New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will dare Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to beat him Sunday night when the teams meet. This is the same strategy Belichick used to win last season’s AFC championship game.
After that battle won by New England 23-20 there were many who felt that the Ravens outplayed the Patriots. There were also those who felt that Flacco outplayed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. What they missed was Belichick’s game plan which worked.
Going into the championship game the Patriots knew that the only way that their defense could stop the Ravens was by containing running back Ray Rice. Rice killed New England in the 2009 Wild Card playoff game rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns. On the first play of that game he scored on an 83 yard touchdown run.
Belichick does not forget such performances. If a player has a good day against his defense you can bet that they will be the focus from then on. Rice was the focus in January. If stopping him meant losing then so be it. Belichick knew that the game might come down to one play, but was willing to take the chance that Flacco and the Ravens passing game could not come up with it.
With the defense focusing on Rice and the run the Patriots had to sacrifice a porous secondary and take their chances on containing Baltimore’s passing game as best they could. The plan was to let Flacco complete short to intermediate passes and move the ball between the 20 yard lines. Once in the red zone, the Patriots would tighten their coverage and try to hold Baltimore to field goal attempts.
Flacco took full advantage of this and threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns. However, late in the fourth quarter Baltimore trailed 23-20 and had to drive for a tying field goal or game winning touchdown. The Patriots had shut down Rice, and made enough plays in pass coverage to give the offense a chance to take the lead. Up to this point New England’s strategy had worked.
Flacco did take Baltimore the length of the field on the brink of a touchdown, but when it counted most execution failed them. With the game on the line wide receiver Lee Evans had the winning touchdown in his hands. Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore stripped the ball from him before he could make the catch. Two plays later Billy Cundiff missed a 32 yard field goal and the Patriots had survived.
After the game everyone talked about Flacco’s play and how the Ravens should have won. What they did not discuss was that Belichick’s game plan, though barely, had worked. Rice had not beaten the Patriots. And when given the chance the Ravens passing game did not make the big play.
Belichick knows that Flacco can beat him now so will have his hands full Sunday night. Still, until Baltimore’s passing game beats him the Patriots head coach will continue to focus on stopping Rice and the run.
On Sunday night, Belichick will once again dare Flacco to beat him.