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AFC Championship Rematch: Ravens vs Patriots

December 21, 2013 in What to Look For

In the last two seasons, the AFC Championship Game has consisted of the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. Both times the game has been played in New England and each game produced different results.

The first time around, in 2011, the Ravens suffered a heartbreaking defeat 23-20. With under one minute left in the game, wide receiver Lee Evans had the game-winning touchdown catch in his hands, but Patriots' defender Sterling Moore was able to knock it loose at the last second. Two plays later, the Ravens attempted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. However, kicker Billy Cundiff missed it wide left and the Patriots won the game. They would face the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI where the Giants won 21-17. This game against the Patriots is still a sore spot for Ravens fans.

Last year, the Ravens headed up to Foxboro looking for revenge. The Ravens had defeated the Patriots 31-30 in the regular season on a 27-yard field goal from new kicker Justin Tucker. Wide receiver Torrey Smith played the game of his life catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns just hours after finding out about the death of his younger brother Tevin.

A regular season victory isn't the same though. For the Ravens to come full-circle on the Patriots, they needed to win a playoff game in Foxboro. At halftime in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were down 13-7 and weren't playing great. In the second half, quarterback Joe Flacco came out firing and three three touchdown passes. This spearheaded the Ravens comeback and led them to a 28-13 victory.

This victory sent the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII where they faced the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans where the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after an eventful 34-31 victory.

1.  Joe Flacco
If the Ravens are to defeat the Patriots for a third straight time, they are going to need Flacco to play like he did in last season's two games.

In the regular season matchup, he went 28-of-39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 117.7. With the Ravens down 30-21 with 7:29 left in the game, they got the ball and he led them on a drive then ended in a touchdown pass to Smith with 4:01 left. After the defense forced a Patriots punt, Flacco and the offense got the ball back with 1:55 left. A few plays later, the Ravens had the ball on the Patriots' nine-yard line and sent in Tucker for the game-winning field goal. With the game on the line, Flacco led the Ravens on two scoring drives late in the game to win.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the playoff matchup, the Ravens came out with a conservative game plan, but changed it at halftime to let him throw more. This resulted in the Ravens scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half and a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 106.2.

The Patriots have been a team that he plays better against due to his familiarity with them. He has played them six times going 3-3 including 2-1 in the playoffs. In these games, he has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to four interceptions and has completed 63.5 percent of his passes.

This year, he seems to be having a down year after winning the Super Bowl. He has thrown for 3,460 yards, 18 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his passes. Along with these stats, he has also thrown a career-high 17 interceptions and has a career-low quarterback rating (76.5). His previous high in interceptions was 12 which he has done three different times.

Part of the reason why he is having a down year is the struggles of the rest of the offense. Anquan Boldin, a key receiver from last year, was traded away and tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in training camp. He has only returned recently and the game this week will be his third of the season. The offensive line has struggled in pass protection and run blocking. The lack of an effective run game has pushed more onto the shoulders of Flacco.

One thing that he has done well this season is come through late in games. In the last two game, he has led two game-winning drives and in the first game, he led two touchdown drives in the final few minutes.

Playing in the clutch is one of the most important attributes that a quarterback can have in his arsenal and it is something that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And Flacco has it.

If the Ravens can get another good performance from Flacco, then they are going to be tough to beat.

2.  Tom Brady
Speaking of quarterbacks that perform in the clutch, the Patriots have a pretty good one themselves in Brady.

While Brady is a first-ballet Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Ravens' defense has given him trouble in the past. Since 2008 — when Flacco entered the league — Brady has thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions against the Ravens while completing 60.2 percent of his passes. In his eight career starts against the Ravens, he has completed only 57.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two more interceptions than touchdowns. These are his worst numbers against an opponent.

One reason that the Ravens have been able to find success against him has been because of the numerous blitzes that the Ravens run. The Ravens' defense has been able to confuse Brady at times with their blitzes.

