AFC Championship: Ravens at Patriots, Fact or Fiction
Of the four teams that won during the divisional round this past weekend, the Ravens looked the least impressive in their 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday. Yes, as head coach John Harbaugh said, a win is a win, but Baltimore needs to make some adjustments.
Offensively, the Ravens went seven possessions without a score, converted just four of 16 third down opportunities, and had just 11 first downs. The Texans fell a dozen yards shy of out-gaining the Ravens by 100-net yards.
They allowed two rookies to combine for five sacks, 20 tackles, four for a loss, and five more quarterback hurries. Baltimore's interior linemen, which includes Pro-Bowl guard Marshall Yanda, failed to push the defensive line six inches to two feet on seven different occasions.
Despite forcing rookie quarterback TJ Yates into three costly interceptions, the Ravens allowed Texans running back Arian Foster to become the first ball carrier to gain 100-or more yards during a post season game, a span of 16 games.
The secondary, for all of their success allowed a 100-yard receiver in Andrea Johnson, and while big time players made big time plays when it mattered most, I find it hard to believe that if the Texans had Matt Schaub at quarterback, we are talking about the conference championship game.
It wasn't pretty, but as Terrell Suggs said following the game, "I always say that there's the right way to do things, the wrong way to do things, and then there's just the Ravens way to do things. It wasn't pretty, but hey — we're not really a pretty team."
I don't suspect that head coach John Harbaugh will be offering up any apologies for how the Ravens won just their second playoff game at home in franchise history, but there are certainly some issues that his team needs to address before game time on Sunday.
Because of the team's performance against Houston, odds makers have made the Ravens a deserved seven-and-a-half point underdog. However, and having said all of that, there are reasons for Baltimore’s performance yesterday. The Ravens are 13-4, a final four team, and no fluke.
This week, you will hear the so-called experts and NFL analysts tell you why the Patriots will move onto the Super Bowl. You will hear one or two voices whisper Baltimore as the winner, but for the most part, most will pick New England.
Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take will tell you why Ravens QB Joe Flacco is not worthy, and Steelers lover Merrill Hodge will argue all week against the Ravens on the mother-ship NFL Live. You will see way more articles and slide shows right here on Bleacher Report telling you why Tom Uggarrific (reference to the boots he wears) will decimate Baltimore's defense.
This will be a long week for Ravens fans. They are going to hear a lot of things these experts think are wrong with their team. It’s OK Ravens fans. As you hear them, think of this article, and remember that most of these pundits did not watch Flacco, Suggs and company as closely as we did this year.
Here are five statements you will most assuredly hear about your Baltimore Ravens this week, and whether they are fact, or fiction.
Cam Cameron Is on the Hot Seat
The comments above are from Ravens owner Steven Bisciotti during the end of the year press conference a few days following the Ravens' loss to the Steelers in the divisional round last season. Many thought that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would be fired last year, and the fact that Bisciotti says we like Cam under fire heading into this past season, speaks volumes.
The Ravens expected Joe Flacco to take the proverbial next step, and instead he backslid in almost every major quarterback category. Sunday's performance did not help Cameron's cause for a return to Baltimore if the Ravens do not win or play in the Super Bowl this season.
On several occasions the Ravens threw passes when the obvious play call was to run the football. The first instance occurred early in the contest when Baltimore was facing a second and four for the second time on its third possession of the game.
On the first second and four, Flacco threw a completed pass for 21-yards to Anquan Boldin; this after Ray Rice had just completed a six yard run. Following a second run by Rice for six yards, the Ravens, instead of going back to Rice, threw another pass, this one fell incomplete.
On the next play Flacco was sacked, but luckily not out of kicker Billy Cundiff's field goal range. He drilled a 48-yard line drive to give the Ravens a 10-3 lead.
There were several instances when Rice and Ricky Williams seemed to be establishing the Ravens ground game, only to have the rhythm broken by a bad play call of a pass. Usually on that play, Flacco went deep down the sidelines looking for a receiver.
The Ravens just barely hit the magical number of touches that Rice needs for a Ravens victory. Baltimore is undefeated when Rice has at least 23 combined touches during a game.
The most memorable of these nerve-racking play calls occurred in the later stages of the contest, when the Ravens threw the ball instead of killing the clock.
The Ravens were driving into Texans territory with a four-point lead and about three minutes left on the clock. It was second-and-5 and Baltimore was in field goal range. That’s when Flacco supposedly called an audible and threw two passes.
