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This is an obvious one. With Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers eliminated, Tom Brady is unquestionably the best quarterback left in the playoffs. After a regular season that saw Brady break Dan Marino’s yardage record, Brady followed it up with six touchdowns and 363 yards against the Broncos last week.
Joe Flacco on the other hand, was average both in the regular season and in his first playoff game. Flacco threw for 176 yards and two touchdown passes, but his defense was more responsible for the 20 points the Ravens put up than him: on both touchdowns the Ravens got the ball in great field position because of Texans turnovers. This kind of performance was sufficient against a rookie quarterback, but against Tom Brady, Flacco will have to be on top of his game for the Ravens to have a chance.
Ray Rice put together another impressive season, totaling 2,071 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns. Rice is the most dynamic player on the Ravens offense, and any Patriots fan or player who watched the 2009 wild card game knows how explosive he can be. Ricky Williams is an effective change of pace back who was actually more effective running the ball in the Divisional Round. The Patriots run attack is very much multifaceted, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley getting carries each game. Throughout the season Stevan Ridley appeared to be the most effective of the three, which had led many Pats fans to wonder why he isn’t getting more carries. Patriots can run the ball effectively, but they use it more as a change of pace than as way to get consistent yardage.
Yes, Wes Welker had a tremendous season, and no Ravens receiver is as good as him, but on the whole, these two teams are about the same as far as receivers go. The difference is the quarterback play: Tom Brady is much more effective at getting the ball to his wide outs than Flacco is. While Welker is a great receiver, Deion Branch had an underwhelming season with just over 700 yards receiving, and Chad Ochocinco was a non-factor.
Anquan Boldin is sure-handed, physical and runs great routes. He is definitely Flacco’s favorite target. In his rookie year, Torrey Smith emerged as a dangerous deep threat, although he is still a littlie inconsistent catching the ball. Lee Evans did not have much of an impact in the regular season, but he came up with a big catch in the Ravens playoff game, and he still has the speed to burn a defense.
The Ravens actually have a decent tight end combination of their own in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, the two combined for over 900 yards receiving during the regular season, but neither are as great as Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski. After struggling at times during the regular season with dropped passes, Hernandez has exploded in the last four weeks. He has not only caught for 358 yards and three touchdowns, but he has become an effective runner. In a classic out-of-the-box move, Belichick decided to hand the ball to Hernandez during the regular season, leading to his team leading 61-yard rushing performance in the playoffs. But it is Gronkowski who has been the star of the position. After breaking the NFL record for both receiving yards and touchdowns for a tight end in a season, Gronk put up 145 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos. Dickson and Pitta are decent receiving options for Flacco, but Hernandez and Gronk make up the greatest tight end tandem the league has ever seen.
The Ravens rushed for more yardage than the Patriots during the regular season, but that is more due to Ray Rice and the Ravens commitment to the run, than their superior line. What makes the Patriot line better than the Ravens is their pass protection. Though Tom Brady was actually sacked once more than Flacco during the regular season (32 versus 31), the New York Life Protection Index, which factors in number of pass attempts, penalties, quarterback sacks, hurries and pressures, ranks the Patriots 7th during the regular season and the Ravens at 14th. Even more of a difference can be found in the two line’s performances in the division round, where the Patriots did not allow a single sack, while the Ravens allowed 5, despite the Patriots passing the ball more often.
If Andre Carter hadn’t been injured, this one might have gone to the Patriots, but as it is it’s too close to call. First year Patriot Mark Anderson had a successful first year, recording 10 sacks, and Vince Wilfork had another Pro Bowl season. The new defensive line rotation of Gerald Warren, Shaun Ellis, and Kyle Love definitely serves as an upgrade over last year. In the Broncos game Wilfork recorded 1.5 sacks, while Ellis had one.
The Ravens run a 3-4 defense so their lineman have different roles. Terrence Cody is the NT who’s main job is to take up space, which at 349 lbs, he does well. Defensive Ends Cory Redding and Haloti Ngata serve mainly to stop the run, but they can also get to the passer, especially pro bowler Ngata, who commands double teams on every down. It is the play of these linemen that allow the linebackers to get single blocking when rushing the passer, and make plays in the running game.
While linebackers in the 3-4 have different responsibilities from linebackers in the 4-3, the Ravens clearly have the advantage in this category. The Patriot linebackers have struggled greatly this year with the running game, whereas the Ravens have been solid in that department most of the year. Ray Lewis remains one of the leagues best middle linebackers, while Terrell Suggs is one of the premier pass rushers. The Patriot’s best linebacker, Jerod Mayo was slowed by injuries and when playing did not have the impact he did last year.
This category may not be as lopsided as it seems, but the advantage still goes to the Ravens. Patriot corners Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were hurt by poor safety play, and thrown at frequently because the Patriot offense often jumped out to big leads forcing the opposing team to play catch up by throwing the ball. However, McCourty has not been as good this year as he was last year, and Kyle Arrington, despite an ability to get interceptions, can be beaten. On the Ravens side, Lardarius Webb had a breakout third season, emerging as the Ravens top corner, and getting two interceptions in the win over Houston. Cary Williams is a solid number two corner, and Chris Carr and Jimmy Smith play the slot position well.
This is one of the more one sided positions between the two teams. The Ravens boast one of the league’s best safeties in Ed Reed, who had a key interception in his team’s win over Houston last week and should be accounted for on every play. In the other safety spot is Bernard Pollard, who besides earning the distinction as the player who knocked Tom Brady out for the season in 2008, is a hard hitting, playmaker in his own right. The Patriot’s safeties on the other hand have struggled all year, making their corners look worse than they are, and are one of the main reasons the Pats were ranked 31st in the pass during the regular season. They will need to play smart or Torrey Smith could burn them for a big play.