Thursday, January 8, 2015

Playoff Preview: Ravens vs. Patriots

The good news: at long last, the wait is over -- the Patriots start their playoff run this Saturday at 4:35pm! The bad news: it’s the worst possible AFC opponent, the Baltimore Ravens. That’s right, the team that beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in 2012, and should have done so in 2011. They are coming to town, and trust me, they do not fear playing in Foxboro (they are 2-1 in the playoffs there).

I’d usually consider insights from the most recent game between the two teams, but it was over a year ago, and it was a 41-7 thrashing by the Patriots. In fact, some guy named Tyrod Taylor got his only NFL playing time late in that game, completing one pass to his team, and one to the Patriots.

But even without that as a springboard, here are my thoughts on how the game will go this Saturday.

1. Healthy at the Right Time

The Patriots enter the game as healthy as they’ve been all season. If tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman play as expected, the team will only be down only two significant players from the start of the year: running back Stevan Ridley, and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Running back LeGarrette Blount was signed to replace Ridley, and the linebacking rotation hasn’t missed a beat without Mayo.

The Ravens used 12 cornerbacks this season, most notably losing starting corner Jimmy Smith mid-season. But all that turnover hasn’t slowed them down lately. They’ve won 5 of their last 7 games and they held Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sub-80.0 quarterback rating just last week. Also, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata returned from suspension for the Pittsburgh game, and he didn’t look like he missed a beat.

2. Baltimore Front-Seven is Better Than the Patriots O-Line

The Patriots offensive line problems have been a recurring theme all year long. And here come the Ravens, sporting stout inside linemen Ngata and Brandon Williams, and fast/strong linemen and linebackers outside, led by linebacker Terrell Suggs. They have exactly the kind of front seven that’s given the Patriots fits over the years -- even back when their offensive line was excellent.

The Ravens’ defensive line advantage was the main reason I thought this was the worst matchup in the AFC for the Patriots. Not only will they likely stuff the Patriots running game, but Tom Brady won’t have much time to throw the ball. However, Baltimore might be missing the one thing they need to make this advantage pay off: corners who can play press-man at the line of scrimmage.

If the Patriots receivers get open quickly, the short passing game could be their salvation. And I don’t think the Ravens have the corners to bump them at the line and then stay with them. The Ravens will likely play bump-and-run; it’s their best chance to win. And if their corners hold up, it could spell doom for the Patriots.

This will be the chess match to watch on Saturday. If the Pats passing game is in gear early it could be a long, cold night for the Ravens.

3. Patriots Second Half Defense

The Ravens trailed at the half in six of their last seven games (and held a slim one-point lead in the other one). It shows resilience to come back in such situations, but it likely won’t go well if they fall behind on Saturday. Because the Patriots second-half defense has been stellar all season long.

As noted here last week, the Pats gave up 24 fourth-quarter points in their two September losses combined (Miami and Kansas City). And they gave up only 38 fourth-quarter points in the other 14 games combined. They’ve also given up just 16 points in the second halves of their last six games combined -- including three second half shutouts!

The Ravens might not panic when they fall behind, but they’d be well-advised not to let the gap get too big against the Patriots. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done a masterful job with halftime adjustments this season, and it is by far his best coaching year so far.

4. Is Flacco the New Joe Cool?

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last five playoff games. Additionally, here are his QB ratings from those five games:

In the playoffs, against the best of the best, Flacco is 10-4 with 21 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. And post-season QB rating is 10% higher than his career rating in the regular season (88.2 vs. 80.1). He might not be elite September through December, but once January rolls around, he elevates his game and doesn’t make mistakes.

5. Josh McDaniels Versus Dean Pees and Steve Spagnuolo

This time of year Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is frequently mentioned as a head coaching candidate. And if he wants to impress potential employers, he could start this Saturday by exorcising some of his past demons.

Current Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees held the same title when his charges shut out McDaniels’ offense in the second half of the AFC Championship Game two years ago. And Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator of the Giants team that derailed the Patriots offense in the almost-perfect 2007 season.

Pees and Spagnuolo outcoached McDaniels in the biggest moments. And both won Super Bowls the seasons they schooled McDaniels on the gridiron.

If McDaniels wants to improve his position in the head-coaching derby, he needs to overcome two men who have stood between him and the ultimate prize. He’s got all his weapons this year, so no excuses. Put up points now and some owner will put up cash next month.

6. Quick Hits

A) The Ravens put their long-snapper, Kevin McDermott, on injured reserve a few weeks ago, replacing him with first-time NFLer Patrick Scales. It hasn’t affected them so far. But the Patriots blocked five kicks this season, so long-snapping could be more important than usual.

B) The Patriots are 8-3 versus Baltimore all time, but 1-2 in the playoffs (all three games in Foxboro).

C) Baltimore went 1-6 against teams that ended 2014 with winning records. The Patriots were 5-3 against teams that ended 2014 with winning records.

D) In 2014, the Patriots and Ravens gave up 7.2 yards per pass completion. But the Patriots were better in QB rating allowed (84.0 to 90.6), completion percentage (59.6 to 62.4), passing yards allowed per game (239.8 to 248.7), and interceptions (16 to 11).

7. Bold Prediction

I hate to say it, but it feels like a 10+ point win by the Patriots. Not because their offense will dominate, but because I don’t see how the Ravens score many points at all. The Pats front seven has been great against the run, neutralizing the Ravens' Justin Forsett. Add corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to equation, and it’s tough to see how Baltimore scores. And no team has yet come up with a way to control Gronkowski, save for double- or triple-teaming him.

The Ravens can win if the Patriots don’t take care of the ball. But without turnovers, the Patriots should win comfortably.

Keep the faith, and enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

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