This year’s AFC Championship should feel familiar. The New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens for the second year in a row looking to get to the Super Bowl. The Ravens are the surprise team out of the four remaining in the NFL Playoffs. They are the only team that secured a road win last week with a big upset in Denver in double-overtime. New England has been efficient despite being injury plagued (as I covered in an earlier post here) and have worked their way back to the Championship game looking to return to the Super Bowl as they have so often done in the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick era.
Last year’s game was an intense thriller that ended with a dropped touchdown by Lee Evans and a missed Field Goal by Billy Cundiff. The final was 23-20 in favor of New England who then went on to lose to the New York Giants in dramatic fashion in last year’s Super Bowl. The Ravens and Patriots also met earlier this season with the Ravens pulling out the 31-30 win by scoring 10 points in the final 4:01 capped by a last second field goal.
Both teams have changed quite a bit from last year’s versions so don’t expect the game to follow that script. Here’s how both teams have made it back here and what we can expect this Sunday:
Much of the Ravens change from last year’s game has been addition by subtraction. They got rid of both Evans and Cundiff from last year’s end-of-game disaster. Cundiff has been replaced by rookie Justin Tucker who finished in the top 10 in both extra points and field goals made finishing the season 30-33.
Evans didn’t have a large role last season, but the Ravens new receiver Jacoby Jones has made an impact when he’s touched the ball this season. Jones caught the 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco last week to tie the game and send a shell-shocked Broncos team into an overtime they couldn’t win. Jones also has contributed in the return game with a punt return and a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. The Patriots allowed some big returns last week, so you can be sure they’ll be keyed on stopping Jones. If the Pats aren’t able to fix their coverage, Jones can be a game-changer and turn the game for the Ravens.
The Ravens draft class has also paid early dividends with Courtney Upshaw stepping in defensively during Baltimore’s rash of defensive injuries. On the other side of the ball, Bernard Pierce has stepped in as Ray Rice’s primary backup and shown some solid skills including a pair of 100-yard rushing games. Pierce is listed as questionable for Sunday but is expected to be ready to play at least on a limited basis. Kelechi Osemele was also drafted last season and started on the offensive line throughout the season.
The Patriots main changes have been on the defensive side of the ball although their offensive weapons have changed a bit as well.
The defensive overhaul was definitely needed after last year’s regular season numbers. It started in the draft where the Patriots drafted a pair of defenders in the first round, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. In the second round they added safety Tavon Wilson. They also added two more defensive players, Nate Ebner and Jake Bequette, later in the draft. In the seventh round, they took a bit of a flyer on talented but troubled Alfonzo Dennard from Nebraska who has contributed in a big way this season including three picks one of which he returned for a touchdown against the Colts.
The Patriots youth infusion on defense was supplemented by some key veteran additions via free agency with Steve Gregory from San Diego as well as by trade with the pickup or Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay. New England also moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety which resulted in a total overhaul of the defensive backfield and the addition of a much more effective pass-rush.
While the New England defense isn’t in the elite category of the early 2000′s Ravens or the current 49ers, they are vastly improved from last year’s unit and have taken advantage of opportunities to cause turnovers and make game-changing plays.
The Patriots offense has allowed the defense to grow by leading the league in scoring and continually keeping the pressure on their opponents’ offense to keep up. The Patriots passing game featured many of the recurring characters the past few years but did add some new wrinkles as well with Brandon Lloyd stepping in at wide-out and finishing with 911 yards while ranking second on the team in targets behind only Wes Welker.
The main change on offense has been in the run game. In last year’s game, BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the team in carries with 14 and the Pats were only able to get 96 net yards rushing in the game. This year New England has turned to a pair of second-year players in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to take over after “The Law Firm” headed to Cincinnati. Ridley led the Patriots with 1,263 yards rushing and scored 12 touchdowns while Vereen emerged last week finishing with three scores and 124 all-purpose yards. Vereen, Ridley, and Danny Woodhead are expected to divide time in the backfield this week and provide New England with more balance in their attack as they take on the Ravens defense.
This Year’s Preview and Prediction
Tom Brady normally doesn’t have steller numbers against the Baltimore defense, and don’t think he’s not aware of that face and looking to change it. I don’t see him struggling like Peyton Manning did last week or he did last year. The key to the new style of New England offense is balance which should allow Brady more time against a smart defense that will key in on a one-dimensional attack and shut it down.
The new running game will be a huge key in this game as the Pats look to take advantage of the aging Ravens D that allowed over 100 yards on the ground last week to Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno. I think Vereen and Ridley both will be big parts of a Patriots offensive gameplan as they compensate for the absence of Rob Gronkowski.
The Ravens needed everything to go right last week including the Manning turnovers and a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones. This week, I think Ray’s ride comes to an end as he goes out with a defeat at the hands of his old nemesis Tom Brady.
The Patriots are currently eight point favorites which seems like a lot of points for two teams that have played two games in the last year decided by a total of four. It seems like way to high a number when these battles are usually decided by extremely narrow margins. While I’m confident the Patriots will win, I’m not at all sure they cover.
I think it’s a fairly high-scoring game with the Patriots improved secondary, run defense, and running attack ultimately making the difference. My guess is that Joe Flacco keeps his team in it until the end but then throws a game-sealing interception as New England returns to the Super Bowl for the second year in a row.