Sunday, January 11, 2015

Patriots Top Ravens in 35-31 Thriller

Bye Bye, Birdie... don't let the elevator door hit you on the way out. The Patriots overcame two 14-point deficits, injuries, incompetence, and seemingly every conceivable bad break to beat the Ravens 35-31 last night. The game puts them in the AFC Championship Game for the fourth straight year (Trivia Question: name the last team to do that, the ironic answer below).

It looked bleak early, as the Ravens scored touchdowns on their first two possessions. But the Patriots switched from zone- to man-coverage and held Baltimore to just 17 points the rest of the way. Meanwhile, the Patriots tossed the running game out and went almost exclusively with the pass. And it paid dividends, with five touchdowns and just enough points to emerge victorious.

Quarterback Tom Brady was bad to start the game. He missed two open receivers on the first drive, and his lone interception came near the end of the half, when he threw into triple coverage (and that INT was turned into 7 points by the Ravens). His final numbers looked good: 33 of 50, 367 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 INT, and a 99.3 QB rating. But the furious comebacks wouldn't have been necessary if he'd been better to start the game.

However, once the team was behind, Brady was masterful at bringing them back. When the Ravens dropped eight players into coverage near the end zone, Brady ran up the middle for the Pats first points of the game. He was masterful, manipulating the formation to get good match-ups and hitting receivers in ridiculously small windows -- including on the game-winning touchdown to Brandon LaFell.

The receiving corps played exceptionally well. LaFell not only had that crucial touchdown, but four of his other five catches resulted in first-downs. Danny Amendola (5 catches, 81 yards, 2 touchdowns) made a great play on his first touchdown, shedding a tackler and diving into the end zone. He also had an absolutely critical third-down conversion on the winning touchdown drive, where he stretched to get to the marker. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had 7 catches for 108 yards, even though he faced double- and triple-teams most of the night.

But Julian Edelman was the receiver of the game. Six of his eight receptions went for first downs, he ended up with 74 yards receiving in the game, battled three Ravens to recover his own fumble, had some nifty punt returns, and threw his first NFL pass for a touchdown on a flea flicker. Unsubstantiated rumors are that he left the Stadium and leaped over a building in a single bound.

Also of note was the way the Patriots spread the ball around. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and running back Shane Vereen had four catches each. That makes six players with four or more catches, distribution not seen around here very often. The team often becomes Edelman and Gronkowski centered. But attacking with more receivers makes the other team work that much harder to stop you, and it most definitely helps in the playoffs.

The running game and the offensive line can be summed up in one word: invisible. The Pats rushed for 14 total yards, -3 yards in the second half (where they had one Brady scramble and three Brady kneel-downs). And in pass "protection," Brady was under constant pressure, and only the switch to short passes made it possible to complete something before he was flushed from the pocket or tackled.

The Ravens possess one of the better front-sevens in the NFL. But you still can't give them free shots at your QB, and you have to be able to do better than 14 yards rushing. The line did have one significant injury: center Bryan Stork went out with a knee problem. Here's hoping he is okay for next week, because the starting five on the line is the only line-up that has any shot of protecting Brady.

(Note: more on the novel four-man O-line later in the coaching section.)

The defensive line didn't get much pressure on Baltimore's quarterback: zero sacks and two QB hits. But they got enough to force a few bad throws, two of which were picked off. They would get a decent grade if they'd been effective against the run, but alas they were not. Chandler Jones lost outside contain a few times, and though Rob Ninkovich kept his outside leverage, the Ravens back cut inside for chunk yardage. On the day, Baltimore had 136 yards on 28 rushes (4.9 per run); nothing to write home about.

The linebackers redefined hot-and-cold. They failed multiple times to pick up running backs in the flat, at least five of those plays going for big yards against seemingly no defenders. However, Jamie Collins was great at making Flacco throw early the few times he blitzed, led the team in tackles (11), and was terrific in pass coverage. And when the Ravens targeted Dont'a Hightower in the passing game, it wasn't perfect, but Hightower got it done about 50-60% of the time.

The secondary held all the intrigue of the night. They started out in zone (reportedly to make it easier to stop the run) and they got torched for two straight touchdowns. Once they switched to man-coverage, the Ravens scored on just 33% of their drives, one of those a field goal and another on a short field after an interception. (Note: that doesn't count the one-play Hail Mary "drive" at the end of the game).

Kyle Arrington was the favorite guy to pick on, going with their third- and fourth-receivers. And he gave up some plays, but nothing huge, and he was great in run support and on special teams. Corner Darrelle Revis gave up three or four completions when they played zone, and just a holding penalty and no passes after they changed to man-to-man. And reports are that safety Patrick Chung had his best game of the year, though I remember him getting burned a few times. The Pats did mostly take the Ravens tight ends out of the game, perhaps Chung was doing that and I didn't notice it.