Both fell incomplete, and took just eight seconds off the clock. Jason LaConfora of the NFL Network quickly tweeted, “Cameron doesn't get it"
It is no coincidence that immediately following the game, head coach John Harbaugh was quick to explain why the passes were thrown. He said Flacco made an audible on each play, and that it was a wise decision.
“From a time management perspective, you would have liked to have run the ball and keep the clock running if you don’t get the first down,” Harbaugh said. “But, those are all out run-blitz situations where our quarterback made a decision to throw the ball there, and it was a good decision because you have one-on-one coverage out there.”
Now while that may be true, it is hard to believe that Cameron, who has been known to keep Flacco under wraps with allowing him to audible, should have emphasized to his fourth-year signal caller the importance of killing the clock. That is poor coaching, or a lack of it, and there is no excuse for it.
These decisions did not cost the Ravens the game, but they have in the past. The fact that nothing has been learned is very disturbing, and it doesn't matter whether it is the franchise QB or the offensive coordinator that hasn't learned, it still boils down to what Cameron did, or did not tell his quarterback.
“If you make the catch and you run for a touchdown, its game over rather than running into an all-out blitz,” Harbaugh went on to say said. “That’s football. That’s the ebb-and-flow of football. That’s what execution is all about.”
It is also game over if you force the Texans to burn their timeouts at that point, and a big reason that the Ravens offense has yet to perform up to potential. It will also be the reason Cameron is fired if the Ravens are not playing in Indianapolis on the first Sunday in February.
Joe Flacco Can't Win a Shootout with Tom Brady
Alex Smith can't win a shootout with Drew Brees, and Eli Manning can't win a shootout with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay either, right? Joe Flacco most certainly can win a shootout, and Sunday's game vs. the Texans will help his cause.
Let's be honest here, the Ravens quarterback is not Brees or Rodgers, he's not even Ben Roethlisberger, just yet, but he can make every throw that those quarterbacks can make and then some. He has a strong arm; that’s never been the question. It's his decision-making process and poor footwork that critics point out.
There may be some explanation as to why Flacco's numbers dropped considerably this season. He did face eight top 10 defenses this season, and while Flacco didn’t exactly tear those teams apart, he was 10-2 against them. He beat the Steelers (1), Texans (2), Bengals (7) and Browns (10) twice, and took down the 49ers (4) and Jets (5) once each.
You could say he faced nine top 10 defenses this season because the Ravens finished third and Flacco practices against them every day. When Flacco was under the bright lights this season and needed to perform, only once did he falter. That was to San Diego in December, and the Chargers beat everybody at home in December and January.
When Baltimore needed him to drive the team 92 yards to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, he did. When the Ravens needed a big first down in divisional games vs. the Bengals on both occasions, he delivered. Flacco was 7-0 vs. teams that had a winning record this season, while his counterpart in New England was 1-2, and that includes the Patriots' win over Denver on Saturday, who barely had a winning record at 9-8 entering the game.
Tom Brady faced four top 10 defenses and was 3-1, with his only loss coming in Pittsburgh. While many experts are saying Tom Brady is no TJ Yates, it’s equally as fair to say the Pats 31st ranked historically bad “D” is not the Texans or Steelers either, which by the way, Flacco was 4-0 against this season.
The Patriots' secondary allowed 293.9 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks, and along with the Green Bay Packers, are now the only two teams to allow over 4,700 passing yards in a season. Opposing passers threw for 300 or more yards on 11 occasions and twice during those contests hit the 400-yard plateau.
Is Flacco and the Ravens offense frustrated? Sure they are, they know what they want to be, and know they have the talent to be explosive. Sometimes it just takes a bad defense to get well, and it is possible the Patriots could be that one. After facing the tough as nails Texans D, this Sunday may seem easy to Flacco. Especially when you consider that he will have had another week to get his rhythm back with WR Anquan Boldin, who missed time with a knee injury at the end of the season.
Hopefully the tougher schedule and having faced tougher defenses, like the Texans this past Sunday will help Flacco in Foxborough this week. It will help that Flacco is 4-3 lifetime in the playoffs on the road.
Flacco’s 44 regular season wins are the most by a QB in his first four seasons in NFL history. Including the playoffs, he has posted an NFL-record 48 total wins in his first four seasons.
