BST&N AFC Championship Game Preview: Patriots vs. Ravens

Two of the game's all-time greats square off for a chance to be in the Super Bowl.

In the lead up to the their first AFC Championship game since 2007 the Patriots have answered countless questions about their 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens. That 33-14 drubbing was the first playoff loss at Gillette Stadium for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and, amazingly enough, it represents the low point of their combined tenure.

But lots of things change in two years time, and though the Patriots have gotten significantly younger and deeper since that game, the same cannot be said of the Ravens. If you’re a Baltimore fan, however, you might consider this a good thing.

Everyone knows the names: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata. I could go on. And while their defensive core is getting long in the tooth, the fact remains that no team has had more success against Brady than have the Ravens. In his career against Baltimore Brady has completed only 56.3% of his passes, and his 77.9 passer rating is his worst against any opponent.

Despite their unparalleled success in slowing Brady, the Ravens are just 1-6 against him all time. Here’s what the Patriots must do to send the Ravens packing.

1. Slow Baltimore’s interior pass rush. Much of the attention this week has gone to standout OLB Terrell Suggs, partly due to the fact that he makes for a wonderful sound bite and partly due to the fact that he’s coming off of the best season of his decorated career. With Suggs flapping his comically over-sized gums his teammate Haloti Ngata has flown under the radar, but Ngata will be the key to Baltimore’s efforts on Sunday.

Suggs will be matched up one-on-one with Matt Light, and while Suggs is likely to win his fair share of battles, edge pressure has proven not to phase Brady. He is extremely adept at stepping up into the pocket to avoid the edge rush. Teams that have ratted Brady have done it by not allowing him the room to step up. That’s where Ngata comes in. He’s Richard Seymour-like in his ability to play multiple positions on the line. Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly will spend the bulk of the time on Ngata, but thanks to his flexibility the Ravens are able to move him around.

Historically the Ravens have blitzed Brady more than any other team, but to do so in this game would put a lot of pressure on a secondary that is the Ravens’ weakness. When Baltimore gives coverage looks they’ll be relying on Ngata to push the pocket.

2.  Who wins in the red zone? The Patriots finished the regular season with the best red zone scoring offense in the NFL, scoring a touchdown on 66.7% of their red zone possessions. The Ravens finished with the best red zone scoring defense in the NFL, allowing a touchdown on only 38.6% of their red zone possessions.

Belichick always stresses the importance of executing well inside the red zone, and it’s not hard to imagine that it’s been emphasized more than usual this week. The Patriots boast arguably the league’s best red zone target in Rob Gronkowski, and you can bet that’s where Ed Reed’s attention will be whenever the Patriots are inside the twenty.

The Ravens are likely to play zone and plug the middle of the field forcing Brady to either fit the ball into very small windows or throw outside the numbers. Stopping the Patriots’ wealth of targets over the middle is easier said than done, but if Baltimore can do as much it will require them toleave Deion Branch in one-on-one coverage.

3. The Marshall Plan. Ray Rice was one of only two players to lead his team in both rushing yards and receptions this year, Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears being the other. Rice accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s yards from scrimmage than any other player in the league. And who could forget his 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the ’09 Divisional Round, which set the tone for an awful day for the Patriots.

But what many don’t recall about that game is that Rice was largely ineffective in the second half. Midway through the second quarter Belichick inserted LB Dane Fletcher into the game and tasked him with shadowing Rice on every play. It was the same strategy he used to defend Marshall Faulk in the 2001 Super Bowl. The Rams relied on Faulk in much the same way Baltimore relies on Rice.

For that reason it would not be surprising to see a similar strategy employed on Sunday, and it may even be Fletcher that draws the assignment again. But even if Rice is shadowed it will take a team effort to stop him. Devin McCourty was excellent in run support last week against Denver (bad angle in the first quarter against Willis McGahee notwithstanding) and he’ll be needed again this week as Rice is explosive on cutbacks.

Prediction: The New England TE Party is too much, and a la the ’06 Colts the defense is peaking at the right time. Patriots 31 – Ravens 21.

 

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