The Ravens and their third-ranked defense square off against the Patriots and their second-ranked offense. For both teams, Sunday represents their biggest challenge of the season.
If Baltimore can get after Tom Brady, hurry him into mistakes and force turnovers, the old-school Cam Cameron offense, led by Ray Rice and Joe Flacco, can put enough points on the board to win. The 2009 Wild Card Game between the two sides proved as much.
The key battle will be waged in the trenches, between the Ravens' front seven and the Patriots' offensive line. Let's look at both units in more detail.
The Ravens' pass-rush
Baltimore finished third in regular season sacks with 48. Terrell Suggs is the key man in the system with 14 sacks, followed by linebacker Paul Kruger and stud defensive lineman Haloti Ngata with 5.5 and five, respectively.
The key to flustering Brady is interior pressure. Over the years he has handled edge-rushers far more easily than direct bull-rushers through the middle. With that in mind, the Ravens hold a distinct advantage through Ngata and Terrence Cody, who are the best pocket-collapsing duo in the league.
However, productivity is on the wane, with three total sacks in the past four games. Sacks are a mercurial statistic as they tend to come in bunches for every team, but with just eight quarterback hits over the four games, pressure of any variety has been hard to come by.
Even if you have Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb—one of the best cover corners in the league this season—back to defend the pass, Brady can dissect any scheme given the time to throw.
The Ravens led the NFL in defensive passer rating with 68.8, but their position was inflated by weak opposition. The Baltimore secondary didn't have to face any elite quarterbacks during the regular season. That means no Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. Not even Eli Manning or Matthew Stafford.
If defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano plans to rely on coverage skills to compete with the Patriots, they won't have to make any hotel reservations in Indianapolis next month.
So, what should be the game-plan against Brady on Sunday?
The blueprint for beating the Patriots is well documented. It requires pressure from a four-man rush. Sending extra heat on blitzes won't work for 60 minutes—it leaves too many holes for Wes Welker to exploit on quick slants.
Suggs, Ngata and Cody. All of these men need to win their one-on-one battles to advance to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots' offensive line
Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots' offensive line coach, deserves credit for building one of the most cohesive lines in the league, despite a number of moving parts.
After the loss of starting center Dan Koppen for the season in Week 1, and the retirement of right guard Stephen Neal in the offseason, the worst was feared. Patriots fans needn't have worried.
A mixture of Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald have snapped the ball to Brady since, and aside from a midseason wobble with interior pressure against the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, the line has barely skipped a beat.
The Patriots gave up 32 sacks over 16 games, tied for 22nd-most, but until injuries robbed the line of Logan Mankins and Matt Light toward the end of the season, they were on pace for a much lower total.
The most recent performance against the Denver Broncos was arguably the most impressive this season, with zero sacks allowed and just two quarterback hits against Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and Robert Ayers.
On Sunday, guards Logan Mankins—who continues to improve after spraining his MCL last month—and Brian Waters are key men in matching up against Ngata. If Brady can step up into the pocket to avoid Suggs off the edges, then the Patriots will dominate the battle of the skies.
Given the form of the past couple of weeks, I'm expecting the Patriots' offensive line to shade the battle with Ngata, Suggs and Cody.
Brady will remain upright often enough to deliver strikes to his main weapons—Welker, Aaron Hernandez and the peerless Rob Gronkowski—carrying New England to a 31-23 victory.
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