Patriots vs Ravens: 5 Keys to a New England Victory and AFC Championship Title
The Ravens beat the Houston Texans 20-13 on Sunday in an ugly game at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore benefited from a Jacoby Jones muffed punt in the first quarter, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 7-3 lead, and never looked back.
Brady and the Pats offense have a ton of momentum coming into next weekend's contest after demolishing the Denver Broncos Saturday night, 45-10, while setting a few offensive records along the way.
Baltimore will have their hands full with New England, and will certainly need a better effort from Flacco (who completed just 14 of 27 passes) next week if they intend to keep up with the Pats' offensive attack.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff will need to find a way to slow the Baltimore run-game, led by Ray Rice. The last time these two met in the playoffs, Rice gashed the Pats defense for 159 yards rushing on just 22 carries, including an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
New England is pretty heavily favored in the game (7.5), but they will need to execute in these five areas if they want to come away with a victory as well as a chance at a Super Bowl title in Indianapolis.
5. The New England Patriots Must "Start Fast, Finish Strong"
New England Patriots Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork made it clear (via ESPN Boston) what the Pats wanted to do against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round, "it was just for us to start fast, and finish strong."
He couldn't be more right.
That was the Patriots' motto, and they followed through, scoring just 1:51 seconds into the game, and never looking back. Unlike many contests this season, the defense clamped down from start to finish, allowing just one touchdown (off a rare Tom Brady interception), and a field goal. They even had a goal-line stand when the game was well in hand at the end of the fourth quarter.
If New England wants to control the tempo against the Baltimore Ravens, they will need to do the same this week.
Brady needs to come out firing, and the defense needs to get off the field on third downs. If the Pats can jump out to an early lead, Baltimore's offense will be forced to go away from their running game, and will put the ball in Joe Flacco's hands. That would be a welcomed sight for Patriots fans.
Flacco was barely mediocre this season, throwing for just 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, and finishing with an underwhelming 57 percent completion rate.
4. The New England Patriots Must Win the Turnover Battle
A catalyst for the New England Patriots' turnaround this season was their ability to limit turnovers.
Through eight weeks, the Pats were 5-3, and Tom Brady had a stunning 10 interceptions after throwing only four in the entire 2010 regular season. Since then, Brady has cut the interceptions out of his Sunday routine (he's had just three since), and the Patriots have rattled off nine consecutive wins.
Against a Baltimore Ravens defense that thrives on turnovers, Brady will need to be razor sharp.
Everyone knows about Ed Reed's ball-hawking skills, and his injury status going into this weekend's game bears watching (Reed went down hard on the last play against the Texans).
Whether Reed plays or not, Brady can ill afford to turn the ball over against a team that scores as many defensive touchdowns as Baltimore does. In a Week 4 matchup against the New York Jets, the Ravens scored three defensive touchdowns en route to a 31-17 victory despite Joe Flacco's miserable 10-31 passing performance.
If the Ravens have to keep up with New England without the luxuries of turnovers, there will be a ton of pressure on the Baltimore offense to score every drive. The more pressure on Flacco, the higher chance New England can force some turnovers of its own.
3. Tom Brady Must Find Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
The Baltimore Ravens have a superb defense. Despite all the play-makers they have on that side of the football, however, they have no one on their roster who can keep up with the New England Patriots' dominant tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Baltimore's two best guys in coverage, Ed Reed (5'11") and Lardarius Webb (5'10"), are both far too small to cover Gronk, and would have lots of trouble with Hernandez.
Assuming Webb, the Ravens' best cover-corner, sticks Wes Welker, Gronk and Hernandez will be left roaming free over the middle of the field. Like this past week's game against the Denver Broncos, where the two tight end's combined 14 catches and 200 yards, Gronk and Hernandez should be able to single-handedly (double-handedly?) rip apart the vaunted Baltimore defense.
In the 2009 playoffs, when Brady and the Pats offense was suffocated by the Ravens, Brady's targets consisted of a past-his-prime Randy Moss, and a rookie receiver named Julian Edelman.
Baltimore put the clamps on Brady that day by playing physical at the line of scrimmage, and bumping the receivers out of their routes. Brady was taken out of rhythm, and uncharacteristically threw three interceptions, only 154 yards, and a pathetic 3.7 yards per attempt.
With the two monstrous tight ends, Baltimore will be unable to be that aggressive this time around.
Expect Brady to get more time to throw, and his receivers to gain more separation. If you think Brady is tossing three interceptions and throwing for 150 yards again, you are out of your mind. He has too many weapons this year.
2. The New England Patriots Defense Must Slow Down Might RB Ray Rice
The Baltimore Ravens offense leaves a lot to be desired.
Despite playmakers all over the field, with Torrey Smith as the deep-threat, Anquan Boldin as the possession/go-to receiver, and Ray Rice as the all-purpose back, Baltimore finished just 15th in the NFL in yards per game.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is partially to blame, but so is offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Cameron's play-calling was atrocious in the Divisional round against the Houston Texans, with the Ravens being stopped twice on crucial short yardage situations.
Everyone knows that the Ravens offense succeeds when Rice touches the ball, and Cameron failed to do that a few times this year, costing Baltimore some games.
Focusing the offense around Ray Rice this weekend would be Cameron's best chance at redemption. The New England run defense is susceptible to a strong run-game (see Denver Broncos game, Week 15), and Rice has proven that he can win a game against the Pats all by himself (see Divisional Playoff game, 2009).
With Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung's return this past week, the Pats run defense looked a lot better. They held the league's top run-offense (4.8 yards per carry average in the regular season) to just 3.6 yards per carry on Saturday night. Rob Ninkovich was superb, while Mark Anderson, Kyle Love and Gerard Warren all brought their "A" games.
They are going to need their best effort again this week.
1. The New England Patriots Offensive Line Must Protect Tom Brady
This one is a must. Everyone in the world got to see what happens when Tom Brady gets some time to throw the ball: evisceration.
The Denver Broncos finished without a sack, and TB12 made them pay.
Brady broke the record for most touchdown passes in a half of a postseason game (five), and finished with a postseason record for a game (six). He was on point all night, aside from an interception in the first quarter, and finished with a remarkable 76.5 percent completion rate.
His 363 yards passing were just icing on the cake.
Against a much stronger Baltimore Ravens defense, I don't think anyone is expecting a repeat performance from Brady, but asking a repeat performance from the offensive line is realistic.
Logan Mankins returned (for most of the game), Matt Light was finally healthy, and rookie Nate Solder was terrific in place of the injured Sebastian Vollmer. Dan Connolly and Brian Waters completed the offensive line.
The two matchups to watch this weekend are going to be Mankins and Connolly versus man/beast Haloti Ngata, Baltimore's best down lineman and biggest player, and Matt Light and Nate Solder versus Terrell Suggs, a nominee for Defensive Player of the Year.
Suggs, or T-Sizzle, as he is affectionately called in Baltimore, will be the offensive line's main focus this week. He dominates games in so many different ways, it's imperative that Brady locates him pre-snap, and lets his line know where he is.
If Brady remains upright once again, I can't imagine Baltimore has the offensive fire-power to keep up with New England's aerial attack.
New England 34, Baltimore 24