Defense wasn’t the key to a title run in the AFC this season.
Baltimore has fielded one of the best defensive units in the league for the last decade, but this season was an exception. The Ravens finished the regular season No. 17 in total defense, due in large part to injuries at several key positions.
New England fared even worse, ending the regular season ranked No. 25 in total defense and No. 29 against the pass.
It wasn’t defense that got these teams to the conference championship, and it won’t be defense that carries one of them to New Orleans on Feb. 3.
The AFC Championship will feature two impressive offenses that found balance this season with a potent vertical passing game and solid ground game. Football is rarely as simple as running the ball and throwing touchdowns, though.
We’ll take a look at the offensive keys to victory for each team in the AFC title game, starting with Baltimore.
Ravens offensive keys
The misuse of Ray Rice under former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was discussed ad nauseum this season. The Ravens fired Cameron late in the season, and new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has done a much better job of utilizing Baltimore’s best offensive weapon.
Rice rushed for 131 yards last week against Denver, and it was his ability to pick up yards by the handful that allowed Baltimore to open up its vertical passing game with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
The running game not only sets up play-action passing, but it also forces opposing safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage to respect the run and help out in support. Establishing a sound running game forces safeties to play up and creates matchup advantages in the passing game.
Joe Flacco played a terrific game last week, but he also wasn’t asked to do too much. Rice kept the sticks moving and put pressure on Denver’s cornerbacks by keeping its safeties from playing too deep, thus allowing Jones and Smith to slip behind coverage often.
If Baltimore is to beat the Patriots on Sunday, it will need to establish the running game early. In doing so, the Patriots will be forced to respect the run with their safeties. New England’s defensive ends will also have to help more in run support and keep contain without getting too far upfield, effectively expanding Flacco’s pocket on play-action passing.
Flacco was only sacked once last week by a fierce Denver pass rush that led the league in getting after the quarterback this season. It all started with the running game, and that’s where it will both start and end for Baltimore this weekend. The Ravens must run the football effectively.
Patriots offensive keys
Rob Gronkowski re-broke his arm last week against Houston, and Tom Brady will be without his favorite pass-catching weapon this Sunday. The Patriots played several games this season with Gronkowski on the shelf, and they will have a gameplan prepared for his absence.
Brady spread the ball around more with Gronkowski out last weekend. He completed five or more passes to four different receivers, including eight to Wes Welker that went for a total of 131 yards.
With Gronkowski out, the Patriots would be wise to run plenty of multi-receiver sets with Welker and Aaron Hernandez both in the slot and Brandon Lloyd out wide. That trio creates plenty of mismatches in coverage, and after Shane Vereen’s 5 reception, 83 yards and 2 touchdown receiving performance out of the backfield against Houston, Brady’s options in the passing game will be nearly unlimited.
While the running game will still be important for New England, running the football isn't what Brady and the Patriots do best. Baltimore finished the regular season No. 17 in passing defense, and the Ravens allowed 7 yards per pass attempt as well. Airing it out is New England’s best bet.
Lloyd may be the critical piece to New England’s passing game this weekend. After Welker’s big performance last week, Baltimore will be keying on him as Brady’s No. 1 target, and will likely use its safeties to help in covering him. Welker’s short routes and underneath patterns will take pressure off Lloyd on the outside to make big plays downfield.