- 2012 Record: 12-6 (defeated Indianapolis 24-9 in Wild-Card Round and Denver 38-35 in 2OT in Divisional Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +54 (11th)
- Strength of Schedule: -0.5 PPG (17th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.07 (12th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.71 (8th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.3 (15th)
- Yards per Carry: 4.3 (12th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.1 (16th)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 4.0 (8th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 1 (Haloti Ngata)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
#2 New England Patriots (AFC East Champion)
- 2012 Record: 13-4 (defeated Houston 41-28 in Divisional Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +226 (1st)
- Strength of Schedule: -1.4 PPG (26th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.37 (4th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.89 (19th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 7.0 (6th)
- Yards per Carry: 4.2 (17th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.9 (27th)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 3.9 (6th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 3 (Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
5:30 P.M. Sunday, January 20th, CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Steve Tasker, Solomon Wilcots)
Now that Peyton Manning’s no longer in Indianapolis and the Jets have self-destructed offensively the past two years, doesn’t it feel like the Ravens are the only AFC team right now who can really beat the Patriots? Obviously, this is currently true in a literal sense: they’re the only other team in the conference that hasn’t been eliminated from the playoffs yet. And if Rahim Moore hadn’t completely lost all sense of time and space last weekend, I would probably be talking myself into Denver as a slight, very slight favorite over New England for the AFC Championship. But that would have been based almost solely on my analysis of the numbers, not on how I’ve seen each team play with my own eyes. Even though it’s been eight years since the Pats won a Super Bowl, it still seems like there’s an aura of invincibility surrounding them at all times. Whenever they lose, it always feels the cause was more related to wounds they inflicted upon themselves – Tom Brady strangely throwing four interceptions in Buffalo, Zoltan Mesko horrifically crapping the bed against the Cardinals, the whole team forgetting that Cleveland does in fact still have a franchise – than damage sprung on them by the opposition. Currently, fourteen out of the other fifteen teams in the AFC are no real bother to the Patriots: if they perform up to their capabilities or even just close to them, they will win the game. Period.
For whatever reason, the Ravens are the exception. It’s not even to say that they have the Patriots’ number: they’re still only 2-4 against them over the past six years. But going back to that memorable 2007 Monday Night game in Baltimore, all of those losses have been incredibly close games that the Ravens were able to turn into virtual tossups, which is a feat in and of itself against Darth Hoodie and Mr. Bundchen and Co. In that 2007 game, the Ravens were only 4-7 going in yet still led most of the game until some highly dubious defensive penalties helped the Patriots keep their undefeated regular season alive. In their 2009 regular season meeting in Foxborough, the Ravens lost by six when Mark Clayton dropped a sure first down throw from Joe Flacco inside the Patriots’ ten-yard line with 32 seconds left. They led by ten in the fourth quarter in their 2010 contest, only to see the Patriots come back to tie the game in regulation and kick a game-winning field goal with two minutes left in overtime. And of course, you may remember them being a competent Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff away from respectively winning/tying the AFC Championship last year.
They finally broke the string of rotten luck against the Pats earlier this year in one of the most entertaining regular season games in recent memory. And it’s worth noting that the only blowout in the series since John Harbaugh became Baltimore’s head coach in 2008 was the Ravens’ 33-14 shellacking of the Pats in Foxborough in the 2009 playoffs in a game whose first quarter may have been the most shocking I have ever seen. Ray Rice ran untouched for an 83-yard touchdown on the game’s first play, Tom Brady committed three turnovers deep in New England’s end of the field, and by the time fifteen minutes had past Gillette Stadium was doing its best to make a library seem raucous by comparison. The Ravens led 24-0 at the end of the first quarter and were never seriously threatened the rest of the way despite only 34 passing yards from Flacco. It remains Brady’s worst playoff performance by a wide margin: he went 23-of-42 for only 154 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a lost fumble.