The Ravens didn’t need Joe Cool when they beat the Pats 33-14 there two seasons ago during the Wild Card round. Flacco threw for just 34 yards, but they will need him this time, and he will have his shots to beat up on the Pats' secondary. Let’s hope he takes them and is successful in the process. If he is, then the Ravens will more than likely be AFC Champions.
The Ravens Won't Be Able to Stop Brady to Gronkowski, and Hernandez
Who has stopped Tom Brady from finding his two prized tight ends this season? Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined to catch 169 passes-for 2,237 yards, and 25 total touchdowns. To think that the Ravens will have some magical formula is absurd.
Gronkowski is a freak of an athlete. He is 6-foot-6 and 265-pounds, and at 22-years-old, is already playing at a level that has people talking about his bust in Canton, Ohio.
He is one of six tight ends in NFL history to have 90 catches in a season and finished the 2011 season with 1,327 receiving yards, surpassing San Diego‘s Kellen Winslow‘s 1980 record of 1,290 receiving yards for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end.
New Orleans‘ Jimmy Graham also broke Winslow‘s old record, but finished with 1,310 receiving yards, 17 shy of Gronkowski‘s new record.
Not only did he break the record for the most receiving yards in a season by a tight end, but he destroyed the touchdown record with 17 receiving touchdowns this season. He tied the mark of 13 set by the Chargers Antonio Gates in 2004, and matched by the 49ers Vernon Davis in 2009, by game No.12 vs. Indianapolis. He also added a one yard rushing TD, moving his total to 18 for the year.
The Ravens don't need to stop "Gronk" or Hernandez, they just need to contain them at the right times and limit their damage. If you watch closely the video that accompanies this slide, you will notice that 13 of the big tight end's touchdowns come from between the 25 and 30-yard line of the Pats opposition.
No team in the NFL was better in the red zone than the Ravens. Baltimore held opponents to a TD percentage of 38.1 percent this season. The Ravens are great at taking away a quick passing window on a short field, and that is how the Brady to Gronkowski magic works.
I'm not saying the Ravens need to allow the Patriots into the red zone on every possession, but it highly likely the Patriots will at some point be there. When they are, Brady is looking "Gronk's" way.
The player that could make the biggest impact this week is safety Bernard Pollard. One of the hardest hitters on Baltimore's defense, Pollard will need to launch his 6-foot-2 225 pound frame into Gronkowski a few times. Now even though Pollard is giving up 40 pounds and four inches, he will need to try and send a message to the big guy that this won't be an easy day.
Ravens linebackers need to follow suite, and make Gronkowski pay for every time he breaks off the line of scrimmage heading out for a pass pattern. The Ravens need to flip the script on Bill Belichick, and do what he did to the greatest show on turf's trio of receivers back in Super Bowl XXXVI, hit the tight end duo every chance they get before the five yards are up.
The Ravens lost the Ray Rice vs. Arian Foster rushing battle this past week in terms of yardage, but made the right adjustments and held Foster to just 37-second half yards. The limited his effectiveness when it mattered most, and they can do the same to Brady and Gronkowski
It's amazing to think that Gronkowski may have been a Raven. If you remember, it was thought that the Ravens were going to select their second tight end in franchise history from the state of Arizona during the 2010 draft.
It was the second round of the NFL draft, pick 42 overall, and it appeared that the Oakland raiders were going to miss their draft pick. In fact NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was saying that at the podium, and then announced the Baltimore Ravens were on the clock.
Right then, Ravens personnel assistant Ian Cunningham ran forward to deliver the Ravens pick, but then Goodell came back to announce that the New England Patriots were on the clock after acquiring the pick from the Raiders. The Patriots were supposed to pick 44th, right after Baltimore, and took Gronkowski.
The Ravens said they were not going to take Gronkowski but said they would have had an issue if the Patriots had chosen the player Baltimore did select, Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle. It's a crazy world when you consider that the pick the Ravens used on Kindle was the result of trading their first round pick to the Broncos, 25th overall, who selected Tim Tebow.
The Ravens received three picks for the 25th pick and aside from Kindle, who is obviously a bust, got two pretty good tight ends themselves.
With the 70th pick, the Ravens grabbed tight end Ed Dickson out of Oregon, and in the fourth round, Baltimore chose BYU tight end Dennis Pitta. Dickson and Pitta combined for 1,033 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. Although not "Gronk" and Hernandez like, both more than adequately replaced the departed and loved Todd Heap.
