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NFL Week 16 Preview : Patriots @ Ravens

Playoff implications are on the line in Week 16 in Baltimore. Who will come to play?

After a 4-6 start, the Baltimore Ravens have won their last four – making a strong late season push to return to the playoffs for the sixth straight campaign. The rematch of last year’s AFC Championship was originally scheduled for Sunday Night Football, but got flexed to 4:25 in favor of the Bears vs. Eagles. Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 3-3 against the Patriots over the past six years. This non-division rivalry reached new heights when Baltimore denied New England a chance to play in the Super Bowl last year, embarrassing the Patriots in Gillette Stadium 28-13 and then hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Sitting a game behind the 9-5 Bengals, the Ravens have clawed their way back to wildcard legitimacy despite their worst rushing production in recent years of 82.9 YPG. Ray Rice is averaging a subpar (to say the least) 3.1 YPC, but has always found success against the Patriots. New England is coming off the wrong end of their fifth straight game decided by one score or less with a 24-20 last second loss in Miami. This is easily the most adversity a Patriots team has faced in the Belichick era, off-season departures and season-ending injuries are truly beginning to dictate just how much gas is left in the tank as we approach January football.

Brady couldn’t be more accurate with his statement after the Dolphins game, “There is a small margin of error”. The team is young and with inexperience comes mistakes. Without the security blanket of Gronk in the lineup, Tom has relied on Julian “Minitron” Edelman as his go-to. Jules has 89 receptions for 914 yards and 6 TD but the efficiency lost in the Red Zone seems irreplaceable. Outside of that consistent production, no one player has been a staple every given sunday. For the second straight week, the Pats have an opportunity to lock up their fifth straight AFC East title. Because the Steelers beat the Bengals last week, the Patriots are still in line to receive the 2 seed if they win out. What will give tomorrow afternoon? Can New England take the next step in restoring the faith or does Baltimore stay hot and give the Pats a reality check? Weather is calling for a 60 degree day with thunderstorm possibilities, here’s to hoping we don’t see a repeat of the brutal Cincinnati conditions. Check out these three keys to victory for an important late-season matchup for Belichick and company:

1) Contain Torrey Smith: Despite a modest total of 59 receptions and 4 TD, the UMaryland burner has 1,032 yards on the season. Smith has recorded a grab of 40+ yards in 8 games this year with a long of 74. Week after week, the Patriots have been burned over the top from the likes of Mike Wallace, Josh Gordon, Andre Johnson and more. These impact plays occur far too often, illustrating a glaring weakness aside from the depleted defensive line.

New England is allowing 132.5 rushing YPG, putting them at the bottom of the pack at 31st in the NFL. Assuming Ray Rice returns to normality with the porous front seven, limiting the Flacco to Torrey connection is imperative. Furthermore, TE Dennis Pitta made his 2013 debut two weeks ago – filling the void that the Boldin departure created. Flacco has 18 TD and 17 INT on the season. He is on pace to record the largest amount of passing attempts and turnovers in his career. If Chandler and Nink are able to win their respective matchups, it will be a long day for the Ravens offense. McCourty and Gregory also need to have solid performances over the top at safety if New England wants any chance to escape with a victory.

2) Special Teams: For as clutch and consistent as Gostkowski has been this year, he killed the Patriots last week with his third missed field goal of the season and an untimely kickoff out-of-bounds. This ultimately allowed Miami to score that go-ahead touchdown and forced New England to score a TD in the last seconds compared to a manageable chip shot. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have one of the most dangerous returners in Jacoby Jones. He has one touchdown on the season but is always a threat to take it all the way. Baltimore placekicker Justin Tucker had a legendary performance last week with six field goals and a game winning 61 yarder. The third phase of the game will be an important factor in the outcome of tomorrow’s contest. Execution is key.

