AFC Divisional Playoff: The Baltimore Ravens at the New England Patriots
For the fourth time in six seasons, the Patriots will host the Ravens in the AFC Playoffs. Though the Patriots have dominated AFC opponents at Gillette Stadium, the Ravens have been a thorn in New England’s side having gone 2-1 in Foxboro during post season play.
However, a lot has changed since the last time Ravens visited the Boston area: Gone are the heart and soul of the Ravens defense, in the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and replaced by lesser quality players whose only chance to be recognized would be in a Baltimore Police lineup. New England leads the overall series 8-3 including last season’s Week 16 matchup when an injury riddled Patriots team went into Baltimore and thrashed the Ravens to the tune of 41-7.
So in another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams were broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – Push: Ok…this is going to get both New England and Baltimore fans upset. However, from a statistical standpoint, both quarterbacks posted similar numbers this season all though it could be argued that Brady played against superior competition than Flacco did. Some recognition needs to be given to Flacco who has a fairly gaudy playoff record but Brady is also no slouch and has the most wins for a quarterback in the post season all-time.
Running Backs – Patriots: Though Justin Forsett has had a decent season; there is a significant drop off at the position beyond him. In contrast, the Patriots have four quality backs that can be interchangeable and effective based on game situations.
Wide Receivers – Push: Both teams have formidable receiving corps that are very different in makeup. Baltimore’s wide receivers certainly have the ability to stretch the field for big plays while the Patriots wide receivers are more possession types that help move the chains and extend drives. In a game where time of possession and limiting opponents’ opportunities could be a key factor, the Patriots may have an advantage.
Tight Ends – Patriots: The Tight End group that the Ravens have cannot even compare to Rob Gronkowski let alone when you add a red zone threat like Tim Wright into the equation as well.
Offensive Line – Push: Both lines have done a good job protecting their QBs and have done well with run blocking as well over the course of the season.
Defensive Front Seven – Baltimore: Both teams are close with their ability to stop the run having premier anchors at the defensive tackle spot in Haloti Ngata for Ravens and Vince Wilfork for the Patriots. However, the Ravens should get the edge in this comparison with their pass rushing duo of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
Secondary – Patriots: Unlike Baltimore, who have players that were bagging groceries earlier this season, the Patriots have, arguably, one of the best defensive backfields remaining in the Playoffs. Unlike in years past, the duo of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at corner is the best tandem the Patriots have had in a decade (if not longer).
Special Teams – Push: The Ravens certainly have the advantage in the return game but New England’s kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, has made more field goals than his Baltimore counterpart has attempted and has a superior kicking percentage.
Coaching – Push: Of course saying this matchup is remotely close is blasphemy in Patriots Nation. However, credit has to be given where credit is due and John Harbaugh has done admirable job this year with one of the least talented Ravens defensive teams that he has coached in recent years.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Keys to the Game:
1) Protecting Tom Brady: It’s no secret that Tom Brady, or any quarterback for that matter, does not like to get pressured. After the Week 4 debacle in Kansas City, the Patriots found the right combination on the Offensive Line and it almost immediately paid dividends in how the New England offense operated. New England has played some very good defensive fronts, both in and out of their division, so hopefully this has prepared them to face Baltimore’s formidable front seven.
2) Defensive Discipline: In the last two playoff match ups between these two teams, the Patriots have leads at halftime only to allow the Ravens comeback in the second half. Though this season’s second half defensive trend has been encouraging for the Patriots, they must stay disciplined in their assignments and not let defensive lapses give away the game.
3) Free Jonas Gray: After landing in the dog house, Jonas Gray has had limited opportunities to see the field. One thing that seems to have stuck out recently is that LeGarrett Blount seems less effective early games and much more effective later in games as a “closer”. The Patriots need to utilize Gray earlier in the game where his simple downhill running style can give the Patriots some manageable 2nd and 3rd down opportunities.
This is very strange game to preview. On one hand, if one was to look at just the team statistics, the Raven and Patriots are almost even and it would be difficult to separate which team is the number 1 seed from the one that is the number 6 seed. On the other hand, if you look at each team’s schedule, it’s hard not to overlook that the Ravens have beat only one team this season whose season record ended over .500 (the Steelers twice).
For the Ravens, this game will validate if they are a legitimate playoff team or a product of fortunate scheduling which put them into the post season erroneously. For the Patriots, defensive issues have been the main culprit to playoff disappointments in the last few seasons. This game will show if the money spent on Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner was the missing ingredient to a Superbowl run.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 26 – Ravens 20