AFC Wild Card Preview: No. 6 Baltimore Ravens Vs. No. 3 New England Patriots
The playoffs are finally here and the post season kicks off this weekend with four wild card matchups. All four of the wild card games are rematches from the regular season, with three of the four being rematches from last week.
In my opinion, the most intriguing wild card game is between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.
These two teams were involved in a highly contested matchup earlier in the season, with New England coming out victorious in the end by a score of 27-21. The game came down to the final minutes with the Ravens needing to convert a fourth down inside the red zone, but Baltimore could not convert and turned the ball over on downs essentially handing the victory over to New England.
The Ravens will look for redemption against the Patriots on Sunday while New England tries to defend their home field advantage and move forward in the post season. If the Ravens would happen to come out of Sunday’s game victorious they would end up facing the Indianapolis Colts, but if the Patriots end up winning on Sunday, they would move on to face the very hot San Diego Chargers.
With Indianapolis losing their final two games of the regular season, the Chargers are now the team that no one wants to face.
San Diego ended the regular season with an eleven game win streak and looks to be the clear cut favorite in representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Indianapolis has hurt their chances severely by resting their starters and ending their season on a two game losing streak.
Both the Colts and the Chargers are great teams but if I had the choice, I would not want to play the Chargers right now because they seem to have the strongest team entering the post season.
Before looking forward and focusing on the Colts and Chargers, teams must focus on the task at hand and concentrate on winning their games this weekend. The Ravens earned a spot in the playoffs with a victory over Oakland on Sunday by a score of 21-13. The Patriots, on the other hand, enter the post season with a loss under their belts in more ways than one.
New England lost their season finale to the Houston Texans by a score of 34-27, after blowing a 14 point lead in the fourth quarter. The Patriots also lost their main weapon on offense in Sunday’s game, as Wes Welker suffered a season ending knee injury during the first quarter, severely hurting New England’s post season hopes.
The Patriots future Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, is also not at full health as he has been playing with three broken ribs the past few weeks.
The Ravens also have some injury questions but not nearly as many as the Patriots injuries are concerned. Ed Reed, one of Baltimore’s best defensive players, has been hurt for the past month or so, but did play against Oakland on Sunday. Reed should be good to go against New England this Sunday and will try to help the Ravens defense slow down the Patriots' high powered offense.
Baltimore finished the regular season with a record of 9-7 and finished second in the AFC North, one game behind the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens are led by second year quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 3,613 yards this season. Flacco also has a completion percentage of 63.1 and has thrown for 21 touchdowns with just 12 interceptions during the regular season.
The Ravens have mostly been known for their shut down defense, but they also have a dynamic rushing and aerial attack. The Baltimore running game is a two headed monster led by Ray Rice who has accumulated 1,339 yards with seven touchdowns and Willis McGahee who has rushed for 544 yards with 12 touchdowns on the year. McGahee had a career day on Sunday, accounting for all three Ravens touchdowns against Oakland.
The other main threat of the Ravens offense lies in their passing game, where Ray Rice leads all receivers with 78 receptions for 702 yards with a touchdown. Derrick Mason is second on the team with 73 receptions for 1,028 yards and 7 touchdowns with Todd Heap also doing his fair share with 53 receptions for 593 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The defense of the Ravens is no longer as strong as it once was, but it is still one of the best in the league.
Baltimore’s defense is led by veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed but many others have also contributed in keeping the defense elite. Trevor Pryce leads the team in sacks with 6.5, with Jarret Johnson close behind with six sacks. Dawan Landry and Domonique Foxworth lead the team in interceptions with four, while Ed Reed sits just behind them with three interceptions.
The Ravens have made it back to the playoffs for the second straight season under John Harbaugh and look to go one step further then last year. Baltimore made it to the AFC Championship game last season against their rivals from Pittsburgh. The Ravens lost that game by a score of 23-14 to the Steelers and had to watch the Super Bowl from home.
The Ravens opponents in Sunday’s wild card matchup did not even make the post season last year, as New England was without quarterback Tom Brady for the entire season. Brady’s replacement, Matt Cassel, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record which tied for the division lead, but Miami won the division because they held the tie breaker over New England. Miami actually went on to face Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs but lost by a score of 27-9.
The Patriots won the AFC East by a game over the New York Jets with a 10-6 record. New England is led by quarterback Tom Brady who had another 4,000 yard season with 4,398 yards. Brady also has a completion percentage of 65.7 and has thrown 28 touchdowns with just 13 interceptions.
New England is mostly regarded as a passing team and that is probably a good asssessment due to their pro bowl receivers, but the running game of New England is no slouch either this season.
The Patriots have four running backs but their featured back is Laurence Maroney, who has rushed for 757 yards with 9 touchdowns. New England’s running game possesses some heavy hitters in Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and Fred Taylor who is more of the finesse running back.
New England’s main threat is in their passing game, as Brady has two main targets in Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Welker led the team in receptions with 123 accumulating 1,348 yards with four touchdowns while Moss accounted for 83 receptions totaling 1,264 yards with 13 touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriot defense is not as dominant as it once was in previous years but it is still a top ten defense in my opinion. Tully Banta-Cain leads the team in sacks with 9.5, with Mike Wright and Derrick Burgess tied for second with five sacks each. Brandon Meriweather and Leigh Bodden lead the team in interceptions with five apiece, and Darius Butler sits second on the team with three interceptions.
The Patriots defense will have to come up big against Baltimore this weekend if they want to move forward in the playoffs because the offensive production of New England might not be the same as it has been with the injuries sustained to Welker and Brady.
The New England offensive line will have to make sure that they protect Brady because he can not afford to take too many hits with his broken ribs and Welker’s replacement, Julian Edelman, will also have to step up as well. Edelman has caught 37 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown so far this season with his biggest game coming in New England’s finale against Houston where he caught 10 passes for 103 yards.
I believe that this will be the most highly contested wild card game between two teams with high powered offenses.
I do believe that New England will have too much to over come with the injuries sustained to Welker and Brady and I predict that the Ravens will upset the Patriots. However, New England is a very capable team when it is operating on all cylinders and when they are, the Patriots are one of the toughest teams in the NFL to beat.
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