Directing the Ravens' signals on defense every other year has been Ray Lewis, another first-ballet Hall-of-Fame player. However, he retired in the offseason and left a huge void in the middle of the Ravens' defense. Taking over Lewis' spot has been Daryl Smith, a veteran signed in free agency.

He has exceeded expectations for the Ravens as he has 107 tackles (tied for a career-high), 4.5 sacks (career-high), three interceptions (career-high) and 18 pass deflections (career-high and a Ravens' franchise record for a linebacker). He has also done a good job of calling the signals for the defense.

Brady will be missing many of his top targets in this game. All three of his favorite targets from last year won't play as tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a torn ACL and MCL, tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial for murder and wide receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. On top of that fourth-round pick wide receiver Josh Boyce is out with an injury, second-round pick wide receiver Aaron Dobson is questionable and undrafted free agent wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is also questionable. His most targeted receiver this year is Julian Edelman who has 89 catches and his previous high was 37. Coming in second is Danny Amendola, a free agent signing to replace Welker, but he has missed four games with injury.

Despite all of these injuries and changes, Brady has still led the Patriots to a 10-4 record.

The Ravens will need to play physical with the receivers on the outside as both Edelman and Amendola are under six foot tall. The defense will also need to pressure Brady with various blitzes to force him to make quick decisions under pressure.

3.  Big Plays
This game has massive playoff implications so there will be a playoff-like atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In games like this, big plays will be the difference.

Big plays can be one of two things: a large gain or a turnover.

Starting with large gains, these can come in many different forms. There could be a big kickoff or punt return, a long pass or catch and run, or even a long run after a handoff.

In the return game, the Ravens have a clear advantage with Jacoby Jones returning for them. The first-team All-Pro kick returner from last season missed a few games at the beginning of the season with a knee injury and then struggled in his first few games back. Now though, he is in full stride and has been busting out big returns in recent games. Against the New York Jets four weeks ago, he returned a punt 37 yards and had 108 punt return yards on five returns. Three weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers he returned a kickoff 73 yards and almost scored a touchdown. Against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago he did as he took a kickoff 77 yards with 1:16 left in the game to give the Ravens the lead. Last week against the Detroit Lions he returned a kickoff 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line to set up the Ravens' game-winning drive.

In the passing and rushing game, the Ravens and Patriots are balanced as the Ravens have the advantage passing and the Patriots do rushing the ball.

Moving to the turnover battle, the Patriots have the advantage. They have a turnover differential of plus six compared to the Ravens one of negative two. The Patriots have forced 25 turnovers (14 interceptions and 11 fumbles) while only turning it over 19 times (10 interceptions and nine fumbles). The Ravens have forced 20 turnovers (12 interceptions and eight fumbles) while turning it over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles).

Last week, the Patriots were even in turnover differential as they threw for one interception and forced a fumble. The Ravens were plus three as they intercepted three passes while not turning the ball over.

This game is going to come down to who can make a big play when is comes down to it. Both the Ravens and Patriots have shown this ability and are balanced in this aspect.

4.  Run Game
A battle of bad meets bad when the Ravens have the ball on offense as the Ravens' run game ranks worst in yards per attempt and the Patriots' run defense ranks second-worst in yards per game.

The struggles for the Ravens stem from an ineffective offensive line and running backs that can't break tackles. This is a killer combination (and not in a good way). This has led to 3.0 yards per carry which is worse than all teams in the league and the next worse is at 3.3.

The offensive line has failed to provide any holes to running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They haven't played well either though as they have failed to break tackles and take advantage of a hole when there has been one.

Injuries have been the main fault behind the Patriots' bad run defense. Starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are out for the season with injuries and the same goes for linebacker Jarod Mayo. These three (especially Wilfork and Mayo) were the better run defenders on the Patriots and their losses have really hurt the Patriots.

Rice has run up the middle a lot this season and with the Patriots hurting in that area, expect more of the same. One of the two units has to give way and have success for once. Right?

