By Kevin York
Well, this isn’t the game any of us thought it would be two weeks ago, or even one week ago. The Ravens weren’t supposed to be here. This was supposed to be another Brady-Manning classic, but Baltimore crashed the party. So instead we have a rematch of last years AFC Championship, a game which was actually a class in and of itself; however, I have a feeling this game will play out much differently than last year when many felt Baltimore outplayed the Patriots, yet Brady and company stole the game.
The big story with Baltimore this post season has been Ray Lewis and the going away party his teammates are throwing him, but the storyline that hasn’t received as much attention, and I think it actually the bigger one, is the change at offensive coordinator that John Harbaugh made near the end of the season. Since taking over for the fired Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell has totally changed the dynamics of this offense. He has confidence in quarterback Joe Flacco and lets him throw the ball downfield. This isn’t the same conservative, sometimes even tentative, offense we saw most of the season. Earlier this week, Don Banks over at Sports Illustrated wrote a nice article looking statistically at just how much of a positive affect Caldwell has had on the offense. As Banks notes, “the Ravens under Caldwell have averaged 450.8 yards of offense and 28 points over their past four games, with superb balance (188.8 yards rushing and 262.0 passing).”
I expect Caldwell to open things up and show some new plays, maybe even new formations, in an attempt to confuse New England. Remember, Caldwell is very familiar with Bill Belichik and the Patriots from the many years he served as an assistant on Tony Dungy’s Colts staff. He is well aware of what he’s facing and how he’ll have to outsmart the Patriots’ mastermind.
We won’t see Baltimore try and run the ball a lot. New England has big, strong linebackers that are very good at stopping the run and crashing into gaps. I expect them to go to the air more and attack New England’s weaker secondary. That may open the run later, but I think we’ll see Flacco really air it out early.
Baltimore’s defense has played well enough to win this postseason, but make no mistake, this is not the Ravens defense we’ve seen in the past. They’re older and slower, and may be a little tired. They’ve been on the field a lot in their first two playoff games and will now be facing one of the best offenses in the NFL a week after a tiring overtime thriller in Denver.
The Ravens will likely struggle to defend the New England passing attack. The Patriots have added a few wrinkles this year that they didn’t have last year, like the faster Brandon Lloyd who really came on late in the season. The New England offensive line has also protected Brady better than last year. With Baltimore’s pass rush not being quite as good as last year, that’s a recipe for a real problem for the Ravens defensive front. With the ways New England has used their running backs lately, the Ravens front seven are certainly facing an athletic disadvantage. They don’t have a linebacker fast enough to line up opposite Shane Vereen if he slots out as a receiver.
New England Patriots
In contrast to Baltimore, New England is exactly where we all expected them to be at this moment in time. This year’s Patriots team seems like a team on a mission. That’s naturally the kind of mentality that Belichik instills in them, but it just feels even more workmanlike this year, and specifically over the second half of the season, than they have in years past. The Super Bowl loss to the Giants last year was a black eye for this team, something that deep down I think they’re a little embarrassed and ashamed of. Twice now, they’ve lost Super Bowl games to the Giants that they should’ve won. Different makeups of those two teams, yes (in fact, very few people from that 2008 team were still playing for the Pats last year ), but I’m sure last year’s team certainly felt somewhat linked to the earlier one.
New England’s offense is one of the strongest in the NFL and has been for some time. As the season went on it seemed like they continued to add new dimensions to it, even as starters went down to injuries. The latest example was last week against Houston when Shane Vereen, filling in for Danny Woodhead, emerged with a breakout performance, both in the running game and passing game. It’s really remarkable how well Belichik and his staff develop players. New England is showing that it’s the deepest team in the league.
Tom Brady will have a big game. All week people have been discussing how he got outplayed by Joe Flacco last year. Mike Greenberg said that last year he was simply average in the playoffs. That type of stuff motivates this guy and I think it’ll fuel his fire on Sunday.
The Baltimore defense opens up a lot of opportunities for the Patriots. For one, the Ravens really only have one strong, consistent pass rusher in Paul Kruger. That means lots of time for Brady to sit in the pocket and make his way through his progressions until he finds an open receiver. He will be able to pass the ball on this Ravens secondary. The other opportunity is using their running backs in unique ways – lining them up in the slot or even out wide.
Aside from Aqib Talib, the New England secondary could be exposed by Joe Flacco. The unit is solidly built to contain Ray Rice and the Raven run game, but they’re not quite as astute in pass coverage. I think Baltimore will try and attack the middle of the Patriots defense in the passing game because New England’s linebackers (Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower) aren’t particularly quick. New England will have to make up for that by playing a zone and not leaving those guys alone on an island.
The Final Word
At some point a team can’t survive on emotion anymore and talent comes into the equation. I think this week is when that happens for Baltimore. Up and down the rosters, New England is the stronger team at every position except running back. Talent wins out this week as New England punches its second straight ticket to the Super Bowl. This game won’t be as close as last year when it came down to the very end for the Patriots to win, but it also won’t be the blow out that some are expecting. I think we’ll see New England win by around ten points or so.
You can read The Couchletes’ preview of the NFC Championship game here.