The stage is set for a repeat of last year’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. This is the first time two teams have met in a conference championship game in consecutive seasons since 1994 (DAL & SF). The past three of four games between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens have been decided on the final play. This tidbit is a testament to how intense the battle will be come Sunday night at 6:30. Add in the fact that this is the “last” chance for Ray Lewis; spectators can count on his aggressive play all game.
After losing their most dominant force on offense last week, Rob Gronkowski, spirits remain high in the Patriots locker room. The team has been here before and knows how to execute without one of if not the best tight end in the NFL. While Danny Woodhead is not Gronk, he too was lost early on against the Texans but it did not matter. Shane Vereen was the standout player last week, filling in for Woody, totaling three touchdowns and 124 all-purpose yards.
It has become evident year after year that on both sides of the ball, Belichick implements a system that utilizes each cog to the best of their abilities. Bill will not put a player in a position to fail by deciphering the strengths of each individual. Whether it’s putting Hernandez in open space or Welker underneath, Belichick’s 37 years in the NFL has reined superior with the Patriots. After passing Montana for the most postseason victories (17) as a quarterback, Brady is looking to reach his sixth Super Bowl in his thirteen-year career. Let’s take a look at three keys to victory against some feisty road warriors, the Baltimore Ravens.
1) Disrupt Joe Flacco: Why are the Ravens traveling to Foxboro on Sunday to compete for a Super Bowl birth? Because of the time Flacco had in the pocket and his strong arm. There is no denying that was some of the worst coverage by Denver’s defensive backs in that Hail Mary. Regardless, Flacco was able to stand tall and deliver long balls all day against the Broncos.
In the playoffs, Joe Flacco is 8/12 for 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield. During the regular season, Flacco completed 37% of those tosses with 7 TD. Furthermore, he had the most attempts without an interception (81) of any QB. What does this mean for the Patriots? It’s two-fold.
Not only does Aqib Talib need to man up on the elite skillset of burner Torrey Smith, Devin McCourty needs to have a solid game in centerfield in support. More importantly, the defensive line and linebackers needs to get after Flacco early and often. TE Dennis Pitta made some huge catches that kept the Ravens in the game last week and cannot be overlooked. Joe was only dropped to the field once against the Broncos – a statistic that needs to rise for the Patriots. New England only sacked Schaub once last week but had 4 TFL. If Justin Francis can keep up his solid play with Chandler Jones hobbled, the defensive unit will prosper from flushing Flacco out of the pocket on Sunday.
2) Contain Ray Rice: We all remember the 83 yard scamper the Rutgers graduate unleashed on the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs. One of the most dangerous backs in the passing game, Ray Rice is an elite duel threat. The Patriots held Arian Foster to 90 yards rushing; however, he had 63 yards on seven receptions during the comeback effort. In the Week 3 loss to Baltimore, New England surrendered a similar 150 APY to Rice. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots unleash a variety of schemes to disrupt his effectiveness on the ground and through the air.
Spell back Bernard Pierce gashed the Colts in the Wild Card round for 103 yards and is no joke. He is a perfect compliment to Rice, adding some height at 6’ and some power at 218 lbs. Pierce injured his knee against the Broncos and is questionable for Sunday after he did not practice yesterday.
Similar to the Patriots, the Ravens can beat you in a variety of ways with so many weapons on offense. While it may seem trivial to highlight stopping their key playmakers, those are the individuals who have brought Baltimore to this position in extraordinary fashion. If New England can limit Ray Rice to under 150 APY, I see a trip to New Orleans on the horizon.
3) Attack the Baltimore Defense: The Ravens have the oldest average age per player on this side of the ball. Belichick was adamant last week in attacking the Texans defense, as the quick-snap and no-huddle offense were in full effect. Ray Lewis leads the NFL with 30 postseason tackles; however, his coverage in the pass game was exploited last week. Expect to see a similar performance from Vereen, who will be leaned on heavily if Woodhead is limited.
The Patriots were held to a measly 77 yards on 34 rushing attempts (2.3 avg) in Week 3 against the Ravens. In order to open looks down the field, Stevan Ridley will need to step up against the 20th rushing defense early in the AFC Championship game. Against the Texans last week, Ridley gained 82 yards on 15 carries – good for 5.5 YPC. Establishing a solid ground game puts Tom Brady at ease, allowing him to read the defense and audible with confidence.
There is no question that this game will be a physical dogfight on Sunday night. The key to victory lies in setting the tone early on. New England bounced back with a three and out after the huge opening kickoff Houston returned into the Patriots’ red zone. Attacking the Baltimore defense and making them react to our up-tempo offense should tire out the aging squad. Although Welker dropped a few critical passes, I expect another huge game from Wes with Gronkowski out. Welker totaled 131 yards on 8 receptions on 13 targets. If Lloyd can create in space and get behind the defense it will be a long day for the Ravens. All of this passing attack is contingent on establishing the run early on, a big factor in this AFC Championship game.
I predict the Patriots to pull away in the second half of this game, winning 31-20 and earning their sixth Super Bowl appearance in the Brady/Belichick era. Eleven years ago, New England shocked the world by winning SB XXXVI over the Rams in New Orleans. I smell a repeat folks.