Ravens vs. Patriots: Grading Position-by-Position Matchups for AFC Championship

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 23:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on September 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

For the second consecutive season, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens for a right to play in the Super Bowl.

Even in the face of New England's 23-20 win last year, Baltimore is a team that—more so than anyone outside of New York—has persistently caused problems for Tom Brady and Co. the past few years.

The Ravens beat New England 31-30 all the way back in Week 3, but the Pats remain heavy favorites nonetheless. Let's take a look at how these two new-age rivals match up at each position:



I don't need to spend too much time on this one, do I?

Fine, maybe a little bit. When Flacco is on, he can actually make a pretty interesting case. Even in defeat, the narrative following last year's AFC Championship included a part about Joe Flacco outplaying Tom Brady. Peter May of The New York Times started his postgame piece by saying:

He outplayed Tom Brady. Even the most ardent Brady supporter would have to acknowledge that on Sunday, Joe Flacco outshone the New England Patriots’ star quarterback.

And he was right. Flacco threw for 306 yards, two touchdowns (which could have been three, and come in a victory, had Lee Evans not dropped a beautiful late-game throw) and only one interception, while Brady had just 239 yards through the air, no TDs and got picked off twice.

But let's not get carried away. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady. Even on the heels of Flacco's recent success, this is an absolute no-brainer.

Advantage: New England


Running Back

The following is a crudely paraphrased version of the essay prompt on my SAT exam:

"Do you think organizations function better when one talented person bears the brunt of the work, or do you think they function better when a small group shares equal responsibility?"

I wrote about the only thing I knew about at the time—sports. My essay was an allusion to the 2007 bowl season, where LSU won the BCS National Championship Game in a game where eight different guys carried the ball. I contrasted that with an earlier game during bowl season 2007, the Liberty Bowl, where record-breaking running back Kevin Smith shouldered the load by himself, and his UCF Golden Knights scored just three points.

Even at the time, however, I knew my logic was flawed. LSU didn't win because it let everybody chip in; it won because it was bigger, faster and more talented, in every facet of the game, than Ohio State. Likewise, Central Florida didn't lose because it relied too heavily on Kevin Smith; it lost because it was playing an SEC defense.

Hopefully you see where I'm going with this. Even at the time, I knew I was writing garbage. I only made that argument because it was rhetorically appealing on the SAT. I'd definitely rather feed the more talented guy all game than spread the wealth equally between lesser persons.

Ray Rice > Patriots' backfield-by-committee.

Advantage: Baltimore


Wide Receiver

This one is pretty tough.

New England has the first- and fourth-best receivers in the game (Welker and Lloyd), Baltimore has Nos. 2 and 4 (Boldin and Smith), and both teams have essentially no good options after that.

If you call the conundrum above a wash, however, we have to dig deep to declare our winner.

Deion Branch has lost a step (or five), but he knows the Pats offense like the back of his hand. That knowledge contrasts wonderfully with Jacoby Jones, a first-year Raven, who's been up and down all season

At the end of the day, though, Jones has speed and potential where Branch is nearing his physical nadir. That gives the Ravens one more legitimate threat than New England, and, in my opinion, the better overall unit.

Advantage: Baltimore


Tight End

With Rob Gronkowski, this is Patriots by a long shot. But without Rob Gronkowski...it's Patriots by a slightly less long shot.

Dennis Pitta has been a revelation of sorts for the Ravens this year, and given the Pats' inability to stop opposing tight ends (Football Outsiders ranks them 29th in the league), he'll be counted on to have a big game on Sunday.

But Aaron Hernandez is in a different league. Both are similar, "route-running over pass-blocking," new-age tight ends, but Hernandez just does it much better. Pitta's got plenty of room for improvement (and time to improve), but right now, this isn't much of a battle.

Advantage: New England


Offensive Line

No need to over-think this one. Let's leave it to pure, unadulterated numbers.

Via Football Outsiders:

Team Adj.Line Rushing Yards NFL Rank Adj. Sack Rate NFL Rank Sacks Allowed
NE 4.43 4 4.5% 5 27
BAL 4.34 6 6.1% 14 38


Both teams excel in run-blocking, which rightfully explains why they're two of the best rushing teams in the league. But New England's offensive line has a distinct advantage in pass protection, where Baltimore has struggled to keep Flacco upright all year.

The Ravens' line has been much better since shifting Michael Oher to right tackle and inserting Bryant McKinnie to protect Flacco's blind side. That makes this battle a pinch closer, but not too close to call.

Advantage: New England


Defensive Line

This one's much less cut and dried. Let's examine the same line stats as last time, only on the defensive side of the ball (h/t Football Outsiders):

Team Adj. Line Rushing Yards NFL Rank Adj. Sack Rate NFL Rank Sacks
NE 3.82 9 6.0% 23 37
BAL 4.33 27 6.9% T-9 37


The Patriots managed to generate just as many sacks (37) as Baltimore, but further analysis reveals that their defensive line was substantially worse against the pass. Against the run, however, New England was much better than the Ravens.

It seems like a wash at first glance, but not when you account for the devastating injuries Baltimore's line has incurred. Whether a guy like Haloti Ngata is back at full-speed is up for debate, but having him should certainly help them improve a little bit.

Advantage: Baltimore



Ray Lewis, despite the tackle total and emotional leadership, has actually been quite bad since returning this postseason. And well, he should be—no normal human being would be playing with torn triceps. Just don't try to sell me on the Ravens linebackers being better because of Ray Ray.

You might have a chance convincing me they're better in spite of Ray Ray, though.

Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe have played fantastic defense this postseason, as has Courtney Upshaw in limited action. Terrell Suggs clearly isn't himself, struggling to rush the passer, but at least he and Lewis have been able to contribute against the run.

If healthy, that quintet would have a chance at competing with the Patriots' trio of Mayo, Spikes and Hightower. That's saying something, too—the Pats have one of the best linebacking corps in the league.

But in present form, I'll take New England in a heartbeat.

Advantage: New England


Defensive Backs

An area of concern for both teams, the secondary—and, by extension, the passing game—could wind up being the game's deciding factor. 

Baltimore has really struggled to replace Lardarius Webb; Cary Williams, one of his replacements, has been one of the worst cornerbacks in football. Ed Reed has lost a considerable step, too, but remains capable of changing any game in an instant.

Although widely believed to struggle against the deep ball, New England has actually improved mightily in that area. Since moving Devin McCourty to safety around midseason, the Pats have actually been pretty good in the deep middle (where he roams).

Here's a breakdown of the Pats defense on passes that went 20-plus yards in the air (h/t Football Outsiders):

Weeks DVOA Passes YDS C% TD INT
1-10 45.2% 59 915 46% 6 7
11-19 -3.1% 40 413 32% 4 5


*Note: The better a defense performs, the lower its DVOA. A positive DVOA is, thus, far worse than a negative DVOA. For a full breakdown of Football Outsiders' signature stat, click here.

What once was a major area of weakness has turned into a minor position of strength. That deep secondary will be put to the test against the Ravens' vertical passing game, but if recent results serve, they could be up for the task.

I love the job Corey Graham has done in Baltimore's slot, but on the whole, I think I like New England's unit better.

Advantage: New England


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