Ravens at Patriots: Deja 2009?

Posted: January 20, 2012 by mzyohai in NFL, Patriots, Prediction
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mike: Were you happy about that win? Bill Simmons seems to think that there could be no truly positive outcome for the Division Round match-up with the Broncos. Either the Pats handled business at home against a weaker team, or they didn’t do a good enough job, or they lost. Lucky for you and my playoff gambling, the Pats took care of business.

Nick: Are you kidding?

Mike: I’m not kidding.

Nick: I was ecstatic about this win.

Mike: The Pats were supposed to tool on the Broncos. I don’t know how much excitement you can take out of a game like that.

If the Pats beat the Packers with a hickory stick, I would totally understand your excitement. But it was the Broncos — a team that finished 8-8, which was good enough to take the title in the worst division in the league: the AFC West. I know you think that no game in the NFL is a gimme, but this was a game the Pats should have won; you’re just giving them credit for some shit they’re supposed to do.

Nick: We’re talking about the same Broncos team that managed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, right? As you might recall, the Steelers were supposed to win that game. The Packers were supposed to win, too. How’d those games turn out? Besides, it’s a playoff win. The Patriots are playing for the AFC Championship. Of course I’m excited.

As you kindly haven’t let me forget, it’s been four years since I’ve tasted the sweet nectar of a playoff victory. I even made sure I bought Budweiser because that’s what I was drinking when the Pats took over in the second half of that Sunday night game against the Jets. Budweiser: my anti-jinx. So when the Pats jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter was half over, I couldn’t have been happier. When Brady had thrown for five touchdowns before the first half ran out? Bud heavy had never tasted so sweet.

This was exactly what we needed. A dominant win in the playoffs, with the offense firing on all cylinders and the defense actually making some stops. With the dread of a continued playoff drought over, it feels like I can breathe again. I can look towards the actual match-ups and rationally consider what the outcome will/should be, rather than assuming the cards are irreversibly stacked against New England as karmic retribution for giving the whole league the finger in 2007.

Mike: I’ll give you the psychic effect for the team — the momentum is a good thing. But… I guess there’s no way to not have momentum going into the championship game… either you’ve won one (or two) or you’re no longer in the playoffs. Whatever.

Nick: I’m not talking about momentum. I’m talking about ending a drought and reestablishing a mindset and culture of winning. I mean exorcising demons and getting monkeys off your back. You don’t think the Patriots are breathing a little easier with that first playoff win since ’07 under their belts?

Mike: Yeah, I guess you’re right. The Patriots always lack for confidence. Poor Brady needs to get that weight of having to prove something off his shoulders. What the hell are you talking about? The man has three Superbowl rings on his hand. He doesn’t have to prove shit. NFL players don’t put as much stock in the dribble of ESPN analysts as you do. Whatever, have it your way:  “Nobody believed in us!” “It was us against the world!” “Everybody thought the tuck rule was bullshit, but we did it!” Just whatever.

Even Tom Brady said last week’s performance doesn’t matter.

Nick: You don’t think they’ll be a little more relaxed and just play their game rather than feeling the pressure to perform? I know I am.

Mike: Please, you’ve been in a relationship for two years now. When was the last time you “performed?”

OK, now championship football begins. The Ravens are traveling up I-95 this weekend for a visit to Foxborough. It’s Brady’s laser-show offense versus one of the best defenses in the league.

So let the jokes about Rocca-Flocca-Flacco’s mustache begin. Can the Patriots overcome a defense as strong as the Ravens?

Nick: Do you want the long answer or the short?

Mike: In the regular season, the Pats were stopped by the best overall defense in the league, the Steelers. But the Patriots rolled over the #5 defense, my beloved New York Jets. So at #3, do the Ravens pose a serious threat to Brady’s offensive scheme?

Or is the bigger question about the Patriot’s defense? The Jacksonville Jaguars were able to stop the Ravens by shutting down the run, while taking control of the game through massive carries by Maurice Jones-Drew. Can the Patriots limit Rice’s rushes to under 70 yards like the Jags did on Monday Night?

