When the playoff schedule was released last week, fans across New England expected to see the lowly Bengals or inconsistent Colts limp into Foxboro for the AFC Divisional Playoff game. The Steelers had proven they could beat up on the Ravens and it was widely expected they would advance to play against Denver in the Divisional Round. The Ravens had different plans and went into Heinz Field and upset the Le’Veon Bell-less Steelers, 30-17.
It was the first time the Ravens had ever beat the Steelers in the playoffs and only the second time they’ve beaten a team with a winning record in 2014 (they beat Pittsburgh 26-6 in Week Two.) After the win, Patriot fans started to worry because the Ravens are a team that has never feared playing in New England and could possibly be a major road block on the way to a fourth title for Brady, Belichick and Co. Although the Ravens still wear purple and black uniforms and feature Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs as their best players, much has changed since these teams battled for the 2012 AFC Championship.
1. How will the Patriots move the ball?
Baltimore, statistically, had a good season on the defensive side of the ball; they allowed 18.9 points per game (6th) and 336.9 yards per game (8th). They only gave up 88.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks them fourth in the NFL. One area where Baltimore has struggled is defending the pass; yes, the Ravens finished the year with 49 sacks and also sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times on Saturday night, but they gave up 248.7 yards passing per game, ranking them 23rd in the NFL. Baltimore opponents haven’t been afraid to throw at them, and that is one of the reasons they have 49 sacks. The Patriots try to maintain balance, but when your best offensive weapons are Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, it’s clear that they’re a pass-first offense.
The last three games were tough on the Patriots offensive line as they battled to keep Brady upright vs. Miami, New York and Buffalo, but health was part of the problem. Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer return to solidify the line, and Julian Edelman also returns after missing the final two weeks with a concussion. The Steelers are also pass-first, but their style is completely different that New England; deep drops and slow developing routes are the staple of the Pittsburgh passing game. The Patriots are the opposite; quick passes and rhythm define the New England passing game, and this should nullify the Baltimore pass rush. The Patriots may struggle to run Saturday night, but they’ll be able to move the ball through the air using quick throws and screens, and that will eventually open up the running game.
2. Can the Ravens score against the New England defense?
The Ravens offense has been good in 2014, scoring 25.6 points per game. The key is their running game, which averages 126.2 yards per game. The passing game was in the middle of the pack, putting up 238.7 yards per game. Overall, they were ranked 12th in total yardage and 8th in scoring. Again, these numbers look good, but when you dig in and look at the individual games, it tells a different story. The Ravens were 9-0 vs. teams .500 and below, scoring 29 points per game. When Pittsburgh faced teams above .500, they were 1-6 and averaged 22.3 points per game. Simply put, the Ravens beat up on the worst teams in football and couldn’t beat a winning team unless it was Pittsburgh, a very flawed 11-5 team.
So with all those stats, the question remains- can they score against New England? The answer is no. They’ll move the ball at times and kick a few field goals, but New England shuts teams down in the red zone, they have the secondary to slow down the passing game and their revamped front seven is much improved against the run. Alan Branch has been a huge addition to the defensive line and Jamie Collins has improved greatly as the year has gone on. Steve Smith is going to take a trip to Revis Island and Torrey Smith will be dealing with double teams all afternoon. It is going to be a long day for Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and the Ravens offense.
3. Who has the edge in the coaching match up?
Bill Belichick has the head-to-head lead over John Harbaugh, 4-3, but Harbaugh has gotten the best of Belichick in the playoffs, winning two out of three. Since Harbaugh has been the coach in Baltimore, they’ve arguably been the more complete team, so it’s not a surprise that Harbaugh has the playoff edge. This year is different because the Patriots have the more talented and complete roster, so it will be interesting to see how Saturday shakes out. Last season, New England went into Baltimore with a ton of injuries and whipped the Ravens, 41-7. The only difference for the Ravens is the additions of Steve Smith and Justin Forsett; other than that, they have the same starters. The Patriots didn’t have Gronkowski and they’ve added Revis, Browner and LaFell. Like I’ve said all year, when the matchup features two excellent coaches, it typically comes down to who has the better team, and this year it’s New England. Advantage: Patriots.
4. Will the Ravens find a way to give Brady fits?
The Ravens feature one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, so yes, there is a chance they will give Brady some trouble. The thing is, New England has been facing great defensive fronts for the last month (Miami, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills) and they know what they’re up against. Baltimore had 49 sacks in the regular season and five in the Wild Card game vs. Pittsburgh, but let’s not forget that the Ravens faced NINE teams under .500 and two others that went 9-7, so they piled up sacks against some of the worst teams in football. Even Pittsburgh, who was 11-5, allowed 33 sacks in 2014, so they have protection problems too.
New England is not going to let Brady get rocked in the pocket; expect Rob Gronkowski to be as big a factor in blocking as he is receiving. Elvis Dumervil had 17 sacks in 2014, but he’ll have his hands full with the monstrous Sebastian Vollmer. For all the heat the Patriots offensive line has received, they only allowed 22 sacks on the season, eight of those coming over the last two games when Dan Connolly was out; Vollmer was out for the Buffalo game also. Assuming the Patriots block the way they did over the first 14 games, they should be able to handle the Ravens pass rush.
5. Who wins the game and why?
Contrary to what most talking heads are saying this week, I don’t expect this to be a very close game. Baltimore had a very easy schedule and they barely squeaked into the playoffs. The Patriots went 6-3 vs. teams above .500 and 4-1 against playoff teams, so they played a much harder schedule and still managed to finish two games ahead of Baltimore. The Ravens secondary has been terrible all year and the Patriots are going to find a way to take advantage of that weakness. Joe Flacco has been a great playoff quarterback, especially on the road, but he’ll have his hands full with the excellent New England defense, specifically their secondary. Chandler Jones is getting healthier every day and is going to help the Patriots pass rush in a big way, making their defense even more dangerous. One area the Ravens are very strong is in the return game, but Jacoby Jones is going to see a lot of Matt Slater on Saturday. When it comes down to it, the only area the Ravens have an advantage is the defensive line, and that’s not going to be enough to come in and upset the most complete team in the AFC. Patriot fans shouldn’t make any plans for January 18th because their team will be hosting the AFC Championship.
Predicted Score: Patriots 37, Ravens 16
Statistics Provided by www.pro-football-reference.com