The Patriots and Ravens will be facing off in the AFC Championship game for the second time in a row. Again, this game will be held at Gillette. The Patriots squeaked by with a win last year and eventually lost to the Giants, once again, in the Superbowl. Let's hope this rematch goes a little bit better. Here's five reasons why it could.
1. Not the same Ravens defense-
The Ravens defense is riding a lot on reputation. The major storyline is how much Tom Brady struggles against the Ray Lewis and co. While that's generally been true (relatively speaking anyway, Brady's held to a high standard) there's alot of evidence to counter that for this season.
When the Patriots faced the Ravens earlier in the year, Brady had the highest QBR of any quarterback that faced them this year (86.0). That was when the Ravens still had star corner back Ladarius Webb, and it was on the road.
This isn't the same Ravens defense of years past. They ranked outside of the top 10 in total defense for the first time in 10 years. Terrell Suggs isn't 100% healthy and though Ray Lewis' return has been much heralded, he's proven to be a liability in coverage.
In Week 3, the Patriots targeted Ray Lewis often. It's been the same story in the playoffs. Lewis has been targeted a total of 17 times, allowing 14 catches (~82%) for 177 yards and a crazy 61 after the catch. Peyton Manning completed 8 of 8 passes against Lewis. Even more depressing for Ravens fans, none of those teams have the type of match up nightmare players that the Patriots do. Imagine Lewis trying to cover Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Aaron Hernandez or - God help Ray if it happens - Wes Welker.
When the Patriots see a matchup they can exploit, they do everything they can to exploit it. Expect the Patriots to go after Lewis early and often.
2. The Ravens should be exhausted-
The past two games have had the Ravens on the field for 188 snaps, according to Greg Bedard on WEEI. That's an absurd number of snaps, over 90 a game. That also includes the double overtime victory up in mile high. That has to be a factor in this game.
Ray Rice tells @richeisen Podcast last week was "the most physically demanding football game I’ve ever played in." Wow
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 18, 2013
Considering the Patriots offense is literally structured around running as many plays as possible (they broke the record for plays run this season) that could be bad news for the Ravens. The Patriots run their "turbo" one word no huddle, which basically means they snap that ball seconds after the prior play is over. It resulted in two easy touchdowns last week against the Texans when Houston could not line up in time. And that was the second time Houston had seen this offense.
3. The Patriots defense is underrated-
Because of some shaky seasons the past few years, people have written off the Patriots defense. Little do they know, that unit is much better than advertised.
Unlike the Ravens, the Patriots were top 10 in the league in scoring defense. That means they were in the top 10 of the league in terms of least points allowed, literally the entire point of having a defense is to prevent the other team from scoring points. A large part of that has to do with the fact that the Pats also led the league in turnover differential.
A lot of people look at turnovers as being flukes. But year after year the Patriots lead the league in that category, in fact they've led the league in that category dating all the way back to 2009. Not a fluke.
Furthermore, there's the Aqib Talib factor. No one's saying he's Darrelle Revis but the trickle down effect of him joining the team was immense. With Talib on the field, the talented rookie Alfonzo Dennard moves to the other side at corner back. Devin McCourty moves to his more natural position of safety, where he's been outstanding. It's a completely different secondary from the one the Ravens lit up back in September.
Last year, the Patriots had Julian Edelman - a wide receiver - covering Anquan Boldin in the AFC Championship game. And they still won! How amazing is that? This year, they'll have Talib or Dennard in that spot. That's a huge leap.
4. Joe Flacco-
Joe Flacco's gotten a ton of praise for out-dueling Peyton Manning at home.
"He forced the future Hall of Famer to go home after just one playoff game, what a great quarterback he is!"
Flacco joins the illustrious group that includes such greats as Mark Sanchez, Chad Pennington, Jay Fielder and Philip Rivers to knock Manning out of the playoffs immediately. And those guys all went on to win Superbowls, right? Nope.
Defeating Peyton Manning in the playoffs shouldn't really be something to hang your hat on. It happens all the damn time. The dude has the most playoff losses in NFL history for Gods sake.
The second thing that's brought up about Flacco is his ability to hit the deep ball. While this was a huge issue for the Patriots early in the year, it hasn't nearly been as much of one lately. Again, a lot of that has to do with Aqib Talib (more on that here) and the dramatic change in the secondary.
Another thing about Mr. Flacco, he has some serious tendencies with where he throws the ball. The last thing you want to be against a Bill Belichick offense is predictable. See: Houston, Texans.
Flacco LOVES to throw to the right and the middle. In fact nearly all his deep passes were to the right sideline. Such as that OT forcing throw to Jacoby Jones vs Denver.
On throws outside the left numbers, Flacco was two of six for 15 yards. Suffice to say next week’s opposition should be zeroing in on Flacco’s open side to ensure he doesn’t get too many favorable looks there.
Essentially that means, look for Bill Belichick to try and scheme up ways to take that right side of the field away from Flacco. Now that he has the talent on defense, he might be able to accomplish this.
5. The Patriots past success against the Ravens-
The Ravens are getting a lot of credit as almost "Tom Brady's kryptonite". It's getting a bit ridiculous. For all the success the Ravens might have had against the Patriots, they don't have many wins to show for it.
Baltimore is 2-5 against Tom Brady, 2-7 against the Patriots all time. At the end of the day, whatever the Ravens are doing, it hasn't been getting them victories.
Another thing, each of the two times the Patriots have lost to the Ravens, they've been coming off a major injury. Wes Welker was lost before the 2009 Playoff game. Aaron Hernandez right before the game this year.
While Rob Gronkowski was hurt right before this game, it was the second time he was injured this year. The Patriots should be better prepared to go on without him.
Tom Brady is 5-1 in these AFC Championship games. He doesn't lose often, and he especially doesn't lose often at home. For as much love as the Ravens are getting, there's still plenty of reasons the Patriots should come out with a victory. Of course, anything can happen any given Sunday.