Friday, January 8, 2010

Preview of Patriots vs. Ravens (1/8/2010)

You might have heard that the Baltimore Ravens are coming to town (Sunday at 1:00!), hoping to avenge an early season loss and continue in the playoffs. And of course, the Patriots are hoping to send them home with another loss and make their own playoff run. So who will prevail? And how will the game play out? As is my general mode, I will look closely at the last game they played (link) and determine if enough has changed since then to account for a different outcome. The Patriots won the earlier game 27-21, with the Ravens falling short on a last-minute drive, so they have some ground to make up, albeit not much. Here's how I see it:

1. Flacco will be less flustered

The October game was QB Joe Flacco's first against the Patriots, and he struggled as so many young quarterbacks do when Bill Belichick has enough film to game plan against them. His QB rating was a subpar 78.7, he took two bad sacks and threw an INT. But the advantage that BB has in the first game usually dissipates a bit in the second, so Flacco should post a better game this time around.

That is especially true given that Baltimore's head coach and offensive coordinator both know a lot about quarterback play. That can't help but be an advantage for the Baltimore QB, but Flacco will need to play a completely clean game -- no interceptions or fumbles and hit receivers when they are open -- to win a playoff game on the road. And of course, Pats corners Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler are playing better now than they were then.

2. Brady and company will be less offensive

The Patriots offense didn't really click until two weeks after the Baltimore game, and they have been more productive since. Mind you one of Brady's favorite targets won't play on Sunday (Wes Welker, who is out of the playoffs), but at least they have a serviceable replacement for him (rookie Julian Edelman). However, since that first Baltimore game they found a new O-line starter in Sebastian Vollmer, the running game is stronger, and Brady's timing with is receivers is vastly improved.

And the offense wasn't that bad against the Ravens in October. So if the game isn't a blowout, the offensive balance and improved timing should help the Patriots score more than the 27 points they got in October.

3. Weather or not

The first game was played in beautiful conditions: 64-degrees, sunny with very little wind. This time it will be sunny, but about 40-degrees colder, and the wind is predicted to be about 8 mph, which translates to about 12-to-15 mph in the stadium.

That could mean more dependence on the running game, and that is an advantage for the Ravens. Ray Rice gained 9.4 yards a carry in the first game, but his team fell behind so they had to throw more in the second half, making it difficult to take full advantage of the ground game. But if the weather poses problems this Sunday, the Ravens can line up and run it with the best of them. The Patriots are running the ball better lately, and match the two-headed Baltimore running game (Ray Rice and Willis McGahee) with a four-headed running game of their own (Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk).

But windy weather is probably still an advantage for the Ravens, so watch those weather reports.

4. "It's the play-offs after all" (sing it to the tune of "It's a Small World")

In October, Ravens receivers dropped easy passes, Flacco missed reads and held the ball too long, Ray Lewis missed a tackle that let Tom Brady score on a QB sneak, and the Baltimore defense guessed wrong too often and gave up 27 points. In October, the Patriots offense tightened up in the second half, Brady was stripped of the ball and it was returned for a touchdown, and the kickoff coverage team gave up an ill-timed 38-yard return late in the game.

Now it's the playoffs, and those passes will be harder to catch, the reads tougher to make, defensive guesses riskier, tight offenses more difficult to overcome, turnovers more dangerous, and bad special teams plays more devastating. The Pats have much more playoff experience than the Ravens, with solid offensive and special teams performers (Brady, Faulk, Moss, the O-line, and Gostkowski).

So as the games get later and every mistake is magnified, expect the Ravens to crack a few more times in this game than the Patriots do. It might not make any difference in this game; but it well could.

Quick hits:

A. One thing that hasn't changed is the Ravens penchant for self-destruction. In the last five games, on average they gave up 3 sacks for 19 yards, lost 2 turnovers (1 INT & 1 lost fumble), and committed 6.5 penalties for 67 yards per game. In the playoffs, no team can afford that many turnovers, and the penalties can be killers if they come at the wrong time.

B. Those hoping that Julian Edelman can replace Wes Welker should be warned: Edelman's two best games this year were 8 catches against the Jets and 10 catches against the Texans. The Patriots lost both those times.

C. Two special teams notes. First, the Patriots need a repeat performance from punter Chris Hanson, who averaged 38.3 yards per boot, and more importantly, allowed zero return yards on the day. However, they'd like a bit of improvement from kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who allowed a 38 yard return on his last kickoff of the day -- giving the Ravens too good a chance at a game winning touchdown drive.

D. The Patriots are 8-0 at home this year, undefeated at Gillette Stadium in the post-season, and Tom Brady hasn't lost at home since 2006.

E. The Patriots are 5-0 all time against the Ravens (regular season and playoffs).


So all in all, this game looks like a repeat of the earlier one. The Patriots offense will do better, and so will the Ravens offense. Special teams will likely be a wash, and the Patriots are bringing back their run-stoppers on defense (Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren). Given all that, it should go much like the game in October. Unfortunately for those looking to hear the Patriots get the victory, the earlier game was a six-point win and the Ravens were driving for a winning score near the end.

Should be a close one; but the Patriots have a stellar post-season record at home, have the playoff experience needed for close ballgames, and have never lost to the Ravens. Sounds like a win. But as with every Pats post-season game this year, do *not* bet on it :)

Post-season Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Ravens play with so much emotion that they're always dangerous in a one-and-done scenario. They can't win every week like that; I'm just hoping they don't do it this weekend."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

No comments:

Post a Comment