Ravens Advance To Super Bowl XLVII

January 22, 2013 in Observations

In a rematch of last years AFC Championship Game, the Baltimore Ravens outlasted the New England Patriots by a score of 28-13.  At halftime the score was 13-7 to the Patriots.  Once the second half started the Ravens had a new offensive scheme, pass the ball.  This worked as it led to 21 second half points.  The defense rose to the occasion and shut the Patriots out in the second half.  In the first half, the Ravens were out played but, in the second half, the Ravens outplayed the Patriots.  Before this game, the Patriots had won 71 games in a row under head coach Bill Belichick when leading at half, including a 67-0 record when the quarterback is Tom Brady.  Now the Ravens will head to New Orleans to play in Super Bowl XLVII.  They will have the San Francisco 49ers who are coached by the brother of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh.  The game will take place on February 3rd and kickoff is at 6:29 pm Eastern time.

The Red Zone
The Ravens play in the red zone, on offense and defense, is what won them this game.  On offense, they made it to the red zone four times and, scored four touchdowns.  This offensive efficiency can make an offense almost unstoppable, as long as they can actually get to the red zone. On defense, they allowed the Patriots to make it in to the red zone four times but, they only scored one touchdown.  The Patriots also got to the Ravens 24 and 22-yard line but, the Ravens were able to force interceptions both times.  This red zone defense describes this years Ravens defense.  They are not the best in the league anymore however, once the other team makes it to the red zone, they dig in and stop the offense. It is very hard to lose a game when you have these two stats on your side.

Joe Flacco
For Flacco, it was almost like two different games.  In the first half, he went 6-of-12 for 81 yards with 0 TDs or INTs.  This isn't bad quarterbacking but, it also isn't how an elite one plays.  In the second half though, he went 15-of-24 for 159 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs.  For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs.  His QBR was 80.2 and his QB rating was 106.2 compared to Tom Brady's QBR of 45.1 and QB rating of 62.3.  Brady also threw 2 INTs.  So, for the third time in as many games, Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady and, two of these games have been the AFC Championship.

As stated above, the Ravens offensive strategy in the second half changed.  In the first half they had been doing a lot of run plays, especially on first down.  The offense just looked really conservative in the first half.  At halftime, there were some changes as the Ravens came out throwing in the second half.  In fact, Flacco accounted for 70% of the Ravens offense in the second half.  With this change, the offense started to move the ball.  Soon they had taken a 14-13 lead and they never looked back after that.

On to more game specific things, Flacco never really got the deep ball going as his longest completion of the game went for 26 yards to Anquan Boldin.  The lack of a deep passing game can be attributed to the weather as it was very windy on the field with the wind at around 20 mph if I remember correctly.  All of Flacco's touchdown passes were good but the one that stood out to me was the first to Anquan Boldin.  The first was a play action jump ball.  After the fake, Flacco threw the ball up where only Boldin could get it.  Flacco also had one rush attempt where he scrambled and picked up 14 yards and a first down.

Joe Flacco

Ravens QB Joe Flacco celebrates throwing one of his three touchdown passes against the Patriots.

Ray Rice
Starting with his performance in the passing game, Rice had 3 catches for 22 yards on 4 targets.  Of these three catches, two of them went for first downs.  The most memorable was a 15 yard screen pass.  The Patriots originally had the screen covered but, Rice got away and Flacco threw it.  Rice broke three tackles on his way to the first down.  Now to the run game.  While Rice had 19 rushes, he only ran for 48 yards which is an average of 2.5 yards per carry.  Three of these rushes went for first downs.  One was a 5 yard run that put the ball on the Patriots 2-yard line after he ran for eight yards the play before.  Another of his first downs was a short run on a 2nd and 2 which put the ball on the Patriots 3-yard line.  The last of his first downs was a 3rd and 1 run with five minutes left in the game which helped run more time off the clock.  Along with his 48 rush yards, Rice also had a rushing touchdown.  He only went for two yards but, he broke two tackles on the way.  The play called for Rice to run up the middle but, like most of the game, there wasn't running room in the middle.  So, Rice bounced the run outside to the left and scored. The only negative from Rice is he had a false start on a 3rd an 8 from the Ravens own 29-yard line.  This was early in the game so it can probably be accounted to nerves.

