Here we go again - Once more, Baltimore’s path to the promise land goes through Foxborough.
Following the agonizing 23-20 loss in the corresponding fixture last year, courtesy of Billy Cundiff’s missed 32 yard field goal; Baltimore has the chance to write a very different ending this Sunday.
Following last seasons title decider, the two teams produced a most enthralling contest in week 3, settled by Justin Tucker’s 27 yard field goal as time expired, thus sealing a memorable 31-30 triumph for John Harbaugh’s men.
The scoreline suggests a closely fought contest, and it was - Though the New England secondary got nowhere near close to thwarting the combination of Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith (showing tremendous resolve in playing less than 24 hours after the tragic loss of his younger brother), as the duo connected six times for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Patriots failed little better against the run, as Ray Rice ran riot, racking up 150 total yards from scrimmage, including 101 rushing yards on 20 attempts and going some way to amassing a hugely impressive 503 yards of total offence for the Ravens.
Despite Tom Brady putting up an impressive 335 yards and a touchdown, the lack of meaningful production from the ground game, (77 total rush yards, the most of which coming via Stevan Ridley’s 37, hardly helping matters) meant the Patriots were unable to put away a game that appeared to be theirs for the taking midway through the fourth quarter.
The Patriots will be relishing the opportunity to take on the Ravens in a contest that will carry far greater significance than the week 3 showdown in Baltimore, and home advantage may see them though, although, if history has taught us anything - home isn’t necessarily ‘home sweet home’. Just ask Denver…
‘The Patriot way?’
The combination of Stevan Ridley (1, 263 yards from 290 carries, and 12 touchdowns, the joint third most in the league), Shane Vereen (who had particularly impressive outing against the Texans, chalking up 124 total yards, 41 rushing, 83 receiving, and finding the end-zone 3 times) and Danny Woodhead ensures positive production on the ground.
The Patriots fielded the NFL's seventh-ranked rushing offense during the regular season, averaging 136.5 rushing yards on 32.7 attempts, although it must be noted most of those yards were accumulated with the Patriots having established an already advantageous position.
Regardless, the presence of a potent ground attack allows New England to control the tempo of the game, especially with it snapping the ball every 15 seconds, thus depriving the opposition vital time to execute personnel changes at the line of scrimmage.
Against a blitz orientated defense, the running game should relieve pressure on Brady in the pocket, keeping the retiring Ray Lewis and company honest.
Keeping an improving Raven’s defense honest will be paramount, especially with the man widely regarded as the best tight end in the league, Rob Gronkowski sidelined with a broken arm.
Gronkowski’s absence leaves New England without the triple threat (Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker) that served it so well en route to the Superbowl last year, and leaves the Patriots shorthanded, potentially allowing the Ravens to focus on containing Wes Welker with double-teams trying to nullify Brady.
To combat those tactics, the Patriots can hand the ball to Ridley out of their power formations (multiple tight end formations) and use Vereen (as a receiver, when the run is used to set up the pass, or on a slant) and/or Woodhead on decoy runs from the spread option, thus opening up the backfield for Brandon Lloyd/Deion Branch (if used).
A similar tactic to the one that was so effective against Houston when they met in week 14.
Given the history of close contests between these teams, big plays could be the deciding factor on Sunday, and with Flacco playing like the ‘elite’ quarterback he claims to be, it could come down to who wins a shoot out between himself and Brady.
‘Rooks and Ravens?’
Coordinator Jim Caldwell continues to push Baltimore in the right direction offensively, following the dismissal of Cam Cameron.
The Ravens' new play caller has given the unit a new found sense of direction since taking over in Week 15. The offense has been structured in a way that allows the offensive talent to function in a cogent and imaginative fashion that features the key playmakers (Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Rice, and the emerging Bernard Pierce), while providing Flacco with the freedom to direct proceedings from the line of scrimmage.
Flacco has long been an advocate of the no-huddle offense, and it’s overly conservative use under the aforementioned Cameron, hamstrung the Flacco. Thus having a telling effect on production.
The Ravens have moved the ball consistently since Week 15, with the aforementioned personnel managing the work load with great efficiency. More importantly, Flacco has been utterly imperious through that period, throwing nine touchdown passes to only one pick.
Facing a vulnerable Patriots defense that ranks among the best at producing turnovers, Caldwell must craft an adventurous game plan that mixes both the pass and run in a way that keeps the ball out of harms way.
Verdict: I’ve not always been a firm believer in fate, but some have said the ‘angel of Myra Kraft’ produced strong magic that carried the Patriots to Indianapolis, and it’s hard to disagree with that notion, as the Patriots victory had to have been a result of divine intervention; especially given the struggles of the Tom Brady that day (22/36 for 239 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions).
However, one would be hard pressed to see New England relying on anything other than talent this Sunday, and despite an improved defense and triggerman in Joe Flacco, Baltimore may not have enough to keep the Patriots offense off the field long enough.
Therefore, I can’t see anything other than a New England victory; it’ll be close, much like last years contest, but Brady and Belichick will ensure the lights go down for Lewis in Massachusetts.
Then again, remember the 2011 Giants...?
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