Thursday, January 19, 2012

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview

It's finally here, the AFC Championship Game. And for once it's a contest between the two teams that were clearly the best in the conference this season. This one appears to be a battle of the Patriots #3 scoring offense versus the Ravens #3 scoring defense. No doubt that subplot plays big; but to know how this one will go, it's important to understand where the rivalry has been and what's changed over the years.

They met once in the playoffs, but that was two full years ago (and I still think Ravens QB Joe Flacco played hurt in that game). The last time they played each other was October 17, 2010, and the Patriots eked out a 23-20 overtime win. A lot has changed in the 15 months since then; but there are patterns of play and habits of coaching that will surely come into play on Sunday. So here goes...

1. Forget Last Weekend

First of all, use caution in reading too much into the playoff games from last weekend. The Patriots defense looked like world-beaters, but they were up against a bad Broncos offense. Tim Tebow went 1-4 his last five games, and only scored 12.5 points per loss. Remember: the Patriots finished 15th in points allowed for a reason -- they are an average defense.

It's also popular to say the Ravens offense stinks; after all, they scored only 3 points in the last 46-minutes on Sunday, and their average scoring drive for the game covered just 28 yards. But that underestimates the Houston Texans defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed (17.4 points per game).

So forget last weekend's games. The Ravens offense scored a little more than the average given up by Houston. And the Patriots defense gave up a little less than what the Broncos had been scoring in losses. In the end, they'll probably be about what you expect -- average.

2. Gronkowski and Hernandez Have Arrived, and Welker is Back

In the October 17 contest, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were playing in just their sixth NFL games, and receiver Wes Welker was recovering from a terrible knee injury. Gronkowski and Hernandez were still learning the offense and trying to gain the trust of quarterback Tom Brady. And between them, they caught just 5 passes for 85 yards and no touchdowns.

Fast-forward to now, and both tight ends are considered in the top 10 (or even top 5) in the league, with Gronkowski universally praised as the best or second-best tight end in pro football. If both players contribute just an average game this Sunday, they would almost double their production of 15 months ago: 10.5 catches 140 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns.

As for Welker, limited by the effects of his knee injury, he caught 7 passes for 53 yards and no touchdowns in the October 2010 game. However, on Sunday if he turns in just an average game, it would look more like this: 7.6 catches, 98 yards, and 0.5 touchdowns.

So between these three receivers, the stat-lines could look like this:
10/17/2010 (actual): 12 catches, 133 yards, 0 touchdowns
01/22/2012 (proj.): 18 catches, 238 yards, 2 touchdowns.

That would be quite a difference. 

3. Ray Rice's Declining Numbers

The Ravens live by the mantra the Jets tried to co-opt: ground and pound. They control the ball with a punishing ground game, and they have Ray Rice, one of the NFL's best running backs. Those who follow the Patriots remember Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Ravens 33-14 playoff win in Foxboro two years ago.

What doesn't get much attention, however, is that after that run, Rice hasn't done much against the Patriots. In fact, since that carry he has been mediocre at best. Here are his numbers:

Ray Rice versus the Patriots:
- first 12 carries: 186 yards (15.5 yards per carry), 1 touchdown
- last 49 carries: 164 yards (3.4 yards per carry), 1 touchdown

Clearly the Patriots found a way to slow down Rice. He is a cut-back runner with a so-so offensive line; which plays into the Patriots disciplined defensive approach. And overall, the Ravens averaged 2.9 yards a carry (85 carries for 250 yards) since that 83-yard run by Rice.

The Patriots coaches have slowed down Rice, and that should put the game in the quarterback's hands. Unfortunately...

4. Joe Flacco's Improvement

Joe Flacco's has his critics. But he took lessons from his early games against the Patriots and dramatically improved in the game of October 2010. Here are his numbers in three individual games against the Pats: 

Game 1: 27 of 47, 264 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 78.7 QB rating
Game 2: 4 of 10, 34 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 10.0 QB rating
Game 3: 27 of 35, 285 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 119.3 QB rating

Personally, I think Flacco was injured in the second game (the playoff contest in January 2010), so I give him a bit of a pass on that one. And the 119.3 rating in the last game was no fluke -- Flacco was poised and played very well.

The bad news for Flacco is that Derrick Mason, his leading receiver that day, no longer plays for the team. Also, the top three receivers he has aren't really the type that can hurt the Patriots (note: this doesn't include running back Rice -- only wide receivers).

Torrey Smith is a speed receiver, but he's a rookie who had just one catch for nine yards last week. Lee Evans played many years for the Buffalo Bills, and thus has played 13 games against the Patriots; but he has just 1 touchdown in all those games combined. And Anquan Boldin has 4 career catches for 63 yards against New England.

But even though Flacco doesn't have the best weapons in the league, don't expect him to wilt under the pressure this Sunday. The more he's seen of the Patriots defense, the better he's played -- which is not good news for New England fans.

5. Quick Hits

A) In the last four games against the Ravens, the Patriots are 3-1, but were outscored 98-91.

B) The Ravens last four playoff losses all came to the eventual conference champions (trivia question: can you name those teams... answer below).

C) In 16 years of existence, the Ravens franchise has as many losses in the AFC Championship Game as the Patriots franchise has in 52 years -- one loss each.

D) Bill Belichick was fired by the Cleveland Browns in 1996, and the franchise was moved to Baltimore and renamed the Ravens. Since then, Belichick and the Ravens have combined for 19 playoff appearances and 4 Super Bowl Championships. In that same time frame, the Browns made the playoffs once, and lost their only game.

You've probably heard people talking about how the Patriots defense finally came together and played well against Denver. And those same people probably said the Ravens offense looked horrible last weekend -- so they predict a 10- to 14-point blowout victory. I disagree.

If the game is a blowout, it will likely be in the Patriots favor. But the Ravens are very good defensively and usually don't beat themselves offensively. Having three receivers at full strength certainly tilts things toward New England. However, this feels like a 4- or 6-point victory, and it would not shock me if the Ravens pulled the upset.

There are only very good teams left in the playoffs; so every team is vulnerable to a bad day. The Patriots shouldn't lay an egg on Sunday -- the 2009 playoff loss is too fresh in their memories. They should control the ball with the tight ends, and if the Ravens add defensive backs, the Patriots shouldn't be shy about running against a pass-heavy defense.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


Trivia Answer: The Ravens lost to the 2006 Colts, 2008 Steelers, 2009 Colts, and 2010 Steelers.


  1. Love that there is a 1950 yard difference in yards allowed between these two teams in this game, and the team with the larger allowed total is favored by more than a TD. Weird.

  2. It is a strange year, Michael. I hope the pundits are right. Even though I called this as a close game, my gut is telling me that the Patriots will get an early lead and roll.

    Hoping my heart, and not my head, is right in this case.