Nick: So your question boils down to which defense presents the biggest obstacle: the Ravens to the Patriots offense, or the Patriots to themselves? As always, it’s the Patriots defense. They looked impressive on Saturday, only giving up 10 points (the lone touchdown on an incredibly short field) on just 252 total yards. Of course, that was against the option offense and Tebow’s loopy, off-target passes, which forced the Broncos to continue handing the ball off despite facing a four touchdown deficit.

In other words, I refuse to get suckered into trusting this defense any farther than I can throw them, which is not at all because I couldn’t budge Vince Wilfork if I had four of me. I’m assuming this is still the defense that gave up 21 straight to Dan Orlovsky and the 2-14 Colts, not the one that stopped a QB who could hardly complete every other pass if his life depended on it. Or maybe that’s not mutually exclusive…

Mike: I’ll agree with you that the Patriots defense is going to be the bigger problem. When the Ravens last made a January visit to Foxboro, Rocca-Flocca-Flacco had a QB rating of 10.0. Also, this picture was taken of him. But more importantly, the Ravens were able to break out a 24-0 lead in the first quarter of that game despite Flacco tossing the pigskin a miraculous total of ten times, and only completing a Tebow-esque four passes.

Nick: That’s why I can’t say I’m particularly frightened of this Ravens offense outside of Ray Rice. 2011 Baltimore seems to insist on Joe Flacco throwing 30 times a game instead of handing the ball to their best player. During the regular season, the Ravens only averaged 23.6 points per game, and Flacco looked so shaky all year that he felt the need to grow a grungy Hulk Hogan mustache to seem more badass (it didn’t work).

Mike: Mustache joke #1, for those keeping track at home.

Have you compared Joe Flacco’s stat-line from 2009 to this year? Behold!

2009: 315/499, 3,613, 21 TD, 12 INT

2011: 312/542, 3,610, 20 TD, 12 INT

But Flacco could play twice as shitty this weekend as he did in 2009 and it probably wouldn’t matter. If the Pats can’t stop the run again this weekend, it won’t be pretty for them.

Nick: I look at those stat lines, and where you see identical numbers, I see completely different narratives. In ’09, Flacco threw 43 fewer passes and completed 63% of those throws, compared to a completion percentage of 57.6 this year. That’s almost as ugly as his ‘stache.

Mike: #2!

Nick: If you look at his yards per attempt, Flacco was at 7.24 in ’09, but just 6.66 for the 2011 regular season. Flacco wasn’t asked to do as much two years ago; he was just along for the ride Mark Sanchez-style. But when he was asked to make throws, he was efficient, something he can’t possibly claim this year. He has looked shaky at best, and even his own safety called him out this week for “not having a hold on the offense” and panicking in the pocket. Yikes. If the Ravens have to turn to Flacco to play catch-up, I’ll feel pretty good.

Mike: Flacco’s performance during the regular season doesn’t seem to have figured into the Ravens’ ability or inability to win games. The Ravens beat the 49ers with Flacco only throwing for 161 yards, and they lost to Seattle with Flacco putting together 255 airborne yards. On the other hand, Rice’s performance has been a keystone to the Ravens’ formula: in Ravens’ losses, Rice has rushed for 43, 28, 27, and 57 yards.

If the Ravens come through with a win, it’ll be on the ground.

Nick: Clearly Flacco isn’t the key to them winning. But the NFL is all about the quarterback, and especially going up against Tom Brady, I don’t think the Ravens can get away with some mediocre game where Flacco completes half his passes for 180 yards. He’s going to have to make some plays for them to have a chance.

Mike: I’ll give you that the NFL as a league is definitely about the QB. But the last two playoff losses for the Patriots have come from QBs throwing for fewer than 200 yards. I don’t really understand where your confidence is coming from on this one. If the Patriots fail to score quickly and often, then the game seems well matched.

Nick: Oh really, Einstein? You mean when one team doesn’t pile on a bunch of points, the game is close? What a revelation!

This team was a middling 4-4 on the road, and just last week they scored 3 points in the final three quarters against the Texans. I understand the Texans defense is extremely impressive this year, but the Ravens looked totally lost trying to move the ball. Considering the Patriots strength is at the line of scrimmage, I think they might just have a shot at busting through the Baltimore line and keeping Flacco from being comfortable enough to stroke that hairy horseshoe on his face every once in a while.

Mike: #3!

