rookie record with 4,374 passing yards, often teaming up with Manning’s erstwhile favorite target, Reggie Wayne, who had 106 receptions (his fourth season with more than 100) for 1,355 yards and 5 TDs. The defense also got a boost from a veteran, linebacker Robert Mathis, who will be making his fifth Pro Bowl appearance after an eight-sack season which saw him record his first career interception.
Indianapolis had a winning record of 3-2 versus playoff teams and a spectacular collection of comeback wins, showing a grit rarely seen in such young teams. After starting the season 2-3, the Colts won 9 of their last 11 games, and Luck, in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, hasn’t thrown an interception since week 14.
Why they probably won’t: For all of Luck’s heroics, his numbers are far from spectacular: 23 TDs, 18 INTs and a passer rating of just 76.5. Moreover, he has especially struggled on the road, where he has 11 TDs and 13 INTs; four of the Colts’ five losses came away from Lucas Oil Stadium.
The last time they paid a visit to the Patriots, in week 11, the Colts were crushed 59-24, a game in which Luck accounted for four turnovers. Those are the most points the Indianapolis D has given up this year, and in fact they’ve only allowed more than 30 four times. But they ranked 26th in yards allowed, right behind New England, which bodes ill for any team trying to slow Brady. In Foxborough, in January, it’s hard to envision Luck and company upsetting Bill Belichick’s crew.