While the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens aren't exactly a rivalry, they're pretty close. Just take the last two games they have played against each other as evidence. Last season in the AFC Championship Game, a missed field goal by Billy Cundiff sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl and the Ravens packing.
This season, the Ravens got their revenge by narrowly beating the Patriots in similar dramatic fashion 31-30. Now, the two teams find themselves in the AFC Championship yet again. With a second straight trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Pats will be wise to look back on their regular season loss to the Ravens and figure out how to improve on their mistakes.
Here are a few things the Pats can learn from the regular-season meeting that will help them beat the Ravens this Sunday.
I'm sure many Patriots fans breathed a sigh of relief that we would not be seeing All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship (although beating Manning one more time in the playoffs would have been nice). There is just a fear of a great quarterback picking apart the Patriots' improved, but still not amazing, secondary. Peyton Manning could do that, Joe Flacco apparently couldn't.
Upon further review, though, Flacco did outduel Manning to get to the AFC Championship Game and is no slouch against the Patriots either. In the September meeting, Flacco torched the Pats' secondary to the tune of 382 yards passing and three touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 117.7.
Now, those seem more like the numbers of an elite quarterback to me.
Granted, the Patriots' secondary has improved since with the addition of Aqib Talib, the emergence of Alfonzo "the Fonz" Dennard, the moving of Devin McCourty to safety and getting the likes of Kyle Arrington and Pat Chung as far away from the field as possible.
Still, Joe Flacco is no quarterback to trifle with. This is not Mark Sanchez coming into town.
The Patriots need to be on their A-game in order to stop Flacco and keep him for finding that success against the Pats again.
When you think about the Ravens, you think Ray Lewis dancing out of the tunnel, you think of Haloti Ngata in the middle, Terrell Suggs on the outside and Ed Reed as the quarterback of the secondary. In other words, you think of defense. On September 23rd, though, the Ravens made everyone pay attention to their offense.
With over 500 yards of total offense and nearly eight yards per play, the Ravens could move the ball with relative ease on the Pats. The emotional Torrey Smith, whose brother had just died, played like the secondary wasn't even there, with 127 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, four other Ravens receivers had at least 48 yards receiving and Ray Rice had over 100 yards rushing.
It's hard to win a game when an offense sees production like that.
Now, as I've said before, this is not the same Patriots defense, but it still is the same Ravens offense and a dangerous one at that. The Pats need to lower that total yards number significantly and not allow big games from receivers like Torrey Smith or running back Ray Rice.
Hopefully, the Patriots secondary can see the mistakes they made in coverage and correct them with better schemes and personnel.
Just like the Ravens receivers did to the Patriots defense, the Patriots receivers can do to the Ravens' defense. Yes, Ed Reed is one of the best and smartest in the game, but so is Tom Brady and he has learned to avoid Reed and still find open receivers.
In September, both Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker had over 100 yards receiving on eight or more receptions. Their impressive receiving numbers really kept the Patriots in the game and almost fueled them to victory.
In order for the Patriots' offense to beat the Ravens' defense, Lloyd and Welker need to have similar performances and get help from Aaron Hernandez who was out with injury in September.
Losing Gronkowski is obviously tough for the Patriots offense, but in the regular season, Gronk was held to just two catches for 21 yards. I'm sure Michael Hoomanawanui (that was exhausting to type) can match that performance to keep the Patriots offense on pace while the rest of the receivers can dominate like in the last game.
As much as Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker dominated catching the ball, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead struggled running the ball. They combined for 71 yards and it took them a whole 18 carries to get there, equating to less than three yards per carry.
And these are two players that average four or more yards per carry for the season. With the Ravens' stout front seven, though, the New England backs had little place to go. What's worse is that the Ravens were able to contain the Patriots running game like this without Terrell Suggs on the outside.
In order to avoid another poor showing from their running backs, the Patriots need to find new ways to get the backs the ball rather then just running them into the teeth of Ngata, Lewis and Suggs.
Last game, the Pats had success splitting Shane Vereen out and exploiting the mismatches there. They can also run draws and screens to keep the defense off guard. Whatever they do, they can't be predictable because if they simply try to shove the ball between the tackles, the Ravens will shut that down more often than not, especially if they know it's coming.
It's not impossible to run on this team, just much harder than against a lot of other teams.
Keeping mistakes to a minimum will always be important in a football game, regardless of the teams playing or whether it's the playoffs or not. That being said, against the Ravens, it becomes extra important for the Patriots to take care of the ball.
Consider this: The Patriots played a mistake-free game in September with zero turnovers and they still lost. Now, what chance the Patriots have at winning in the AFC Championship will dwindle with every turnover they commit.
They don't necessarily need to be perfect again, their improvements and better execution on both sides of the ball (particularly defense) will not mandate perfection for a victory. However, I'd still say that more than one turnover by this Patriots team will not bode well on their chances of winning.
If the Pats play mistake-free again, they will win, guaranteed, if they throw one interception or fumble once. I still like their chances, but after that, there are no guarantees. So the Patriots should do everything in their power to hold onto the ball.
As tempting as it may be, Brady needs to avoid forcing the ball through Ed Reed coverage, because the Ravens will make the Patriots pay for every mistake and most likely, that pain will be in the form of losing.
It was no good! It was no good! The ball did not go inside of the hypothetical ever-extending goal posts!
As far as I'm concerned, the Patriots got robbed in that game. No, they did not play well enough to win, but, if not for the last call, they would have left victorious. Perhaps it is better they lost, though. They still have home-field advantage for the game (something they did not have in the regular season) and, perhaps, revenge on their mind.
The Pats were cheated out of a win in September. This Sunday, they will hope to avenge that loss. And they will be given a fair chance to do so with little chance of the refs becoming a big factor in this game.