Ravens at Patriots: 2013 NFL Playoffs AFC Championship Game Preview
AFC Championship Game
(12-6) Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (13-4)
The Ravens are 5-4 on the road, while the Patriots are 7-2 at Gillette Stadium.
The 2012 AFC Championship was so nice, let's play it twice as these two meet in the Championship game again in 2013. We will see the replays all week of Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal with about 11 seconds left which would have tied the game. I hope we also see replays of the many big plays that Sterling Moore made in the Pats secondary in that 2012 game because they were massive. Ironically several of the main players in that 2012 game will not be in this game as Moore (waived), Lee Evans (released), Cundiff (released), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (signed with Cincinnati Bengals), and Rob Gronkowski (injury) will all miss this game for one reason or another.
This slideshow article will have some tidbits on what to look for in this game. We will look at both teams running games, and both teams passing games and defenses (Pats passing and running game are pages two and three, the Ravens offense are four and five).
These two have met in the playoffs twice since 2009 with each team going 1-1. The 2009 game was dominated from the get-go by the Ravens as Ray Rice romped for an 83-yard touchdown on the second play of the game. The only Patriot who had a good game was Julian Edelman who scored a pair of touchdowns, but his season is over and he will miss Sunday's game. Overall Rice had a pair of touchdowns, and Tom Brady tossed an uncharacteristic three interceptions in that game.
In last years Patriots win we saw Brady have zero touchdowns and two interceptions, and his quarterback rating of 57.5 was his worst in four years. Gronk was the Pats leading receiver in that game, but we know his season is over.
This Patriots team amassed an incredible 444 first downs this season which is the most ever in the NFL. Hats off to these guys as they are in the Championship game for the seventh time in the Bill Belichick and Brady era.
One thing to watch in this game is the Ravens score the majority of their points in the first and fourth quarters, but just 3.4 in the second quarter and 2.9 in the third quarter of road games (Ravens 2nd and 3rd quarter road scoring is bottom 4 in the NFL). At home the Pats are a top five scoring team every single quarter. That is how the Pats win games at home, they are ultra consistent with their scoring and if you experience any lull in your scoring you find yourself falling behind and history shows us you eventually lose (Brady is 75-14 at home...wow).
The Ravens are the second most penalized team in the NFL, but on the road they are much better. The Ravens get flagged an average of 6.8 times for 62 yards on the road, and the Pats are flagged an average of 6.8 times for 59 yards at home so we see the potential for neither team to have a big advantage in this area.
One area to watch closely will be the fact that the Pats are excellent at home for third down conversions (48% which is no.2 in the NFL) while the Ravens convert just 35% of their third downs on the road (no.23 in the NFL).
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Patriots Passing Game
Tom Brady is 5-1 in AFC Championship games, including 3-0 at home, but his production has been poor which is a bit of a surprise. Brady has just six touchdowns in those six games, and he has more interceptions than touchdowns with seven. That said, we know he is a massive threat to beat you every time he takes the field. At Gillette Stadium this season Brady spread out 19 touchdown passes vs a measly three interceptions.
We know there is no Gronk, but even without him the Brady Bunch still score north of 30 points per game. Lately we have seen Brandon Lloyd and Shane Vereen be very effective at home, plus Danny Woodhead should be available on Sunday despite his thumb issue. These guys all provide depth and options for Tom Terrific and the Patriots passing game.
The Ravens held Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense to 21 points, and that was an offense that was averaging well north of that (especially at home). Baltimore's defense forced short passes from Manning all day long, and that led to his second worst game as a Bronco (worst home game all season). Denver simply was not comfortable or in rhythm having so much taken away from them to the point where most plays felt like only the short/underneath routes were available. While that was an issue for Denver, it is no problemo for the Patriots.
We will see Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez running quick hitting/underneath routes all day long, and by the way they are great at it. The Pats use formation and personnel extremely well to create match-ups that they want, and they actively look to use the quick passes to Welker and Hernandez so they are not going to feel "forced" into short passes. With the Pats they are not "check downs" they are actually aggressive plays because they are just so good at them.
Cary Williams leads the Ravens with five interceptions, but he can be had as well. A #RML is surely going to be that the Ravens will need to create turnovers and Williams plus Ed Reed are likely their best chances for that.
I will be watching Nate Solder and Logan Mankins in this game as they will need to be stout in their pass protection. The Ravens dropped Andrew Luck three times, and they also got Manning three times, plus they recovered a fumble from each so the Pats will need Brady's blindside protected well on Sunday. In wins Brady gets sacked just over once per game (the Houston Texans sacked him once last weekend) and that almost doubles in losses where he is sacked 2.5 times per game.
The Patriots win games by imposing their will on offense, especially through their passing game so the Ravens will have to hold their own in this area. I think it is going to turn out to be advantage: Brady Bunch.