The Ravens Defense Must Get Pressure on Tom Brady to Have a Chance to Win
Nothing could be truer than that statement. After finishing with a franchise-low 27 sacks last season, the Ravens turned it up a notch this season under the aggressive approach of defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
Baltimore finished tied for second with the NY Giants with 48 sacks this season, two behind the Philadelphia Eagles, and Minnesota Vikings. On Sunday vs. a rookie third string quarterback, the Ravens mounted no pressure, recorded no sacks, as Haloti Ngata registered the only official quarterback hurry.
If that happens on Sunday in Foxborough, the season will end, and it could end badly.
The last team to win in New England was the New York Giants back on Nov. 6, the same day the Ravens won in Pittsburgh. It is a game the Ravens need to study closely. They intercepted Brady twice, forced a fumble, sacked him two more times, but pressured him all day. The G-Men held the Pats scoreless in the first half.
Tom Brady is a student of the game, and he will be prepared for the Ravens defense. He already faces a defense very similar to the Ravens twice a year when he plays the New York Jets, and Rex Ryan’s very similar and aggressive scheme.
As everyone knows, Ryan was the defensive coach in Baltimore for 10 seasons, four of them as defensive coordinator, and has had success versus Brady in the past. Maybe not this season, but prior to the Pats blow out over Denver on Saturday, New England had dropped its previous three post season games dating back to their loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
It is no coincidence that the other two losses came to the Ravens, and last season the Jets, both in New England. During those three losses, Brady was sacked a total of 13 times, and turned the ball over a combined seven times. The former Michigan quarterback doesn't handle a consistent pass rush well, and during the wild card loss to the Ravens two years back could be seen losing his composure.
The Ravens forced Brady into four turnovers, as he tossed three interceptions, and lost the ball when Terrell Suggs sacked him and forced the fumble. Speaking of Suggs, a recent graduate of his self-proclaimed Ball So Hard University, he must have a better game than he did on Sunday vs. Houston.
Suggs does not like Brady, and the feeling is mutual. The five-time Pro Bowler recorded three-3-sack games in 2011, and finished with a career-high14 sacks this season. He is a top candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year award.
Suggs also forced an NFL-high seven fumbles, setting a career high and a Ravens’ single season record. T-Sizzle's 14 sacks in 2011 ranked third in Ravens history and first in the AFC (also tying Aldon Smith for fifth in the NFL). He also became the Ravens' all-time leader in quarterback take downs as he surpassed Peter Boulware's 70 career sacks with a three sack performance vs. the Steelers in the Ravens' 35-7 opening day win.
Suggs success is important to the Ravens success. He has racked up 30 sacks since 2010, as span of 34 games, including the playoffs, which is fourth most during that time. During Baltimore’s last 18 games (dating back to 2010 playoffs), Suggs has posted 19 sacks, and the Ravens are 50-17 all time when he records a sack.
If he gets to Tommy terrific twice, then the Ravens are almost guaranteed a trip to Indianapolis. Baltimore is 13-1 when he tallies two or more sacks during his career. Brady and his third best passer rating of 105.6 were sacked 32 times this season, one more time than Joe Flacco. That ranks in the top half of the league, so the Ravens can get to him.
The sparring between the two is sure to start some time this week, and their feud began during New England's comeback overtime victory over Baltimore in October 2010 (15 months ago). It had been brewing for some time, as many Ravens, including Suggs and Ray Lewis, complained that Brady campaigns for flags after getting hit.
Brady got a call that the Ravens feel help cost them the October 2010 game in New England.
During the October 2010 game, Brady and Suggs were seen yapping at each other following one such play. After that loss, Suggs said that Brady “made some plays . . . But like I said, he just better hope he don’t see us again.”
Asked about what was being discussed between him and Brady, he said at the time, "He was trying to tell me how to bag a Hollywood actress. He said, 'If you want to get a Hollywood actress, take my seminar on Saturday.' ...He was going over the Dow and the economy and politics. He doesn't really talk football that much."
Brady did not find as much humor in the exchange, and said, "“Well, he had his chance so maybe if he gets another chance he can try to back those words up," Brady said. “We play those guys a lot and they’ve only beat us once . . . they talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.”
