NFL Playoff Preview – Divisional Round – Ravens at Patriots
Well, well, here we go again.
The Baltimore Ravens are heading to Foxborough to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the fourth time in six years in the playoffs. When these two teams have met in the past it usually holds a lot of meaning to the playoff landscape. Two of the three games between them were AFC Championship games with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This year will be the first time these two teams face each other in the divisional round. Joe Flacco and the Ravens are 2-1 against Brady’s Patriots up in Gillette stadium, but as Brady said this week, “Everything’s different at this point…you can’t bring players out of retirement…it’s going to be the Patriots’ 2014 version versus the Ravens’ 2014 version and we go from there.”
This is the first game of divisional round weekend and will air Saturday, January 10th at 4:35pm EST on NBC.
|Baltimore Ravens (10-6) – #6 seed AFC playoffs|
|Total Offense Rank||12th|
|Total Defense Rank||8th|
|Scoring Defense Rank (pts/gm)||6th – (18.9)|
|Record Last 5 games||3-2|
|Record against Playoff Teams||2-4|
Vs. Steelers (week 2) Steelers 06 – Ravens 26
Joe Flacco in the playoffs: After Ravens head coach John Harbaugh proclaimed Joe Flacco to be the “best quarterback in football,” and the recent success of Flacco in the playoffs, much is being made about Brady vs. Flacco this weekend.
At first glance it is ridiculous; Tom Brady is a three time Super Bowl champion, has been to five Super Bowls, has played in 26 playoff games, and has been one of the best regular season and postseason quarterbacks in the NFL for the past 14 years, there is no comparison – Brady is king. However, when you look at the statistics in the playoffs, maybe the reason these two players are such a good matchup every time they meet is that they are actually very similar.
Consider this: Below are the statistics for the two quarterbacks through each of their first 14 games in the postseason.
If you are looking at the bolded section, you will notice that, again, in the playoffs, when it comes to making big plays, throwing touchdowns, and not making critical mistakes, throwing interceptions, through 14 career playoff games, Joe Flacco is on the same level as Tom Brady.
It is still ridiculous to compare the two considering all of the accomplishments and accolades Brady has collected throughout his career, but it is interesting to see that these two guys are more similar than many fans would think. Fans of the Ravens should be encouraged that their quarterback can be held in such high regard, even if it is only in the postseason. And who knows, maybe there is a potential “Flacco era” on the horizon for the NFL. (More analysis on Flacco vs. Brady by truluv’s own Aaron Krug here.)
Player to watch: Linebacker/Defensive End, Terrell Suggs & the Ravens defensive front seven
Known for making odd and playful comments toward each week’s opponents at the podium, Suggs, for any fan who has played against the Ravens more than once, has always been known as the goofball villain of the franchise. However, over the last couple of seasons “T-Sizzle” (as he’s known) has been forced to try and fill the motivational and playmaking role of two Baltimore and NFL legends, in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who left the team after winning the Super Bowl in 2012. After a growing and learning season in 2013, Suggs is finally showing that he can, and is, the right man to fill that role.
Anyone who has watched the Ravens at all over the last decade knows the kind of impact, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, had on the team. This season, Suggs, even while still quoting Gladiator from the podium, has transformed into that same type of focused and motivational leader.
Down the stretch of the season, Terrell Suggs has been playing out of his mind, and has quietly been carrying the Ravens defense. At 32, he is the most explosive and disruptive he has been, down in and down out, since his defensive player of the year season in 2011 – and it is not just his dallas weather in march last weekend. In the last four games of the season, where the defense lost All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata for Adderall use, Suggs has been on fire, recording 5 sacks and disrupting the quarterback on nearly every play.
Suggs didn’t have a sack last weekend, but that interception and seeing him on the sideline before, during and after the game is really where you could see a little Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in his step. He successfully put his feet into some very big shoes a year ago, and has finally broken them in quite nicely this year.
Tom Brady will be looking to get the ball out quickly to his receivers on Saturday, so Suggs will need to lead the Ravens defensive line to get pressure on Brady as much as possible. It is crucial that Suggs and the Ravens pass rushers disrupt Brady’s rhythm by getting into his throwing lanes and knocking down passes, when they are unable to get to him for a sack. The Ravens will need Suggs’ presence, physically and mentally, more than ever for this matchup.
Offensive Analysis: For the Ravens, Tom Brady or no, drafting Joe Flacco in 2008 could not have worked out any better. With Flacco at quarterback, the team has been to the playoffs all but one year, they have been to five divisional playoff games, and have won a Super Bowl.