Bernard Pierce
While couldn't get much going on the ground, Pierce had much more success.  On 9 carries he had 52 yards.  Three of these carries went for first downs.  One of them was a 2nd and 5 run for nine yards which put the ball on the Patriots 22-yard line and another was a 3rd and 2 draw that he was able to bounce outside for a gain of eleven, the longest rush by any running back in the game.  Pierce also had 1 catch for 8 yards.  This also went for a first down; it was a 2nd and 8 swing pass that just barely was enough for the first.

Torrey Smith
Unlike the Denver game, Smith wasn't able to catch a deep pass but, he still had an impact on the game.  Most of his catches were in the intermediate range due to the wind.  He had 4 catches for 69 yards on 9 targets.  He had three of these go for first downs.  The first was a 25 yard catch on play action on a 2nd and 6 which put the Ravens on the Patriots 15-yard line.  The second was a 2nd and 14 conversion that went for 23 yards.  Lastly, he had a 16 yard catch on a first down.

Anquan Boldin
This was another record setting game for Boldin.  With his two touchdown catches, Boldin became the Ravens all-time postseason receiving touchdown leader.  He had 5 catches for 60 yards with 2 TDs on 8 targets.  All of these catches came in the second half and only one wasn't a first down or touchdown.  One of these first down catches was a 3rd and 9 for 26 yards and the other was on 2nd and 10 that put the ball on the Patriots 10-yard line.  Boldin's first touchdown was on the first play of the fourth quarter.  The other touchdown (the first was discussed with Flacco), was on a 2nd and 4 and was for 12 yards.  Boldin lined up in the slot and ran a seam route, Flacco threw it up and Boldin caught it for another touchdown.

Anquan Boldin

Ravens WR Anquan Boldin celebrates a touchdown with WRs Torrey Smith (left) and Jacoby Jones (right) nearby.

Dennis Pitta
For the second game in a row, Pitta had 55 receiving yards.  This week he did it on 5 catches with 7 targets.  Three of these catches went for first downs, one for a touchdown, and the other was in the red zone.  Starting with his first down catches, Pitta had a 3rd and 4 catch from deep in Ravens territory, a 2nd and 10 catch for a gain of over 20 yards, and a 2nd and 4 catch that put the ball on the Patriots 13-yard line.  His touchdown was on 2nd and goal from the 5-yard line and was a quick pass.  Lastly, his other catch occurred on the play before his touchdown.  It was first and goal from the ten and he went over the middle.  Pitta caught the ball and took a big hit but still was able to hold on to the ball.  On the negative side, Pitta had a diving catch go right through his hands on a 3rd and 8.

Offensive Line
Yet again, the offensive line performed great.  They only gave up two sacks for a combined loss of five yards which is nothing in terms of sack yardage.  The first sack was given up by LT Bryant McKinnie on a 3rd and 6 from inside the Ravens own 10-yard line. The other sack was more of a coverage sack and Flacco was starting to scramble so it wasn't really the fault of the offensive line.  It only went for a loss of one so it was basically a failed run play.  None of the offensive linemen were called for a penalty which is very impressive.  In the run game, they got some movement but for the most past, there never were any big holes to run through.  Of the offensive line can protect Flacco like this for one more game, they could be tough to beat in the Super Bowl.