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Patriots Ground Game
Last week the combination of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 22 carries that went for 123 yards, plus a pair of rushing touchdowns. Vereen has been coming on lately, while Ridley has been marvelous all season as his 1,263 rushing yards are the most by a Patriot since Corey Dillon back in 2004. Ridley averages 4.0 yards per carry at home, while Vereen is at 4.2, and they have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns at Gillette Stadium. The Pats have a great passing game, but in wins they get a legit contribution from their ground game at 137 yards per game.
The Ravens rush defense is getting better. On the season they allowed just 4.0 yards per carry, and that has got a bit better in the playoffs at 3.9 yards per carry. The big thing that Baltimore has improved on is they were 23rd in the NFL for allowing the most rushing touchdowns, but in the playoffs they have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. I would suggest that this game will be their biggest test as Vereen and Ridley are likely better than any of the running backs they have faced so far.
Having Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata playing on Sunday is clearly great for the Ravens, but they will need big run-stopping efforts from guys like Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Dannell Ellerbe, and likely also Courtney Upshaw in this game.
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Ravens Passing Game
Joe Flacco was very pedestrian on the road this season with just seven touchdowns and five interceptions, but last weekend at Denver he went off for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. It is worth noting that in his past four road games he has been better with seven touchdowns and just one interception. This is an interesting match-up of Flacco vs Brady as Flacco tries to become the second quarterback ever to eliminate Manning and Brady in the same playoffs (2010 New York Jets Mark Sanchez).
Flacco has two legit wide receivers with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin who each were targeted 110+ times this season, and they combined for 114 catches that accumulated 1,776 yards plus a dozen touchdowns. These two will see a combination of Kyle Arrington, Aqib Talib, and Alfonzo Dennard. If either Smith or Boldin takes over the game (ex Boldin in second half of the Indianapolis Colts game) then we could see Devin McCourty get involved as he is likely their most effective cover guy.
Boldin and Dennis Pitta are the third down guys, while Smith is a threat on first down (especially dangerous on first down play-action). Ray Rice is their yards after catch king as several times he has taken a short pass out of the backfield and romped for big yards.
A #RML in this game will be can Chandler Jones generate a pass rush in this game. He is dealing with a wonky ankle, but he will be taking on the left side of the Ravens offensive line which can be had. Jones had 6.0 sacks in his first eight games, but zero since. The Broncos allowed Flacco to go score-for-score with them last weekend and they paid the price for that so the Pats will need to avoid letting Flacco get a great rhythm and be able to go score-for-score with the Brady Bunch. Rob Ninkovich has 6.0 of his 8.0 sacks at Gillette Stadium so we will watch him too. The Pats have 23 of their 38 sacks at home so they use their home crowd noise/energy pretty well.
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Ravens Rushing Attack
A story to watch this week will be the status of Bernard Pierce who is dealing with a gimpy knee. We know that Ray Rice is the main cog for the Ravens rushing attack, but lately Pierce had been producing as well. Rice needs to be fed, we know that, this guy averages 23 touches (rushes + receptions) in Ravens wins and just 15 in losses. Rice is a killer in the first three quarters, but this was the second straight season where he struggled in the fourth quarter of games (that could be a very interesting story line to watch if the Ravens have a late lead).
On the road Rice averages 4.6 yards per carry, but he does have just three of his 11 touchdowns on the road (worth noting - he did get a road touchdown last weekend at Denver). Rice and Bernard are both aided by how good their fullback Vonta Leach is. The Pats have seen some good fullbacks like Greg Jones II and Bruce Miller this season, but Leach is surely the best they have faced.
If you have read my work before regarding the Patriots then you have likely noticed that I love Vince Wilfork. This guy is awesome, and he will have to find a way to be dynamic on Sunday because the Ravens will not run up the middle often as they like to run on more of an angle than straight-on. Even on plays where the Ravens try to create an angle off tackle we may still see Wilfork be good enough to shed his blocker(s) and get in an area where he is disrupting the play.
Baltimore could be forced to run even further away from Wilfork in this game which puts more emphasis on guys like Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick to provide depth for the Pats rush defense, plus they will need to get big games from their linebackers. Dont'a Hightower is good vs the run, and Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo are very good vs the run. Devin McCourty is likely their best player in their secondary when it comes to supporting the run defense.
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Ravens at Patriots
There is a lot to like for the Ravens here. Their big four on defense are back, and they have had success on this same field in the playoffs before. They finally beat Peyton last weekend, and they will be looking to exact revenge for last seasons AFC Championship game outcome.
The Ravens have also had success vs Brady in the past, plus things like Harbaugh vs Harbaugh in the Super Bowl would be so cool, but ultimately I think that the Patriots will romp in this game.
This game will be Tom Terrific's best AFC Championship game ever, and his best game vs the Ravens ever. I just feel like the match-ups are going to lend themselves to the Pats scoring more consistently than the Ravens. The Pats are 3-0 at home in AFC Championship games, and even without Gronk there is enough there to make it 4-0.
The Chicago Bears defense got all the pub this season as a unit that constantly created turnovers, well the Pats were almost just as good. There will be a time where the Pats score, then create a turnover and score again and they will be on their path to victory.
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