AFC North Divisional Playoff Review

AFC North Divisional Playoff Review
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Plays like the double pass were the difference in the game, not the ineligible receiver tactic

The Ravens and Patriots alwasy make it entertaining when they meet in the playoffs, and the January 2015 version was no different. The game went back and forth, and the outcome wasn’t determined until the clock struck zero and a batted hail mary fell to the ground.

Lets recap.

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Saturday, January 10, 4:30pm
Final:  Patriots 35, Ravens 31

Despite the media controversy surrounding some of the tactics by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, this was a fantastic game for viewers. It included punch and counterpunch as the Ravens went out to two separate 14 point leads, only to see the Patriots respond. It included two quarterbacks playing at the top of their games for almost 60 minutes. It included some defense on occasion, but mostly the offense stole the show. The teams were separated by 6 total yards (Ravens 428 to 422), one first down (Ravens 29 to 28), and even penalty yards (Ravens had 7 for 65 yards, Patriots 7 for 60). In the end, the Ravens offense failed down the stretch with just a single field goal over the last 25 minutes despite having the ball for 13 1/2 of those minutes, while Ravens defense also failed by not adjusting to New England’s offensive scheme, as the Patriots scored 21 points in their 11 1/2 minute portion of that same 25 minute stretch.

The game could not have started better for Ravens fans. Their team took the opening kickoff and dominated in their opening 5 play 71 yard drive ,with quarterback Joe Flacco going 4-4 for 69 yards and a 19 yard TD strike to rookie wide receiver Kamar Aiken.  Ravens defense stopped them on four plays, then Flacco directed a second touchdown drive, this time 11 play and 79 yards.  After going up 14 in New England, it was inevitable that the Patriots would rebound. Over their next three drives, two resulted in touchdowns. Sandwiched between the two TDs was a halted drive that had the distinction of including the game’s only two sacks. Meanwhile, the Patriots defense held the Ravens to just one first down in their next three offensive possessions. The Ravens finally responded as they started a drive with just over a minute left in the half, and went 57 yard drive in just 53 seconds to regain momentum going into halftime with a 21-14 lead.

In the second half, the Ravens momentum continued as they quickly stopped the Patriots first possession, then went on a touchdown drive that included a gutsy 36-yard bomb on 4th and six to Torrey Smith that ended in a pass interference call at the one yard line. The Ravens scored on the next play despite a taunting penalty on Smith, creating a first and goal from the 16. After that scoring drive, the game changed both physically and mentally, partially because of the controversial tactics mentioned earlier. Many publications have given their opinions, and some prominent three and four letter outlets have even doctored the numbers to fit their personal bias, whether it be pro-Patriots or pro-Ravens. I watched the replays and listened to the precise actions by the referees, so I’ll give you the on-field scenario and let you decide. On three occasions in the Patriots second drive of the half, they substituted one of their five offensive linemen for a player who is normally an eligible receiver. The first time, they lined the player in the slot (initially it was Shane Vareen), who declared himself ineligible to the referee. With 10 seconds left on the play clock, the referees announced to the Ravens that the receiver was ineligible, and the ball was snapped four seconds later resulting in a 16 yard pass play to the uncovered fullback. The second time this occurred was a few plays later and the referee announced the ineligible receiver with 21 seconds on the clock and the ball was snapped 5 seconds later. That’s when Ravens coach John Harbaugh stepped onto the field and explained to the crew what was happening, and took an unsportsmanlike like penalty to do so. According to the rule book, the defense should be able to assess and make substitutes accordingly. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if the offense will not have enough time to hike the ball. The ref’s job is to hold the ball until information is relayed and an adjustment can be made. This was spelled out by multiple sources during the course of the season. Was the tactic illegal? No. Was it understood and handled well by the referees? No. Was this the reason the Ravens lost the game? No. Was it deception? You be the judge.  The biggest issue is that the refs were completely confused and did not allow the Ravens to assess and substitute. The tactic has never been used before in the history of the NFL, and no coach or ref could have prepared for it. Tom Brady would lead you to believe that it was common knowledge, but if someone can prove he knew of the loophole before his coach pointed it out to him, I won’t call him a child for his post-game response “learn the rule book”.  If somehow he did know the loophole, the comment would actually be funny. That said, good for Belichick for having this formation in his back pocket for just such an occasion. The game was getting out of hand, and he had to do something to change the momentum. It may have been the first and last time he will use it. If a defense is prepared for the ploy, its essentially 11 players defending 10, and only four protecting his quarterback.  In a weird way, it should give the Ravens and their fans a sense of pride knowing that a #1 seed at home had to pull out all of the stops to beat them.

Deception was not the reason the Ravens lost the game, but it has been the talk of the sports world ever since, so I thought I would add the actual data.  The plays in question may have changed momentum slightly, but they only resulted in a couple of medium range offensive gains, on already manageable downs. The Patriots had plenty of positive plays before and after that drive. The Ravens lost because they couldn’t adjust, were overly passive in coverage allowing Brady to get rid of the ball quickly, and could not get pressure on the quarterback minus one drive. Brady made quick decisions and accurate throws in the first half, and the second half was even more efficient. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco, with help (or lack of) from Torrey Smith, turned the ball over twice in the second half, stalling two scoring drives. They also failed inside the 10 yard line and settled for a field goal, while the Patriots marched into the endzone with their chances. The Ravens lose because of the final 25 minutes of the game. The Patriots executed with efficiency, and the Ravens rarely executed at all.

What’s Next:  The Ravens will join the rest of the AFC North and vacation, while coaches try to figure out how to win regular season games to give the Ravens an easier post season path.


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