The biggest deal was when corner Brandon Browner got injured and left the game. The Pats moved safety Devin McCourty to corner, and put him on the inside against Daniels. Daniels had some success, but mostly McCourty did a nice job of making tackles after catches so the damage was limited. They also put in Logan Ryan outside, and despite his poor reputation, the Ravens never found a way to exploit him.

Chung and Arrington finished third and fourth in tackles, with seven and six respectively.  McCourty had a nice interception and two passes defended. Browner did a very nice job while he was in the game, his customary pass interference penalty notwithstanding. And replacement safety Duron Harmon had the semi-game-sealing interception when Flacco was pressured into a bad pass at the end of the game.

Special teams were very good, if not the performances we're used to seeing. Stephen Gostokowski's kickoffs were high but shorter. But the Pats clearly planned it, high-fiving Gostkowski every time he came off the field. This was obviously to combat the excellent Ravens return game. Same went for punts; Baltimore got very little in return yardage all game long. And the Patriots return game did better than the Ravens, which is all you can ask for.

The offensive and defensive coaching staffs should take a bow. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's halftime adjustments are nearing the realm of folklore. The Patriots have allowed just 32 second-half points in their last 8 games (that's 4 points a game for the mathematically challenged). Switching from zone- to man-defense was just the beginning of his excellent adjustments against the Ravens.

Patricia moved McCourty to cornerback when starter Browner got injured, something I thought they should have done the last two AFC Championship Games when Aqib Talib got hurt. And the shaky safety tandem of Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson held up just fine;  with McCourty near the line there were no long passes completed over either safety.

On offense, Josh McDaniels certainly exorcised those demons. However, the impressive part was how he did it. He called 38 passes and 1 run in the second half, leaving himself to serious second-guessing if it didn't work. But the offense controlled the action once they flushed the run. And when the Pats had a second O-line injury, he compensated, not by putting in an even lesser lineman, but by sending in receivers and backs to report as "ineligible receivers" to fill the extra spot on the line.

The strategy worked wonders. Baltimore was confused, and continued to cover the ineligible players, opening up easy completions to the eligible ones. It worked so well, Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh lost his cool and got an "un-sportsman like" penalty for ripping the officials. (Note to Harbaugh, if your team continues to cover an ineligible receiver, it's your fault, not the officials' fault.)

Lastly, McDaniels called a trick play we've been waiting 5+ years to see: a Julian Edelman flea-flicker pass for a touchdown. It came at the perfect time, was reportedly against the perfect defense, and it worked perfectly. Edelman was a quarterback in college, so you knew the pass would be on target. And for those of you like me, who clamored for an Edelman flea-flicker sooner, it was worth waiting for this moment, a playoff game where you needed to build momentum to see it.

Two notes about the chess match between the two teams:

1. All season long the Ravens employed a stretch-concept in their running game, made famous by the Broncos when Ravens' offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was there. But they obviously thought the Patriots defense was too disciplined for that to succeed. So in one week, they transformed from stretch-runs to a standard running attack. And they got great results, so nice job by them.

2. Ravens head coach shouldn't whine about the Patriots four-linemen offense. It's a legal tactic, and nothing in the rule book says the referees have to give you time to adjust after the player reports as ineligible. They announce it to the crowd and to your team, and then it's game on.

If your team was confused, you should have called timeout and told them what to do. Whining about it was silly in the moment, and it comes off as sour grapes after the fact. Let me give you a hint: the NFL will investigate it and say that it was legal. Do a better job in game-management next time.

So where does that leave us? 13-4 hosting the AFC Championship Game against a team they beat already this season (either Denver or Indianapolis). There are some health concerns: Browner and Stork both suffered knee injuries, and only Browner has said that he'll play. But if you had to hope for good health for only one of them, hope for Stork -- the offensive line isn't the same if even one of the five is injured.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Colts and Broncos play today, and the Patriots beat both teams this season, in back-to-back games, by exactly 22 point each.

Bonus Statistical Oddities: Patriots are the first team to win a playoff game by overcoming multiple 14-point deficits. And Julian Edelman's first NFL pass was a touchdown in the playoffs, and his QB rating is 158.3 -- the highest you can attain.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I wasn't nervous at all... you know, once the final gun sounded."

Keep the faith

- Scott

PS. 13-4 & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: The Buffalo Bills went to the AFC Championship Game from 1990-1993. Note: the irony is that they currently have the longest streak of seasons without even making the playoffs (15 years).

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