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For the second consecutive year, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game. Throw out the stats and records for this one. The Patriots may be 9.5-point favorites according to Vegas, but these two teams almost always end up in one-score games, the lone exception in the last six seasons being the Ravens 33-14 victory in the 2009 Divisional Round game. Their matchup in week 3 of this season came down to not only the narrowest possible point margin (31-30, Ravens), but also the narrowest physical margin, as the game-winning field goal sailed almost directly over the right goal post.
Of course, both teams have changed considerably since that game, and even more so since the Patriots beat the Ravens in last year’s AFC Championship game. But fans should expect what they always get out of this modern rivalry: A tough, physical game, that will likely come down to a last-second field goal or goal-line stand. Who ends up making that final play will probably be determined by a few key matchups.
|Record||12-4 (1st in AFCE)||10-6 (1st in AFCN)|
|Points/G||34.8 (1st)||24.9 (10th)|
|Points All./G||20.7 (T-9th)||21.5 (T-12th)|
|Rush Yds/G||136.5 (7th)||118.8 (11th)|
|Rush Yds All./G||101.9 (9th)||122.8 (20th)|
|Pass Yds/G||291.4 (4th)||233.7 (15th)|
|Pass Yds All./G||271.4 (29th)||228.1 (17th)|
|Takeaways||41 (2nd)||25 (T-15th)|
|Giveaways||16 (T-2nd)||16 (T-2nd)|
|TO Diff.||25 (1st)||9 (T-9th)|
Any talk of the Ravens’ defense has to start with Ray Lewis. There’s no doubt the team has been using Lewis’ upcoming retirement to provide an emotional spark, and while his body may not react as quickly as it did five or six years ago, his football intelligence and passion for the game haven’t lessened one bit. He’s the signal caller on defense, and the chess match between he and Tom Brady (likely for the final time) is always a fascinating thing to watch.
Oddly enough though, it is Lewis that the Patriots should be targeting to attack in a large portion of their gameplan. As tough and instinctive as he is, he’s lost just enough of a step that you can take advantage of his pass coverage skills against quicker receivers. Brady should be looking for ways to get him matched up with Shane Vereen, who has both the lateral and vertical quickness to lose the 37-year-old linebacker. Another option would be to split Vereen out wide like they did several times against Houston, keep Aaron Hernandez in tight and force Lewis to cover him in space. Both players should be able to be productive against most linebackers on the Ravens.
The other surefire Hall-of-Famer to watch out for is Ed Reed. Everyone in the league (especially Bill Belichick) has tremendous respect for the All-Pro safety, and for good reason. On top of being great in run support, he’s one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the history of the league, and even at 34 years of age he still covers a lot of ground in the secondary. Between him and the Ravens’ pass rush (which now includes a healthy Terrell Suggs), throwing deep will be extremely difficult for the Patriots on Sunday.
Overall, the Patriots should be looking to use their up-tempo offense early and often. Baltimore is coming off a double overtime game in the thin air of Denver, and their conditioning will be tested against the Patriots’ brand of no-huddle. Their defense of it will likely be similar to last year, where they made minimal post-huddle adjustments and tried to keep everyone lined up in their original assignments. The strategy requires an extremely disciplined and versatile defensive group (which the Ravens have), but it protects against the quick snaps and mismatches that Brady loves to use to grab free yards throughout a game.
During the regular season, the Patriots defense allowed a league-high 74 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Though they’ve improved some in the latter portion of the season, in no small part due to the acquisition of Aqib Talib, it’s safe to say they’re still vulnerable to the deep ball. Unfortunately for them, that’s something Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense does very well. In their OT win against Denver, Flacco threw TD passes of 59 yards, 32 yards, and 70 yards, two of which came against a very good cover corner in Champ Bailey. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones make up one of the fastest WR duos in the league, and the Patriots will have to keep one or both safeties deep just to keep them from scoring in bunches.
The key to holding the Ravens offense down is to eliminate those quick strikes and force them to sustain long drives to score. During the season, they were 20th in the NFL in converting 3rd downs at 36.9%, so if they’re not scoring on big plays they’re generally stalling. To keep that trend going, the Patriots will need to keep an eye on TE’s Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who are both clutch receivers on 3rd down situations. Against Houston, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory drew most of the coverage assignments against Owen Daniels and did a pretty good job on him. They will need to duplicate that effort Sunday to get Baltimore off the field.
The Patriots’ kick coverage teams have, for the most part, been very effective this season. However, against Houston (and some moments in an earlier game against San Francisco), they’ve given up big plays that have turned momentum against them. Jacoby Jones is going to the Pro Bowl this year for his kick return abilities, and the Pats’ special teams is going to need to clean up whatever issues they’re having in a hurry.
Don’t count on a last-second missed field goal to seal a victory this year. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is 30 for 33 on FGs this season, and has already proven the big moment isn’t too big for him with a game-winning 47 yarder in double overtime.
Early reports say it’s going to be windy on Sunday. While no QB likes to throw with wind, Brady’s line drive, short passing game is better suited to thrive in it than Flacco’s lobbing deep balls.
This is going to be the toughest game of the year for Patriots, by far. The Ravens are physical, they’re experienced, and they know what the Patriots can and can’t do as well as anyone in league. It’s going to be close, and not just at the end but from the opening kickoff all throughout. In the end, it’s going to come down to a field goal once again… possibly even less.
Patriots 24, Ravens 23