Before getting into the game itself, here’s a little something to get you revved up.
Why the Ravens could win
1. No doubt about it, the Ravens have one of the best, if not the best defense in the NFL this year. Terrell Suggs (14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions) is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year, and we already know what kind of havoc he can cause in the Patriots offensive backfield. Matt Light will need help neutralizing Suggs, which could leave an opportunity for Haloti Ngata, Corey Redding, Paul Kruger or Pernell McPhee; those four combined 21 sacks between them. Add Nate Solder to help with blacking as an extra offensive lineman and a skill player has to go to the sideline. Have the tight ends chip at the line of scrimmage and you risk the timing of their route gets thrown off enough to cause an incomplete pass – or worse.
2. While all the talk has been about Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the second Ravens player that I think could be a huge difference maker is undeservedly flying way under the radar: CB Lardarius Webb. From the six Ravens games I have watched this year I have been thoroughly impressed with his skills. Besides his nose for the ball – Webb has five interceptions (including a 73-yard pick-six), 24 passes defensed, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries – his coverage skills are even better. Don’t be the least bit surprised if whoever he is covering is essentially shut down today.
3. Ray Rice is not only very good running the ball (1364 yards, 12 TD, 4.7 yards per rush), but he also excels in the passing game: he led the Ravens with 76 receptions and was third on the team with 704 receiving yards. Rice’s 2068 total yards from scrimmage was best in the NFL this year. The Patriots have to account for Rice on every single offensive play for the Ravens.
4. Joe Flacco and the Ravens passing game cannot be overlooked. Flacco has taken some heat for his numbers (his 57.6% completion rate ranked 26th in the NFL this year, his 6.66 yards per pass attempt was 24th and his 80.9 quarterback passer rating was 18th), but he still has a pretty good group of weapons with Rice; wide receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans; and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. If the Pats focus too much on Rice that could open up play action passes to this group, and the media can’t go more than ninety seconds about how they feel about the Patriots pass defense.
Why the Patriots could win
1. Pick your poison: how do the Ravens stop the Patriots passing game? The New England offensive line was intact and healthy for the first time all season last week, and look at what happened to Denver. As good as the Baltimore defensive line is, I don’t think it is unreasonable at all to believe that the Pats at least hold the Ravens to a standstill in this battle. Brian Waters is having a great year, Logan Mankins is one of the league’s best, and Sebastain Vollmer, Matt Light, Nate Solder and Dan Connolly are all more than adequate at what they do – and if any of them needs a breather Marcus Cannon can step right in. Should Baltimore bring an additional pass rusher Tom Brady has a penchant for making the opposition pay; Brady had a 110.9 QB rating when defenses blitz, which was second best to only Aaron Rodgers this year.
Then there is the question of coverage: how do the Ravens simultaneously cover Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Let’s assume that Lardarius Webb does successfully cover one of those players; what’s the plan for the other three? If the Ravens decide to try to duplicate the press coverage that Pittsburgh employed I believe the Pats will be ready this time and exploit it, similar to how they burnt teams like the Dolphins and Eagles when they tried to do the same.
2. How do the Ravens stop the hurry up offense? The Patriots have always been very adept at taking whatever the other team is giving, and the no huddle has taken that to another level. When the Ravens have a bigger, heavier unit on the field the Pats will be able to spread them out, force them to move laterally, and tire them out. If the Ravens are able to put a faster sub package in (can you say “fake injury”?) then the overlooked running game comes into play for solid gains. The Pats running numbers look average but that is due mostly to the fact they rarely if ever break off a long run. However they are highly productive in getting the yardage needed when called upon, which will keep the Pats in favorable down and distance situations; expect to see some good runs by the Pats in the second half.
3. The defensive front seven is playing its best football of the year. And while we keep being reminded of what happened in 2009, wouldn’t the 2010 game be more relevant? The Pats won that game and limited Rice to 3.1 yards per carry.
More importantly take a look at the defense from the time they made adjustments in the first Denver game and beyond. The unit is maintaining near-perfect gap integrity, which is critical against an offense like Baltimore’s. Whether the Pats use a spy on Rice, rely on the unit as a whole to all do their jobs, or mix it up with a combination of both, right now they are playing at a level where it would not surprise me in the least to see Rice completely neutralized much the same way Marshall Faulk was in the Super Bowl ten years ago. Having Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher all back from injuries has given the defense a huge boost in productivity.
4. Nothing against the Ravens coach, but the coach in the hoodie on the other sideline is most likely two steps ahead of Harbaugh. Whether it be in-game adjustments like the game in Denver, or game plans on both sides of the ball like we saw last week, it’s like one person playing checkers when the other is playing chess. Advantage Patriots.
5. Turnovers always have been and still are vital in the game of football, and this year’s playoffs have done nothing to change that opinion. For all the talk about how good the Ravens defense is and how bad the Patriots defense is, it is worth mentioning that the much maligned Patriots defense forced eight more turnovers than Baltimore did, with an AFC-best 34. On the other side of the ball the Patriots were also the best in the conference, turning the ball over only 17 times – seven fewer times than the Ravens did. Put it this way: who do you trust more to not turn the ball over, Tom Brady or Joe Flacco?
I’ve looked at a whole lot of numbers watched plenty of games, and processed more information than I care to admit – and while I do see plenty of reasons why the Ravens could win, I still see more reason why the Patriots should win this game.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Ravens 23