Friday, January 18, 2013

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview

For the fourth time in three years, it's Patriots vs. Ravens, and it's sure to be a classic as they fight for a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.  In the last three meetings, the Patriots won twice, 23-20 each time (including an overtime game), and the Ravens scored a thrilling 31-30 comeback victory earlier this season.  Given how close this rivalry is, you might think there's no reason to ask if enough has changed to alter the outcome from last time.  But you'd be wrong :)

Several things changed since the last game, which was only last September.  And those changes will affect how things go, even if the game ends up as close as the other recent games.  Here are the key factors in this weekend's contest, how they will likely impact the game, and what the result is likely to be.

Factor #1: Improved Ravens Offense

Just two weeks ago in my playoff preview, I cited the Ravens desperation on offense.  The team was so frustrated with that side of the ball, they fired their offensive coordinator, replacing him with a man who'd never called a game at the NFL level.  And the results... well, I'll say that a heaping helping of crow goes down nicely with a good root beer!  (Is it strange that it tastes like Raven?)  New OC Jim "the statue" Caldwell has come to life, and reanimated the Baltimore offense.

In the last three "real" games they played, the Ravens averaged 31 points and over 10 yards per pass attempt (excepting week #17, when they rested their starters).  They throw the ball down the field now, attacking vertically rather than their old habit of ball-control running and safe passes.  "Win with defense" is now passe in Baltimore, and quarterback Joe Flacco is playing at a higher level.  Still not elite status, but he is continuing to improve.

The receivers are very complimentary; with Torrey Smith the deep burner, Anquan Boldin the physical outside threat, and tight end Dennis Pitta working the middle of the field.  And though Flacco too often eschews safer short passes for long bombs, he is making better decisions the last few weeks than he has in past playoff runs.

The Ravens offense is now more dangerous than their defense, and the defense is still formidable.

Factor #2: Improved Patriots defense

After an early-season loss to Seattle, I implored the team to put Devin McCourty at safety and keep him there.  Rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner got beaten on the winning touchdown for Seattle, and it was clear that Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung weren't coming back from injuries any time soon.  They needed McCourty's skils and veteran presence to solidify the back end of the defense.

Two weeks later, the Patriots traded for corner Aqib Talib (from Tampa Bay).  What a difference one player can make. Talib allowed the McCourty move to safety, put rookie Alfonzo Dennard to cover the second-best outside receiver, and lastly left Kyle Arrington on slot receivers, which is a better match-up for him.

The turn-around was immediate.  The Patriots gave up nine explosive pass plays (20+ yards) against the Ravens, and after the Seattle game, they ranked dead last in the NFL in that category.  But since Talib came in, they have given up the fewest such plays.  Quite the reversal.

The bad news for the Ravens is that the Patriots defensive improvement works directly against their offensive improvement.  This matchup of newfound-strength-on-newfound-strength will be fascinating to watch on Sunday.

Factor #3:  Trading Speed for Gronk

With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots will depend on speedier players than they would have with Gronk in there.  Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, tight end Aaron Hernandez, slot receiver Wes Welker, and running backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen -- every one of them uses speed or quickness, whereas Gronkowski's game is mostly size and strength.

Not that the team is better off without Gronkowski.  They will especially miss his blocking in the run game, and the double-coverage he drew opened up room for the other receivers.  Also, his chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady is superb, and there is no replacing that, especially in the red zone.  However, they have no choice to play on, and being able to utilize speed against stout Ravens linebackers simply gives them different matchup advantages.

The crucial question is whether or not the receivers can get off the line of scrimmage quickly enough.  Ravens defenders will no doubt try to disrupt the timing of the passing game by hitting receivers within the allowed five-yard zone.  Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to find creative ways to get his receivers off the line: bunch groups, men in motion, and even receivers lined up in the backfield.

If the receivers get into their patterns quickly, their speed will win the day.  If not, the advantage goes to the Ravens.

Factor #4:  Ray Rice Versus Brandon Spikes

On January 10, 2010, Ray Rice took a hand-off on the opening play of the game, and carried it 83 yards for a touchdown.  It was the first strike in an eventual 33-14 playoff rout over the Patriots.  But including the rest of that game, in 3.99 games since then, he's averaged only 3.7 yards a rush, only topped 100 yards once, and has just 2 touchdowns.  The defense hasn't shut down Rice, but they have limited his impact -- even holding him to an average of 3.5 receptions for just 24.5 yards a game, and 0 receiving touchdowns in those games.

The key to slowing down Rice on Sunday will be linebacker Brandon Spikes.  He made huge strides this year in correctly diagnosing plays as either run or pass, and also in breaking up running plays with well-timed blitzes.  He will have to do that exceptionally well on Sunday.  Because if Spikes guesses wrong or blitzes into the wrong hole, or if Rice slides away from him in the backfield, the Patriots will pay dearly for those mistakes.

Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Dont'a Hightower -- along with the outside containment -- will have to hold up well to give the Patriots any chance to slow down the Baltimore running attack.  But to stop Rice, Spikes has to have a big game.

Quick Hits:

A)  Home field simply doesn't hold much advantage in this rivalry.  The games have been so close, it seems almost irrelevant where they are played.  And don't worry about the Ravens, they will not be intimidated by the crowd or the enormity of the situation.

B)  Both teams gave up big kickoff returns last week, but you should expect they will shore things up and do a lot better this Sunday.  The Ravens and the Patriots had terrific kick-coverage teams all season, so last week's performances should be considered aberrations.

C)  In the running game, the Patriots will likely try more outside runs -- pitches, reverses, and screen passes -- because they haven't been successful running inside on Ravens recently.

D)   The start of the game will be big, because the Ravens bring tons of emotion early in games, so the Patriots will have to survive the onslaught.  And the end of the game will be big, because the Patriots offense got much better at closing out games as the season progressed, so the Ravens will have to make a big stop late to get the ball back or preserve a lead.

E)  The current weather forecast calls for mild temperatures and no precipitation.  But it is expected to be windy.  That could cause problems for the Ravens deep strike offense, and also for the Patriots field goal game, given the erratic season by kicker Stephen Gostkowski.


Both teams will run the ball some, whether or not they gain lots of yards.  They have to; the defenses are too good to attack one-dimensionally.  However, the biggest factor in the game is that the Patriots defense has evolved into the kind that will give the Ravens trouble throwing down the field.  And the Ravens are not the type of team that changes things up for one game.  They usually go with what they do well and try to execute better than their opponent.

If the Ravens do alter their game plan and go with the medium-range passing game, the advantage will be theirs.  Attacking the Patriots linebackers through the air is a lot safer and more effective than attacking the revamped secondary.  However, there is little reason to expect the Ravens to make that change.  And at this particular moment, the Patriots secondary should hold an advantage over the Ravens deep passing game (especially if the wind is a factor).  And that makes the Patriots the favorite.

I foresee a game where a team gets one last, critical stop to hold onto a lead, and the outcome of that drive will be the ball game.  And if forced to predict, I'd say the Patriots are the ones who will make the crucial play, and come away with the victory -- let's say 24-20.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-4 & 1-0!

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