Sunday 6:30pm (EST) Ravens @ Patriots
In what should shape up as a battle for the ages the Baltimore Ravens with Ray Lewis in his swan song will meet the perennial title contender New England Patriots led by Tom Brady. Conventional wisdom says this will be the closer of the two games but anything can happen (as stated on the other preview the Atlanta/San Fran game will be tighter than many believe). The Ravens are a team known for their defense but their offense is the better unit this time around. The Patriots are a well oiled machine on offense but it is their defense that has actually improved, giving them legitimate title hopes. John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick will have their teams more than ready for this game to decide the AFC.
Tom Brady is seeking entry to his record sixth Super Bowl, when the Ravens come to visit him at Gillete Stadium in Foxboro today. The Patriots keys to the game start on offense where without the "Gronk" the Patriots will have to utilize and exploit the middle of the field with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Shane Vereen/Danny Woodhead. Ray Lewis is not the same in underneath coverage and the Pats should be able to pick on him. Even though his mind is ever keen and willing his body just doesn't seem to be able. Ray Lewis will not be able to stay with the much speedier players he will be tasked to cover.
The weather may be a big factor today in the passing game with winds from 20-30 mph regularly and gusts up to 40 mph. This should not affect Brady as he will probably mostly be going short against the Ravens. When going more than 10 yards in the air against them he has been awful. But Brady will be methodical and look to control the tempo of the game as they ran a league-high 75 offensive plays per game. It will be death by paper cuts if possible.
The Patriots will also try to run the ball to stay balanced against a Ravens team that is 20th against the run (the Patriots were 7th in the NFL in rushing). The stable of Ridley, Woodhead, Vereen and Bolden gives Brady quite a running game and makes the Patriots a much different team than last year. If the Pats can run better than they did against the Ravens in their week 3 loss (34 carries, for 77 yards a paltry 2.3 yard average) they will have a good chance to win. Anything over 110 yards and New England should be in good shape.
On the defensive side, the Pats will try to limit Ray Rice in the run game, while preventing the deep ball from Joe Flacco. Rice is the staple of the Ravens offense and with Jim Caldwell taking over as the offensive coordinator, his workload has increased again. So has the yardage output of Baltimore; the Ravens are averaging 450.8 yards of total offense over the last four games (final two regular season and two playoff games) which is almost 100 yards over their season average. The Pats will need to limit Rice to a good effort and make Flacco work underneath and to the left. It is well known that Flacco throws much better to his right and rolling to his right, and Flacco is not known as consistent commodity. If the Pats can avoid big plays for the Ravens they should be able to pull out a victory.
On the Ravens side, Flacco eats the Patriots alive going for 1,271 yards, nine TDs and four interceptions in five games including a 34-yard effort in which he wasn't asked to do much in Baltimore's 33-14 victory in the 2009 Wild Card round. He is also possibly the hottest player in the NFL, leading the playoffs with a blistering quarterback rating of 120 (and a very respectable QBR of 75.8). If Flacco can continue his success, the Ravens have more than a puncher's chance. In the playoffs on deep throws of over 20 yards Flacco is an unimaginable 8-12 for an average of 27.0 yards per attempt and a TD every four attempts. Wow. No one has the big arm that Flacco has.
With the running game, the Ravens will be feeding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce early and often. If they get over 30 rushing attempts its a good sign for the Ravens; over 35 and they will probably win the game. As well as Flacco is playing and as deceptively good as their receiving weapons are with Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, Ray Rice is still the best player on the offense. If the new look Baltimore line (McKinnie to left tackle, Oher to right tackle) can dominate Vince Wilfork and the large Patriots front seven, expect the Ravens to do well in this game.
The Ravens defense has the tough job of slowing down the 'weapon' that is the Pats offensive juggernaut. Even without Gronk, the Pats have a bevy of weapons at Tom Brady's disposal. The Ravens must be cerebral and effective to have any chance. Should they blitz, Brady will kill them. Should they sit back, Brady will kill them. They will have to disguise everything they do. Paul Kruger will have to get home against Brady as he has clearly been the Ravens best pass rusher. Without a monster effort from the entire defense it will be tough for Baltimore to win. A key will be the effectiveness of Haloti Ngata. If he can dominate the inside, the Ravens can make the Pats one dimensional and slow down the no huddle that New England loves to run. Again, we keep hearing about the Ravens defense but they are not relatively strong against the pass (at a pedestrian 17th) or against the run *with a below average 20th). Ray Lewis may just need to bring a bible with him.
Patriots 34, Ravens 28
Preview stat of the week (from ESPN’s stats and information)
Brady has been great against five or more pass-rushers this season. His 85.6 Total QBR against added pressure ranked second in the league behind Robert Griffin III. On those plays, Brady has thrown for 22 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s been sacked seven times on 195 action plays.