Haloti Ngata
Ngata may have only had four tackles but, for a defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense, that is good.  One of these tackles was a run stop for no gain.  The part of the game that Ngata was the best at yesterday was rushing the passer.  Ngata finished with three of the Ravens seven QB hits (they didn't record a sack but seemed to have a fair amount of pressure).  On a 4th and 4 play from the Ravens 19-yard line, Ngata had pressure with Terrell Suggs which caused Brady to throw the ball away.  Once the Ravens made this stop, it seemed like the Ravens were going to win and make it to the Super Bowl.  This play is an attribute to Ngata's speed as Brady had an open field in front of him but didn't run because he probably wouldn't have made it.  Ngata also had pressure on another play which caused a throw away.  The last play where Ngata caused a throw away was with two minutes left.  Ngata had pressure which caused Brady to throw the ball away.

Pernell McPhee
So how does a defensive lineman without a tackle make it here?  Simple, deflect two passes (including one that leads to a touchdown) and say that you have discovered Tom Brady's flaw.  First, McPhee batted away a pass in the fourth quarter that Dannell Ellerbe was able to intercept. After this interception, with seven minutes left in the game, it seemed like the game really was over as the Patriots never got the ball back until there were two minutes left.  The other pass deflection came with under two minutes left in game.  On to him discovering Brady's flaw, McPhee says "He throws all of his balls low."  When asked about how Brady has been so successful despite this McPhee said "He just throws it fast and he always gets good pockets.  But I tried to stay in front of him after watching film and knowing where he likes to go and how he likes to do it.  So that was my best advantage, just get my hands up."  This strategy clearly worked for McPhee as he had his two pass deflections at the line.

Pernell McPhee

Ravens DE Pernell McPhee batted down two passes at the line-of-scrimmage.

Ray Lewis
As usual, Lewis recorded double digit tackles with 14 but, according to Pro Football Focus, only two of those were defensive stops (runs for little or no gain).  Lewis was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit which was the right call even though it was pretty obvious that he didn't mean to do it. Lastly, after the game, Lewis fell to the ground and started saying "Hallelujah."

Dannell Ellerbe
Starting with pass coverage, Ellerbe gave up three catches for one first down.  With about seven minutes left in the game, Ellerbe intercepted Brady off of McPhee's tip.  This came the next play after Wes Welker caught a 56 yard pass.  The last positive for Ellerbe was a pressure on Brady which caused a bad deep pass that ended up going out-of-bounds.  Also on this play, Ellerbe was able to take down Brady.  On the negative side Ellerbe was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty after slapping a Patriots offensive lineman when a play was over. Ellerbe was retaliating to a late block but, you can't do that in the NFL and he was flagged, even if his slap barely was anything.

Terrell Suggs
While Suggs is though of as a pass rusher, he is actually quite a good run defender and this was on full display yesterday.  Suggs had two run stops for no gain including one on a 2nd and 1.  In the pass rush department he wasn't able to record a sack (like all of the Ravens) but, still had at least two pressures.  The first was on the 4th and 4 with Haloti Ngata as already discussed.  The other was with under two minutes left where he hit Brady as he threw causing an incompletion.

Walking off the field, Suggs was overheard saying "Tell them to have fun at the Pro Bowl. Arrogant f—ers" and "These are the most arrogant pricks in the world starting with Belichick on down."  He also said "That's funny, ever since SpyGate they haven't been able to win" though I don't know if he said this one to reporters or if he was overheard like the other two.  He did respond to reporters saying "All BS aside they are a hell of a ball club … They have the right to be arrogant."  While he may believe this, there is no reason to say this but, on the positive side, he didn't come out and say it to the media, he was just overheard.  Either way, the Ravens don't need publicity like this, especially after these two controversial things about the Patriots.

Bernard Pollard
It seemed like Pollard was all over the field going full speed all night.  He finished with 9 tackles, 1 pass deflection, and 1 forced fumble.  In the run game, Pollard had a run stop for a gain of two yards.  In pass coverage, he only gave up one pass.  On a blitz he was able to bat down a pass at the line-of-scrimmage.  This batted pass came on 1st and goal from the Ravens two-yard line.  On a 3rd and 4 from the Ravens 19-yard line, he had great coverage and forced an incompletion.  Pollard had a big hit on a receiver but was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit.  However, he led with his shoulder on the play and his shoulder hit the receiver on his head so I am going to call this one a bad call.