In those five divisional games, the Ravens have a 3-2 record, with both losses coming in Flacco’s first two years in the NFL. This divisional matchup will be one of the most difficult for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. Flacco has definitely grown up, and plays to the stage when he is in the playoffs, but what truly separates Flacco from other plaoff quarterbacks, as it also did for Brady, is his #unflaccability (pending trademark) and his earlier discussed touchdown to interception ratio (20:8). That ratio will be challenged this weekend.
The Patriots are coming into Saturday’s game with a week of rest and a little extra time for preparation. They also boast one of the most physical secondaries in the NFL, which includes 3-time First-team All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. The only time Flacco played a defense with Darrelle Revis, was against the New York Jets in 2010. In that game, Flacco went 20 of 38, passing for 248 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Ravens won the game 10-9. That Jets team looked a lot like the defense the Ravens will face on Saturday, only the Patriots have a more athletic linebacking corps, and Tom Brady is their quarterback.
The Ravens passing game will have to play creatively and patiently, and it must execute each and every play with precision to win Saturday’s game. The Ravens have some good weapons for Flacco in veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and a speed threat in Torrey Smith on the outside, but they are especially talented at tight end with Owen Daniels and rookie newcomer Crockett Gillmore. The Ravens will need to spread the ball around utilizing their different talents, like fullback Kyle Juzczyk, creatively to throw off a very talented defense, who are especially good at shutting down opposing wide receivers.
Because of “Revis Island” and the Patriots sound defensive backfield, it will be all the more important for the Ravens offense to have success running the football. This especially holds true statistically. A successful running game tends to bode poorly for this particular Patriots defense. In the Patriots biggest blowout wins they are able to control the opponent’s run game. Each team the Patriots struggled with, exempting the Chicago Bears, ran for over 100 yards against them. The Patriots’ outing against the Denver Broncos is the most convincing evidence for this correlation. In that game the Patriots allowed 429 yards passing to Peyton Manning, one of his best games of the season, but they only allowed 43 yards on the ground. You would think with all those passing yards given up the game would have been close, but the Patriots won 43-21. They did the same thing to Andrew Luck in week 11, winning the game 42-20, after allowing 303 yards passing, but only 19 yards rushing, the same thing happen to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins in week 15, and so on and so forth.
The name of the game, despite all of the above planning, is execution. The Ravens offense will need to execute, and especially execute in the red zone. More so than having a 200 yard day on the ground, in order to win, the Ravens will need to take advantage of any red zone opportunities and score touchdowns. The four teams the Patriots lost to this season, and the other two they struggled against, took time off the clock by running the ball and scored touchdowns when they had the chance. If the Ravens offense can execute these examples this weekend. They will set up their defense, and the team, to be successful.
Defensive Analysis: The most important key to success for the Ravens, if they want to control the Patriots offense on Saturday, will be tackling. The Ravens will have their hands full, both the secondary and the linebackers, with the quick receivers of the Patriots and the monster know to the world as “Gronk”. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, with a football in his hands, is a man possessed, the best tight end in the NFL and it is not even close. When he is healthy he can bulldoze anyone and anything, he really is a human wrecking ball. In fact, if it were to come out that “Gronk” were a direct descendent of the original vaudeville performer, Frank “Cannonball” Richards, who is famous for taking shots to his belly from a cannon, it would make a lot of sense.
All half-jokes aside, the Ravens will need to wrap up and fly to the ball on every play to prevent Gronkowski from getting loose on his playground, and to prevent his smaller wide receiver counterparts, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, from collecting on their bread and butter, yards after the catch (YAC). Some of the Ravens players have a tendency to lead into a tackle with their shoulder in an attempt to make a big hit and knock the ball out. On Saturday, it will be enough just to keep the YAC under control and bring the receivers and running backs to the ground.
Along with tackling the all-important receivers for the Patriots, the Ravens front four will have their hands full with the myriad of running backs the Patriots have in their stable. The size and running style difference between each Patriots running back is unworldly compared to what the Ravens faced against the Steelers last week. The biggest running back the Ravens faced against the Steelers was Ben Tate, who, at most, weighs 220 pounds. This week the Patriots can trot out two runners, in Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount, who are 225 pounds and 250 pounds, respectively. Add to that 220 pound Brandon Bolden, and two change of pace backs in James White and receiving back Shane Vereen, and you have one of the most versatile back fields in the NFL. This season, Jonas Gray has had a 201 yard rushing game, and it was just last season that LeGarrette Blount took over a Patriots playoff game gaining 166 yards and 4 touchdowns. Luckily, both of those performances came against the Colts, but if the Ravens are not careful the size and fresh legs of these running backs can do the same to them.
With all of these weapons, it will be up to the Ravens defense to play assignment sound football, maintain their focus, and wrap up every ball carrier at first contact with technique driven tackling.
As mentioned in “players to watch”, the front seven of the Ravens defense getting in Tom Brady’s face will be very important, especially in the red zone. If the Ravens offense wants to score in the red zone, then it makes sense that the Ravens defense will want to stop the Patriots offense in the red zone. It is going to be crucial that the Patriots are held to field goals.
The Ravens have a shot at winning this game, but will need to play the most sound football game they have played all year against the number one seed in the AFC. If they can leave the game with fewer turnovers, more rushing yards, and limit the YAC of the Patriots receivers, then Baltimore newspapers might be talking about a Ravens victory come Sunday edition.
|New England Patriots (12-4) – #1 seed AFC playoffs|
|Total Offense Rank||11th|
|Total Defense Rank||13th|
|Scoring Defense Rank (pts/gm)||8th (19.6)|
|Record Last 5 games||3-2|
|Record against Playoff Teams||4-1|
Vs. Broncos (week 9) Broncos 21 – Patriots 43
Player to watch: Tight End, Rob Gronkowski
Is he getting the ball? – If you are seeing a lot of Rob Gronkowski with the ball in his hands on Saturday, then the Patriots are probably winning.
It was mentioned above that this real-life myth, paradox, man, machine, is the best tight end in the NFL. Next to the Texan’s defensive end J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski may be the second best player in the NFL, period. He literally has that kind of impact over a game. At 25 years old, “Gronk” has played in 65 games for the Patriots, of those 65 he has started in 54, and in that short time Gronkowski has collected 54 touchdown catches, and almost 4,500 yards receiving. He was the first tight end in NFL history to lead all positions in touchdown catches in a season (17, 2011), he is tied for first with Randy Moss for most touchdowns in a player’s first two seasons (28), he and Moss are tied for second, behind only hall of famer Lance Alworth, for fastest players to reach 50 career touchdown receptions (59 games), and he already holds the record for most touchdowns in a single-season by a tight end (17).
As with many super cars and truly transcendent athletes, they require a lot of maintenance and that is certainly true for Gronkowski. He had a rough stretch from the middle of the 2012 season up until this season, suffering a broken arm, which then became infected in 2012, to then coming back in 2013 only to need surgery on his back midseason, and then eventually tear his ACL and MCL in week 13. This season after recovering from ACL/MCL surgery over the offseason, “Gronk” is back. It took him a few games early in the season, but it looks like he is finally healthy again.
Gronkowski’s presence will be felt everywhere in the game on Saturday, and for good reason. In the early games of the season when Gronkowski was not back to full strength, the Patriots struggled to get the ball moving. Through four weeks, the Patriots went 2-2, the team averaged 20 points per game, and the offense averaged 292 total yards a game. In week 5 when Gronkowski was finally able to play a majority of the snaps the offense took off, gaining over 500 yards of total offense and scoring 43 points. From week 5 until week 16 (when the team started resting their starters), the Patriots offense averaged 416 yards per game of total offense and 31.9 points. Gronkowski’s reemergence was the main catalyst for this team’s success after the first month of the season. He helped resurrect the Patriots offense and gave them the opportunity to get all of their lesser receiving pieces (not “lesser”, just non historic) involved in their gameplan.
The Ravens will be shifting their defense all day Saturday based on where Gronkowski is lined up. It will be a tough matchup for the Ravens, who are already ailing in their secondary. In the one playoff game the Patriots beat the Ravens, Gronkowski was healthy and had 5 receptions for 87 yards. The Ravens, in that game, deployed cornerback Lardarius Webb and safety help over the top. This game, if he is getting the same kind of coverage, the Patriots have the underneath weapons to really hurt the Ravens. All of this, because of “Gronk”
Offensive Analysis: As was just alluded to, because of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots will have a lot of options with single coverage in the passing game and very few men in the box to stop the run when facing the Ravens. Along with “Gronk” and running back Shane Vereen, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are in the top 15 in the AFC for most yards after the catch this season, each player having over 350 extra yards after the catch (YAC) alone. The passing game is where the Ravens defense is weak, and this is how the Patriots will try to attack. Look for the Patriots to use short underneath routes with these receivers to set up the deep passing game. The Ravens showed well against a deep passing team like Pittsburgh last week, but without Le’Veon Bell the Steelers were left without the number two YAC player in the NFL, allowing the Ravens to keep a lot of extra players in coverage. This week the Ravens will be facing four such YAC players, all of which are ranked in the top 35 in the NFL in that category.
Maybe where the Patriots offense is weakest is along the offensive line, which struggled early in the year. In the first four games of the season, the line allowed 10 of the 21 sacks given up all season. After starting the year with Solder, Devey, Wendell, Connolly, and Vollmer (Left tackle to Right tackle) along the line, and allowing those 10 sacks in their first four games, a lot of shuffling occurred along the offensive line. They really settled in once rookie Bryan Stork was inserted at the center position which moved Ryan Wendell to the right guard spot. While they may have turned into one of the better pass protection offensive lines, they are not necessarily a consistent run blocking line. Enter, LeGarrette Blount.
The Patriots signed Blount, surprisingly, after a week 11 win at Indianapolis where another Patriots running back, Jonas Gray, had just rushed for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the Patriots had dropped Blount earlier in the offseason after he had set Patriots postseason rushing records for yards gained and touchdowns scored with his 166 yard, 4 touchdown day last postseason against the Colts. As described above, these two runners, in Gray and Blount, are bad men, and Blount especially can still do damage sans a great offensive line. Both are heavy and strong backs, the likes of which the Ravens have not faced all season.
The Patriots five running backs, which include Brandon Bolden, James White, and receiving back Shane Vereen, face a stiff challenge in the Ravens who boast the 4th best rushing defense in the NFL. Look for the Patriots to attack early with the run until the Ravens prove they can stop their rotation of backs. If the Patriots meet a wall, expect them to supplement the running game with the use of screens and quick passing routes.
The Patriots also have the ageless Tom Brady who is enjoying a fine 15th season in the NFL. As long as Brady’s protection holds up, he should be able to have a field day against the Ravens 23rd ranked passing defense. Brady is coming into the game with a slight ankle injury, but he has had nearly three weeks to rest if you include being taken out at halftime of the Buffalo Bills game. Look for Brady to come out sharp and complete a good amount of consecutive passes before the Ravens can adjust. If Brady can get the Ravens on their toes with a few fast and furious first drives of the game, even if they end in field goals, the Ravens will have a tough time making their adjustments until it is too late.
Defensive analysis: Much like the rest of the team, it took a few games for the Patriots defense to get acclimated to the season and their new personnel. Luckily for the Patriots, those additions included a healthy Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, who were both returning from injury, as well as the free agent additions of 3-time All-Pro Darrelle Revis and Super Bowl champion cornerback Brandon Browner. With these additions, this is one of the most balanced teams the Patriots have ever had going into the playoffs since 2009.
Much like the Ravens, the key for the Patriots defense is to play assignment sound football and to execute. The Patriots matchup well across the board against this Ravens team. Jerod Mayo, was put on injured reserve after week 6 with a knee, injury, but Don’t’a Hightower has filled in the middle linebacker position very well to help sure up the rush defense. If the Patriots defense can manage the Ravens running attack and play sound football, they can absolutely take control of this game.
The only position the Patriots struggle with consistency is pass rush and Brandon Browner against faster receivers. To address pass rush the Patriots brought in linebacker Akeem Ayers from the Titans and have been rotating in younger players at the position to keep legs fresh. With this tactic Ayers has had a mini-resurgence, recording 5 sacks during the regular season with the Patriots. With the linebacker rotation and Chandler Jones healthy again, the Patriots will be able to use do-everything linebacker Rob Ninkovich as either a pass rusher or coverage linebacker, which will be a bonus come Saturday.
As far as Browner is concerned, he will have to refrain from being a totally physical player against wide receivers. The league does not allow his brand of play, at least not on every down. Because sometimes his play allows for quick receivers to burn right past him or force a pass interference penalty, Browner will have to picks his spots carefully and play within the rules.
The Ravens will be a tough out for the Patriots because these two teams’ strengths versus weaknesses matchup well, at least the Ravens defensive line versus the Patriots offensive line. There will be many factors that determine the game on the field, but the most important for either team is execution. These are both professional teams with great coaches and front offices, whichever executes their gameplan more effectively will win, simple as that.
Ravens 27 – Patriots 26