What is it about the Ravens that gives the Patriots such trouble? They’ve obviously had an excellent defense over the past five years, but it’s never quite resembled the fearsome monster it was in 2000, 2004, and 2006. Joe Flacco is reliably above-average and Ray Rice is possibly the best all-around running back in the league (note that I’m not saying “best OVERALL back,” Adrian!), but…well, I mean, THOSE are the two guys you’re going to rely on to outscore Tom Brady? On paper, there’s not a whole lot of reason to think that Baltimore should be consistently able to play the Patriots to virtual tie games. So the only logical conclusion I’m left with, then, is that John Harbaugh must be one heck of a coach. I know he’s highly regarded as it is, but consider that the Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of his five seasons as head coach and that he’s repeatedly gone up against Bill Belichick with inferior talent and consistently turned the contest into a draw. That tells me he has to be considered one of the best game-planning head coaches in the league, right? God bless his brother for what he’s done in San Francisco, but John deserves every bit the amount of credit that Jim does.
And that’s why, even though they’ll once again go into Foxborough as the less talented club, the Ravens will likely make this a close game. And they have a real shot to win because Joe Flacco has been outstanding in the playoffs thus far and, in a development only less slightly less miraculous than the Lakers’ joyous decline this season, Bryant McKinnie has been dusted off after an entire season on the shelf and performed impeccably in his first action all year at left tackle. I can’t emphasize enough how crazy this is. The go-to punchline for fat and out-of-shape offensive linemen is now holding Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil sackless in regulation football games? The Harbaughs are miracle workers. Anyway, McKinnie’s work protecting Flacco’s blind side has shifted Michael Oher back to the position he’s more suited for (no matter what Michael Lewis says), right tackle. Combine that with getting Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda back from injury and suddenly the Ravens have gashing huge holes in the defenses of the Colts (not terribly impressive, but still commendable) and the Broncos (MUCH, MUCH MORE IMPRESSIVE). Will the offensive line be able to do the same thing against Vince Wilfork and the stout Patriots’ run defense? The crucial time of possession battle will largely hinge on the answer to that question.
For the most part this season, Flacco has been terrible on the road, which is what made his performance against the excellent Broncos defense last week even more impressive. Not only was he hitting Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on deep bomb plays (that’s always been his forte), but he was also make accurate throws into tight windows in the middle of the field. That’ll be the most important aspect of the Ravens’ offense again on Sunday against the Patriots. They’ll likely hit a few big plays over the top over the course of the game, but Flacco needs to sustain that accuracy on intermediate routes in order to sustain drives and score touchdowns, not field goals. Three points isn’t a great deal of help when the opponent is a serious threat to get seven every time they touch the ball.
The Ravens absolutely can win this game and, frankly, I’ll be rooting for them to do so – all this continued excellence and greatness out of New England gets really boring after a while. However, after being on the field for 87 plays from scrimmage against both the Colts and Broncos, I have to wonder how much gas the Baltimore defense will have left in the second half Sunday night. Even with an extra day off to recover, the combined effect of such a heavy back-to-back workload – with one of those games coming at mile-high altitude – has to have some sort of effect. And the Patriots only possess the single worst possible matchup for a tired defense. When he senses blood in the water, Tom Brady orchestrates the Patriots’ offense so quickly and efficiently that Stevan Ridley or Aaron Hernandez or Shane Vereen or whoever is usually running into the end zone standing up before the defense can figure out what’s happening.
Given the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots scoring less than 30 points on Sunday – okay, it’s tough imagining them scoring fewer than 30 points in any given game, but even more so with this one. As we saw last week, Joe Flacco IS capable of leading his team to 30+ points on the road. Is it particularly likely to occur in back-to-back weeks, however? The unfortunate answer for Ravens fans is probably not. If the past meetings between these two teams are any indication, we’re likely in for a classic game Sunday night. And while on the one hand you get the sense that the Ravens can’t wind up being stuck as the AFC bridesmaid EVERY year…on the other, you can’t find enough good reasons to think that they won’t.
Projected Final Score: New England Patriots 31, Baltimore Ravens 24
Team to Bet On If Gambling Were Legal: Ravens (+8)