3) Linebacker Play: Dont’a Hightower and Dane Fletcher have been the recipients of additional playing time after Mayo’s season-ending pectoral injury. While Fletcher made some game-changing plays against Denver, Hightower struggled brutally in coverage against Miami last week. Yancy Thigpen caught a 14 yard TD pass with 1:15 left in which had Dont’a turned around and played the ball, he would have easily intercepted Tannehill’s game-winning pass. Hightower is solid in the run but has not been able to make enough plays when they matter. The Rice/Pierce backfield is an above average tandem and this game will be physical. The Ravens have weapons all over the field and the Patriots will need to cause a turnover if they want to get this done on the road.

These teams don’t like each other and playoff implications are on the line. What more could you ask for? I believe the Patriots can get it done with some timely luck that seems to alternate week in and week out. 21-18 New England.

Ravens Shock Patriots, Return To Super Bowl

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the game for the Ravens.

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the AFC Championship game win for the Ravens.

Remember when Tom Brady in the postseason was as sure as death or taxes? His 9-0 start to his postseason career had people all over New England thinking that this late-round diamond in the rough could never do any wrong. Three championships in his first four seasons.

None in his last eight.

Maybe it was payback. Maybe it was destiny. Whatever it was, Joe Flacco outplayed Brady, the Ravens defense outplayed that of the Patriots and as banged up as Baltimore  had been this year, it was the home team and favorite that felt the blows when it mattered most. Oh, and Ray Lewis, with the help if his good friend, God, has lived to play another day – and for the Super Bowl.

From the moment the coin hit the ground in favor of the Ravens and they deferred to the second half – stealing the Patriots’ bread and butter on their home field – it just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. They committed fewer penalties, made less mistakes and completed a higher percentage of their passes. Most importantly, their zero turnovers, compared to three from the Patriots, were nothing less than huge. They were the team that executed better on Sunday.

Like it did towards the end if the regular season, the Patriots offense struggled to capitalize when their defense set them up with good field position and scored just 13 points – their lowest total of 2012. As the league’s No. 1 offense, the fewest points they had scored this year before yesterday were 18 in the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals.

The windy conditions at Gillette Stadium forced both teams to play conservatively and cost the Pats a couple chances at field goals they would normally attempt.

Their opening drive looked promising, but Wes Welker couldn’t haul in a deep pass from Brady when he had his defender beat by a couple if steps. They then almost caught the Baltimore special teams off guard, however, as Ryan Mallett snuck into the punt formation and forced the Ravens to burn a timeout.

A quick three-and-out by Baltimore gave New England the ball back, but only after a holding penalty called on Aqib Talib backed them up to their own 21. They had to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and took a 3-0 lead on their 32nd straight red zone possession that resulted in points.

The next Baltimore drive ended quickly as well, but came at a cost as Talib hurt his thigh while breaking up a pass on third and long. Some production from last week’s star Shane Vereen on the ensuing drive and a 15-yard personal foul penalty called on Lewis were for not as Brandon Lloyd ended up dropping a tough catch on third down.

Flacco then missed an open Dennis Pitta down the field and New England couldn’t convert following a 28-yard punt return from Welker as Paul Kruger influenced the Brady pass. The Pats D allowed just one completion in the first quarter and the Ravens went 0-for-3 on third down. New England led the Ravens 3-0 after one quarter of the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year.

As the second quarter began, Flacco would lead a 90-yard drive in his first Title Game win to put the Ravens on the board with a two-yard run by Ray Rice. Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower both missed tackles on the back as he then walked into the endzone on second down. Pitta had an 18-yard reception on third and four and Flacco took advantage of Talib’s absence, hitting Torrey Smith on a 25-yard pass to the New England 15.

Brady would answer right away, however, aided by another personal foul penalty, this time on Dannell Ellerbe. A 24-yard pass to Welker set the Pats up in good position and Brady found him again from a yard out to make it 10-7 Patriots with 4:18 left in the opening half.

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2013 AFC Championship Preview: Ravens @ Patriots

Tom Brady is going to cut Ray Lewis' last shot of another ring short on Sunday - 6:30 - CBS

Tom Brady will cut Lewis’ last shot of another ring short on Sunday – 6:30 – CBS

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.

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