I’ve waited until today to write this because I have been convincing myself that both teams will win this game all week. Unless there is some random rule change, we all know that this isn’t possible. So it is time to hold myself accountable and put my mediocre 5-3 playoff record on the line as the red hot Baltimore Ravens head to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots in a rematch from last season.
Baltimore Ravens (4) @ New England Patriots (2)
With their stunning comeback and upset over the top seeded Denver Broncos last week, the Ravens continued their late season hot streak and are playing their best football of the year headed into a rematch with their now heated rivals. The memory of a dropped touchdown pass and a shanked field goal to end last year’s AFC championship will no doubt be brought up more than once by the commentating team this Sunday and don’t think the Ravens have forgotten about it.
I’ve made the mistake of picking against the Ravens in both weeks this postseason and while you think that would teach me not to pick against them again, it isn’t always that easy when the competition is at home and still employs Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. All season long, analysts and experts alike have been quick to call the Patriots old and declared their Super Bowl loss last season their window closing. They’ve only managed to go out and get better since that loss.
The difference between the Patriots this year and last is that the defense is actually able to get off the field now. They still aren’t going to lock anyone down, but they were the best in the NFL at turnover differential this season at plus 25. It’s still easy to gain huge chunks of yardage on them and their pass rush isn’t scary outside of Vince Wilfork, but like the 2009 Saints, they’ll find a way to force you into turning the ball over.
Also different is that New England has a running game now. The Patriots offense generated over 400 yards more on the ground this season than in 2011, thanks mainly to the play of second year player Stevan Ridley. With his 1,263 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns in the regular season, he’s the most successful running back for New England since Corey Dillon in 2004; ironically the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl.
With an actual running threat, this has given Tom Brady some of the best pocket protection he has seen in at least the past five years. He’s done nothing but have one of his best seasons as a pro with his third most passing yards in a single season. In short, this team is better than last season, so to say Baltimore is a little better than last year and that’s why they will win is completely unfair.
What has changed for Baltimore this season is that Joe Flacco just seems like an all around better quarterback than he did at this time last year. And what many folks forget is that Flacco outplayed Brady in last year’s title game. The way to beat New England is to go up top and stretch the defense. If Joe is slinging the ball around on Sunday like he did in Denver last weekend, we could be looking at a shoot out.
I usually preface every game preview that features the Ravens with they have to give Ray Rice the ball ____ number of times. But I’m not going to do that today. He’ll need to have a better game than he has these first two weeks of the postseason, but he doesn’t have to carry the load if Flacco remains in his zone.
The defense looks to be a different unit with Ray Lewis on the field and that is ever important against a team like New England, as evidenced against Houston last week, loves to abuse the middle of the field. Their short passing attack and speed can make any defense look slow. With their team captain patrolling the middle, they’ve got a better chance than Houston ever did.
In the end, I’ve been picking the Patriots to be the AFC representative for quite some time now. However, I did pick the Ravens in my preseason picks. So I could go all Peter King on you and say I got both of them right, but I’m going to roll with the home team in a game that looks like a push on paper. Flacco has been too inconsistent over his career for me to believe this new lever of play is a trend with him. Plus, I’m doing Ravens fans a solid; I haven’t picked them yet and they keep winning. So there’s that.
Patriots 33 Ravens 27
Tagged with: AFC, AFC Championship, AFC East, AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Corey Dillon, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Joe Flacco, New England Patriots, Peter King, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork