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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Baltimore-New England: Five Things To Know

When the Patriots and Ravens kick off this Saturday, it will mark five years to the day that the Ravens won their first game against the Patriots, a 33-14 drubbing at Gillette Stadium. The fortunes of each franchise diverged on January 10, 2010, to the benefit of Baltimore and the detriment of New England.


The Ravens rode a suffocating defense and the arm of quarterback Joe Flacco to a Super Bowl Championship three years later. And the Patriots lost their next home playoff game to the Jets and the only Super Bowl they reached since to the Giants. (Oh, that good old Boston-New York border war!)


Including the 33-14 beatdown, the teams are an even 3-3 since that day, the Patriots going 2-1 in the regular season, and the Ravens going 2-1 in the playoffs. The rubber match, Game 7 if you will, starts at 4:35 this Saturday in frigid Foxboro, something to warm the hearts of all Old School football fans. And if a Game 7 atmosphere and a trip to the AFC Championship Game aren’t enough to make you tune in, here are five things to know before kickoff.


1. Healthy-ish At The Right Time


The Patriots enter the game as healthy as they’ve been all season. If tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman play as expected, the team will only be down only two significant players from the start of the year, running back Stevan Ridley, and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Running back LeGarrette Blount was signed to replace Ridley, and the linebacking rotation hasn’t missed a beat without Mayo.


The Ravens used 12 cornerbacks this season, most notably losing starting corner Jimmy Smith mid-season. But all that turnover hasn’t slowed them down lately. They’ve won 5 of their last 7 games and they held Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sub-80.0 quarterback rating just last week. Also, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata returned from suspension for the Pittsburgh game, and he didn’t look like he missed a beat.


2. The Baltimore Front-Seven is Better Than The Patriots O-Line


The Patriots offensive line problems have been a recurring theme all year long. And here come the Ravens, sporting stout inside linemen Ngata and Brandon Williams, and fast/strong linemen and linebackers outside, led by linebacker Terrell Suggs. They have exactly the kind of front seven that’s given the Patriots fits over the years -- even back when their offensive line was excellent.


The Baltimore defensive line should stuff the Patriots running game. So the only question is whether their defensive backs can disrupt the receivers’ routes long enough to stall New England’s short passing game. If they can, it might look like a familiar blueprint to beating the Patriots. But if they can’t, Gronkowski and Edelman could slice up the defense before Ngata and Suggs get near Brady.


This will be the chess match to watch on Saturday.


3. Patriots Second Half Defense


The Ravens trailed at the half in six of their last seven games (and held a slim one-point lead in the other one). It takes guts to come back week after week. But they’ll need to keep it close on Saturday, because the Patriots second-half defense has been spectacular all season.


New England started the year slow, giving up 24 total fourth-quarter points in their two September losses (Miami and Kansas City). But they gave up only 38 fourth-quarter points in their other 14 games combined. They also allowed just 16 points total in the second half of their last six games combined -- including three second half shutouts.


The Ravens might not panic when they fall behind, and that shows mental toughness. But they’d be well-advised not to let the gap get too big this Saturday. The Patriots halftime adjustments have been among the best in the NFL this season.


4. Is Flacco the New Joe Cool?


He called himself elite. He bet on himself by playing out his contract. And when he delivered a Super Bowl victory, he got paid like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.


And once the playoffs arrive, quarterback Joe Flacco is worth every penny. He has 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last five playoff games. And here are his QB ratings from those five games:






Not that this is a recent phenomenon. For his career, Flacco is 10-4 with 21 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions playing the best of the best in the playoffs. And his post-season QB rating is 10% higher than his regular-season rating (88.2 vs. 80.1). He might not be elite September through December. But once January rolls around, he elevates his game, doesn’t make mistakes, and he just wins, baby.


5. Josh McDaniels Versus Dean Pees And Steve Spagnuolo


This time of year Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is frequently mentioned as a head coaching candidate. And if he wants to impress potential employers, he could start this Saturday by exorcising some of his past demons.


Current Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees held the same title when his charges shut out McDaniels’ offense in the second half of the AFC Championship Game two years ago. And Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator of the Giants team that derailed the Patriots offense in the almost-perfect 2007 season.


Pees and Spagnuolo outcoached McDaniels in the biggest moments. And both won Super Bowls the seasons they schooled McDaniels on the gridiron.


If McDaniels wants to improve his position in the head-coaching derby, he needs to overcome two men who have stood between him and the ultimate prize. He’s got all his weapons this year, so no excuses. Put up points now and some owner will put up cash next month.




It’s easy to make the case for either team to win. They are both smart, battle tested, take care of the football, and both have an identity that plays well against the other. But the most telling statistic of them all might be that the Ravens are 2-6 versus teams with winning records this year, and the Patriots are 5-3.


In the end, home field advantage, Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots improved secondary, and the Ravens depleted secondary probably spell a Patriots win.


One thing that’s much easier to predict -- Saturday just can’t get here fast enough!


Enjoy the game everybody.


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