Lastly is the play we all remember, his hit and forced fumble on Patriots RB Stevan Ridley.  Pollard hit Ridley hard and they both lowered their heads on the play so it was a helmet-to-helmet hit but since it was a running back it isn't a penalty.  Ridley was unconscious before he hit the ground and on his way down, the ball came out of his hands and was recovered by DT Arthur Jones.  Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said "That [Pollard's hit] was the turning point of the game. A tremendous hit, football at its finest."  This play goes in line with Pollard's history with the Patriots.  In 2008, it was Pollard that hit Brady when he tore his ACL.  In 2009, it was Pollard that Welker was trying to avoid when he tore his ACL.  In 2012, it was Pollard that injured Rob Gronkowski ankle which limited him in the Super Bowl.

Bernard Pollard

Ravens S Bernard Pollard goes in for a tackle.

Cary Williams
Williams had a solid performance last night only giving up four completions and one first down.  He also had a deflection on a 3rd and 2 that went right to Paul Kruger but, since the deflection took a weird bounce off of Williams, Kruger dropped it because he wasn't expecting the ball to come to him.  Lastly, Williams intercepted Brady in the end zone with 1:06 left in the game.  After this interception the Ravens just took a two knees and the game was over.

Corey Graham
Like Williams, Graham gave up four completions, however, three of his went for first downs and the other was for the Patriots only touchdown of the game.  The touchdown was on a 3rd and goal from the one.  After the play, Graham and Chykie Brown were upset because they didn't communicate well after the Patriots motioned a receiver over.  This led to Welker being open for the touchdown.  Graham was also beaten on the first drive on a 3rd and 2 but Welker dropped the pass.  On a pass that Welker didn't drop, Graham was beat deep for 56 yards.  He bit badly on the double move leaving Welker wide open.  Ending on a positive note, Graham had a run stop for a loss of one on a 3rd and 2 which forced a field goal by the Patriots.

Jimmy Smith
This game was the first time in a while that Smith received substantial playing time.  Brown started as the nickel corner and then Smith took it over.  By the end of the game it seemed like they were being rotated.  This could have been part of the game plan to put Graham on Welker instead of Brown doing that.  This would mean that Graham would be in the slot.  Since Smith is better on the outside than Brown, he would come in when in nickel.  This is just a speculation so it will be interesting to see who is the nickel corner in the Super Bowl.

John Harbaugh

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh celebrates the Ravens win in the locker room.

Dannell Ellerbe Questionable

January 19, 2013 in Injury Reports

Ravens

Dannell Ellerbe

Ravens starting ILB Dannell Ellerbe is questionable with ankle and back injuries.

Out
CB Asa Jackson (thigh)

Questionable
LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle and back)
FB Vonta Leach (knee and ankle)
RB Bernard Pierce (knee)
WR David Reed (thigh)

Probable
RB Anthony Allen (head)
WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder)
CB Chykie Brown (shoulder)
DT Terrence Cody (ankle)
C Gino Gradkowski (head)
DT Arthur Jones (thigh and knee)
LB Ray Lewis (triceps)
LB Albert McClellan (shoulder)
DE Pernell McPhee (thigh)
DT Haloti Ngata (knee)
S Bernard Pollard (chest)
S Ed Reed (shoulder)
CB Jimmy Smith (abdominal)
WR Torrey Smith (back)
LB Terrell Suggs (achilles and biceps)
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

Patriots

*Note*  Earlier this week the Patriots placed TE Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve.

Probable
CB Marquice Cole (finger)
DE Chandler Jones (ankle)
OL Nick McDonald (shoulder)
DE Trevor Scott (knee)
RB Danny Woodhead (thumb)