When the Patriots Passed :
All New England did was pass on Saturday because they didn’t have a choice. Tom Brady had one of his best playoff games ever, and by far his best game vs. the Ravens. Brady was 33/50 for 367 yards and three touchdowns. He did throw a crucial interception in the two minute drive to end the first half that led to a pivotal Baltimore touchdown and he missed some easy throws too, but he overcame his mistakes and had a strong second half. Brady did a good job of spreading the ball around, and that is when he is most dangerous. Rob Gronkowski (7-108-1) led the way as usual, but Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen and Michael Hoomanawanui also contributed in the passing game and assisted in the impressive Patriots comeback. The offensive line, which has been getting heat from fans and the media for almost a month, did have a strong game. Yes, the Ravens had two sacks and hit Brady nine times, but when you drop back to throw 50 times, there is going to be SOME pressure. Overall, they had a strong game, even with the injury to center Brian Stork in the second quarter.
Hoomanawanui made the most noise when the Patriots went down 28-14 in the third quarter. New England used a formation typically reserved for college and high school; Hoomanawanui lined up at left tackle but was an eligible receiver while Shane Vereen split out and remained ineligible. It threw off the Ravens defense and coaching staff and allowed the Patriots to pick up three chunk plays and led to their third score. John Harbaugh complained in his press conference about the play being “deceptive”, which it was, but it was not illegal in the slightest. Maybe he should have been listening to the refs when they announced that Vereen was ineligible and a tight end lined up at tackle. The Ravens felt the Patriots rushed them and they should have more time to figure out who to cover, but that was more sour grapes than anything. Tom Brady was right in his press conference when he advised the Ravens to “study their rulebooks”. Julian Edelman also had his first completion in the NFL, hitting Danny Amendola for a 51-yard touchdown on a wide receiver pass. It was a big play to swing momentum back to New England and made the score 28-21.
When the Patriots Ran :
The Patriots didn’t really run the ball at all on Saturday night, mainly because Baltimore stuffed them early and made it clear the only way to beat them was through the air. The totals were ugly- 13 carries, 14 yards, 1.1 yards per carry, and one touchdown run courtesy of Tom Brady. The run was huge because it came on third and goal with the Patriots trailing 14-0. The Ravens came into Saturday allowing only 88 yards rushing per game, so it was not a surprise that they were able to stuff the Patriots, who were missing Jonas Gray. Gray would have been an improvement over Blount and Bolden because he’s quick and physical, but he suffered an ankle injury and wasn’t able to rehab in time for Saturday. The Patriots hope to have him back vs. the Colts in the AFC Title game, especially considering he tore them up for over 200 yards and four touchdowns earlier this season. Give credit to Baltimore for stopping the Patriots from running; New England’ rushing stats may not be great but when they commit to the run, they typically accomplish the goal; that wasn’t going to happen on Saturday.
When the Ravens Passed :
Joe Flacco looked like Joe Montana in the first quarter, leading the Ravens down the field for two quick touchdowns. Typically when the Ravens get up 14-0, it’s game over, but that wasn’t the case Saturday. After New England stormed back to tie the game, Tom Brady made an awful throw in the two-minute drill and Flacco was given another chance to score. He then came in and calmly led the Ravens down the field (aided by an awful pass interference penalty on Darrelle Revis) and threw a touchdown pass to Owen Daniels to give the Ravens a 21-14 lead before the half. The New England pass rush was non-existent and could ultimately be this team’s downfall. The secondary can only cover for so long. In the second half, Flacco was still hot, and after the Patriots went three and out (Gronkowski was clearly interfered with on 3rd down but the refs never threw a flag) the Ravens streaked down the field again, culminating with another Joe Flacco touchdown pass. At 28-14, it appeared the Ravens had the Patriots on the ropes and ready to deliver the knockout punch.
Once again the Patriots came storming back and Flacco had to try and get the passing game rolling again. He was able to lead them down for a field goal, but New England answered with a touchdown. On Flacco’ last drive, he took a deep shot at Torrey Smith, but the Patriots finally made him pay with a Duron Harmon interception in the end zone. Flacco was excellent for three quarters, regardless of the first pick, but in the fourth quarter he fizzled when the Ravens needed him most. It is his job to recognize that the Patriots had over-the-top help on Smith and not throw that ball, but he chucked it up anyway.
When the Ravens Ran :
Justin Forsett was excellent in 2014, and Saturday was more of the same. The Seattle castoff rushed 24 times for 129 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and provided the Baltimore offense the balance they needed to pull off an upset, which they almost did. The Ravens offensive line did a masterful job neutralizing Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones, but Alan Branch was able to step in as a rotational player and help slow things down in the second half. Considering Eugene Monroe missed the game with an injury, it’s even more impressive that Baltimore was able to win up front so consistently in the run and pass game. Saturday was the first time in many weeks that the Patriots were gashed in the running game, so I think it had more to do with the talent of Baltimore than an ongoing problem for New England. Indianapolis has struggled to run all year, so don’t expect to see them gash New England like Forsett and the Ravens did. Kyle Arrington did a good job helping out in defending the run game, another one of the reasons why Belichick likes him so much.
Danny Amendola provided a scare for Patriots fans when he fumbled after the first Baltimore touchdown, but New England was able to recover and avoid an even bigger hole to dig out of. Jacoby Jones had his typical good game, averaging 24.7 yards on six returns, but he didn’t break any long returns, so that’s a credit to the Patriots kickoff coverage. Baltimore is VERY physical on special teams but New England was able to overcome it and make the plays. Danny Amendola had five returns for 125 yards, and besides the terrifying fumble, he did a good job putting the Patriots in decent field position. Julian Edelman only had three punt returns, but he did average 15 yards per return and put pressure on the Baltimore punt cover unit. Ryan Allen wasn’t booming the ball simply because most of his punts came from a spot on the field that required a smart punt. Considering Baltimore only averaged 6.4 yards per return, Allen did his job. Stephen Gostkowski and Justin Tucker were not factors in this game: Tucker connected from 25 yards out and Gostkowski was 5-5 on extra points.
Going into Saturday night, I had this matchup close but Belichick having the advantage because of his roster. Well, he ended up winning the battle, but it wasn’t simply due to a better roster. Belichick pulled out two tricks that got the Patriots back into the game when they looked like they were in major trouble- the four-man line/RB ineligible and the wide receiver pass. Two brilliant plays that led to two score and gave the Patriots a chance to win; John Harbaugh thought the unbalanced/ineligible Vereen was “deceptive”, but the truth is it was brilliant and completely legal. Get your nose in the rulebook John; it can help in those situations. Harbaugh did have his team ready, but Belichick kept his team from folding against a team that’s had their number for five years.