The 8-6 Baltimore Ravens host the New England Patriots this Sunday, and if they want to maintain control of the sixth playoff seed in the AFC or have a hope of overtaking the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North division, this game is a must-win.
At first glance, the Ravens seem outmatched. Baltimore's offense has scored 30 points just once this season and is averaging a 25th-ranked 21.1 points per game, while the Patriots are sixth in scoring, with an average of 26.4 points per game. The Ravens have been inconsistent in passing the ball and ineffective in running it, while the Patriots are putting up top-12 yardage per game in both areas.
But the Ravens do have an advantage, beyond home-field. There's the not-small matter of the team sweeping the Patriots last season, first in a regular-season contest in Baltimore and then later, in New England, in the AFC Championship game.
Those two wins provide the Ravens with a blueprint for containing the Patriots, particularly in the title game, which they won, 28-13. It's all about getting pressure to New England quarterback Tom Brady while not making mistakes of their own on offense.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady has seen pressure on 204, or 33 percent, of his dropbacks this season. Of those 204 dropbacks, Brady has attempted 166 passes while under pressure, completing only 47 percent and throwing four touchdowns to five interceptions. Rattling Brady early and often and keeping him out of rhythm should be the Baltimore defense's primary goal on Sunday.
While the Ravens didn't sack Brady in the AFC Championship last season, they didn't shy away from bringing pressure, hitting him six times and hurrying him 15 times. However, Brady was better protected last year, having taken only 27 sacks on the season. He's already been sacked 37 times this year, while Baltimore's defense has a total of 38 sacks of their own. Pressure should get to Brady with greater ease this week.
Pressure has an incredible effect on Brady's accuracy. On the season, he has an accuracy rating—which takes out dropped passes, throw aways and spikes—of 72.8 percent. That drops to 58.1 percent when under pressure. Getting to Brady on Sunday will kill Patriots drives, including those that lead to a trip to the red zone.
|Patriots Offense, 2013|
|YPG||Rank||PPG||Rank||RZ Att/G||Rank||RZ TD%||Rank|
Only the Denver Broncos have more red zone-scoring attempts per game than the Patriots, who reach the red zone an average of 4.1 times per contest. However, the Patriots aren't as adept at getting touchdowns from these opportunities, doing so only 55.17 percent of the time on average, and 52.17 percent of the time on the road. That's down considerably from the Patriots' red-zone touchdown percentage last year of 67.50 percent.
Keeping the Patriots from scoring is how to beat them. But it has usually been much more difficult to do that than it has been this year. That's a huge advantage for the Ravens, who have scored touchdowns on just 48.89 percent of their red zone appearances. If they can bring the Patriots down to their level, the odds of a Ravens victory climb.
Should this defensive strategy pan out, then the Ravens must also echo their offensive strategy from the AFC title game as well. The Ravens were balanced in the game, with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing 36 passes with 21 completions for 240 yards and three scores and the team rushing a total of 33 times for 121 yards and a touchdown.
That latter part—running the ball—hasn't come as easily for the Ravens this year, owing both to running back Ray Rice's early season hip flexor injury and having the league's worst run-blocking offensive line. The Ravens are averaging only 82.9 rushing yards per game, three yards per rush, have scored just six rushing touchdowns on the season and have exceeded 100 yards rushing just twice this year.
However, the Patriots defense isn't very good against the run this year, which opens a window for the Ravens to have a good performance on the ground. The Patriots are allowing an average of 132.5 rushing yards per game.
Only the Chicago Bears are giving up more yardage to the run than New England, and the Ravens had their best rushing performance of the year against the Bears, with 174 yards. Clearly, the Ravens know how to capitalize on poor run defenses, despite their overall struggles running the ball.
Considering Flacco's mild MCL sprain that he suffered after taking a helmet to the knee against the Detroit Lions, a more balanced offensive attack this week would be welcomed. The less he has to do, the lower the likelihood he injures the knee further. However, the bell-cow back this week may not be Rice.
Rice is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a quadriceps injury. Even if he plays, he may not be healthy enough to get the majority of the carries. That means Bernard Pierce would be called upon to do the bulk of Baltimore's running, but it's a job he can easily handle.
Pierce has been a bit-player in Baltimore's offense this year, with only 137 carries for 377 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He's averaging a meager 2.8 yards per carry, again owing to the poor run-blocking more than anything he's doing wrong. The one area in which he's less useful than Rice is as a receiver. Pierce has only 16 passing targets and 13 receptions this year, compared to 63 and 49 for Rice.
However, it looks as though Rice will still have involvement in the offense this week, just potentially on a limited basis. And Pierce should be effective regardless of how much playing time he gets, because of that poor Patriots run defense.
Running is necessary because it eats up playing time, keeping Brady and the Patriots offense off the field and the Ravens defense fresh. But it cannot happen if the Ravens find themselves behind early. There needs to be no deferring possession to the second half should they win the coin toss. The Ravens offense needs to get on the field and put up points on their first drive or two.
|AFC Playoff Picture Heading Into Week 16|
|1.||(x) Denver Broncos||11-3|
|2.||New England Patriots||10-4|
|4.||(z) Indianapolis Colts||9-5|
|5.||(x) Kansas City Chiefs||11-3|
|(x): Clinched playoff spot; (z) Clinched division|
Luckily for them, these points could be a bit easier to come by than they generally are for other teams, thanks to their kicker, Justin Tucker, who hasn't missed a field goal in his last 33 tries and who scored all of the Ravens 18 points in their Week 15 defeat of the Lions. Tucker, who has scored 130 of the Ravens' total 296 points this year, could easily give the Ravens the early lead they'll need on Sunday if passing or throwing the football doesn't yield them touchdowns.
The fact is, the Ravens know how to win this game. If they can hold the Patriots to just 13 points, in Foxborough, with the Super Bowl on the line, they should be able to replicate that success at home in order to keep this year's playoff hopes alive. Keep Brady on his heels, balance the offense and score early and the Ravens will remain on track to reach the postseason for the sixth straight year.