Never one to let someone get the last word, last January on Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Radio, Suggs called Brady’s three championships “questionable." When asked by host Steve Phillips to elaborate Suggs responded, “Oh, you know, you’ve got the tuck rule incident and then you’ve got the videotaping of the other team’s practices. It’s just like, okay, what’s going on here? You know? But, hey, it is what it is. They won the games no matter how you did it. But, um, it’s whatever.”
Brady cannot be allowed to stand in the pocket as TJ Yates did. If Suggs doesn’t get to Brady on Sunday, he could be back on the radio, or fighting with Skip on ESPN’s First Take next week explaining why Brady has a shot to become only the third quarterback, matching Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, to win four Super Bowls as a starting quarterback.
The Patriots Defense Is Better Than Their Numbers
You will hear numerous times throughout the week that the Patriots 31st ranked defense isn't so bad because they don't surrender a lot of points, don’t buy into that, it's simply not true.
The Pats defense is bad, and allowed 342 points (21.4 PPG) this season, which was 15th in the NFL. It was 76 more than the Ravens, and 48 less than their opponent last week, the Denver Broncos.
No team that has ever finished ranked worse than 25th on defense and won the Super Bowl. If you watched the games this past weekend, it appears that the old saying offense sells ticket, and defense wins championships still holds true.
Gone are the offensive minded quarterback driven Saints and Packers, and left to play another day is the third and fourth ranked defenses of the Ravens and 49ers. Yes the Giants, who finished ranked 27th and the Patriots, also remain, but New York used defense to beat the Packers, and the Patriots have yet to play a team with a decent offense.
Experts will say that New England gave up a lot of yards because teams were playing from behind, and throwing the ball to catch up. That was true for the now eliminated Packers defense, but not necessarily in New England.
Just in the last quarter of the season New England allowed 74 points to bad offenses with average or below average NFL quarterbacks. Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo had no trouble gaining yards, but each committed costly turnovers, and they simply could not stop Brady. Miami had the Pats down by 17 and Buffalo jumped up by 21 points before Brady mounted his comebacks.
Many people were impressed with Pats ability to stop Tim Tebow Saturday night after he torched the Steelers. Really people, did you happen to catch the state of the Steelers, and how banged up they were. Not to mention that the Broncos offense ranked 23rd overall.
Yes, they were No.1 in rushing offense, but that was their offense, as Denver ranked 31st in passing offense. Many were clamoring over the Broncos defense late in the season, but Brady’s six touchdowns were no surprise when you consider that Denver ranked 24th vs. the pass and 20th overall on defense.
The Ravens must stay patient, and accept those yards the Pats defense is allowing. If they are chewing up chunks of yards and clock, Brady isn’t. Flacco is better than Tebow, and there is a reason that Willis McGahee was in Foxborough last Saturday night and not this Sunday with his old team.
New England is 2-5 all time in the post season when they allow a 100-yard rusher, and in three career games against the Patriots, Ray Rice has 61 carries for 350 yards and two touchdowns. The Ravens are 1-2 in those contests. One of those touchdowns and 80 of those yards came on the first play of the 2009 wildcard game as Rice set the tone breaking through the Patriots line and scoring.
New England played a soft schedule this season as their opponents combined record this season was 115-141 (.449). The Patriots played in a division in which they were the only team that finished better than 8-8. Consequently, the Ravens played in the NFL’s toughest division that possessed three playoff teams.
I say that to point out that the Pats “D” was historically bad against a below average strength of schedule. New England was third in the NFL with a plus-17 turnover differential, and tied for second with 23 interceptions, eight behind league leading Green Bay. Do you see a trend here?
The two teams that surrendered the most passing yards in NFL history were first and second in interceptions. However, they were tied with the Ravens in recovering 11 fumbles this season.
Playing a little devil’s advocate I offer up this stat. During the past 12 seasons, the Patriots defense has always ranked higher in fewest points allowed than in yards allowed except for 2007 when both ranked fourth. They also won three Super Bowl titles during that span, but this is a New England Team that doesn’t have players such as Teddy Bruschui, and Rodney Harrison on defense.
The Ravens will still need to score at least 25-points to win this game, a feat which they accomplished seven times this season versus defenses all ranked higher than the Patriots. That is the good news. The bad news is, the Ravens haven scored more than 24-points since scoring 31 back on November 20.
Nobody said this would be easy, and there is nothing fictitious about the Ravens beating New England two straight times at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs. In fact, if Baltimore plays their game, it will be a fact that the Ravens become AFC Champions.