I don’t buy the road record argument (as you could probably figure out from our last preview). But to say that 4-4 is middling seems pretty misleading. There are only three teams that played significantly better on the road: New England (6-2), Green Bay (7-1), and San Francisco (6-2). I’ll give you that there were a good number of teams that had better road records, but they were all 5-3. Going 4-4 on the road in the NFL is not a sign of any weakness.

The Ravens had some inexplicable losses to teams with inferior records, but the Ravens also pulled out big victories against their division rivals – they were an immaculate 6-0 in the toughest AFC division.

Nick: It’s less about their record and more about how they played. All but one of those four losses on the road came against sub-.500 teams. They got down early and couldn’t stick to the game plan, which is Rice carrying the team. And yes, I would say .500 is the precise definition of “middling.” Besides, you can’t have it both ways. So the 8-8 Broncos are bad, but 4-4 says nothing about the Ravens? Good teams are supposed to take care of business on the road. The Ravens didn’t. I would definitely say it’s a sign of weakness. Especially against bad teams.

Also, there are 16 games in the NFL. Every game is huge. So there is a big difference between 5-3 and 4-4. You can’t just write off one game as if it doesn’t mean anything – as a Jets fan who watched his team devalue each of the last three games and miss the playoffs, you should know that better than anyone.

Mike: Yes, every game in the NFL is important, but one game is not enough to prove a pattern or anything statistically. That’s why so many statistical categories have minimum qualifying standards. I don’t think that going 4-4 instead of 5-3 proves something about a team’s  toughness. Are the Ravens that much better of a home team than the Patriots because they went 8-0 instead of 7-1? No. Of course not. They’re both powerhouses at home. To make a big deal out of one game is splitting hairs in terms of evaluating a team’s toughness. The Ravens aren’t “road warriors,” but they beat good teams on the road.

Nick: I’ll accept your point about one game not being a sufficient sample size. But it doesn’t change the fact that over eight road games, the Ravens couldn’t win more than they lost. But who said anything about toughness? Why do I give half a crap about some vague, indefinable term like that? So the Ravens were “tough” on the road. Whoop-de-doo! Am I supposed to bring them orange slices as a postgame treat for trying hard? The fact of the matter is, the Ravens failed to consistently win on the road. Could they play well this Sunday? Sure. But eight games worth of statistics tell me they could just as easily put up a real stinker.

Mike: Let’s flip the coin. I want to know if you think the Ravens’ defense can challenge the Boston TE Party. Can Ed Reed stop the over-the-middle threat of the Boston tight ends? How about Ray Lewis? Can Tom Brady provide a primal scream to rival the terrifying roar of Ray Lewis?

Nick: The Ravens will definitely challenge the Patriots, but I don’t think that they’ll stop them. Gronk and Aaron Hernandez are all but uncoverable on their own, and that’s before you add in Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Someone on the Patriots is going to get single coverage, and Brady will find that mismatch and make the Ravens pay. Ed Reed isn’t as terrifying as he once was, and he’s hurt, so I’m not overly concerned about him taking away the middle of the field. Brady is a wizard at looking off the safety and the Patriots always have offensive schemes that force free defenders to make a split-second decision between the lesser of two evils. Ray Lewis  may still have a primal scream, but he’s suited to stop the run, as is the rest of their front seven. I don’t think he or any other linebacker can presume to cover the Patriot tight ends. And last I checked, murdering someone on the field was a fifteen-yard penalty, so Lewis doesn’t frighten me as much (please don’t let him read this and find me).

More importantly, Brady should have time to throw on Sunday. Terrell Suggs is the only real pass rusher the Ravens have, and he came up empty even against a completely overmatched rookie quarterback. The Pats have been solid protecting the passer all season, and with just one guy to worry about, I think they’ll be just fine. The recipe to beating the Brady offense is to just rush three or four guys to get pressure, then be able to drop 7 or 8 into coverage to clog up the passing lanes. The Ravens don’t have the personnel to get that kind of pressure without blitzing, and Brady is untouchable when it comes to picking apart a blitz.

I have a premonition that you might, for some completely unbiased reason, disagree. So let’s hear it. How will the Ravens defense make Brady sorry for ever leaving the warm comforts of Gisele’s, um, arms?

Mike: Here’s a surprise: I don’t disagree with you when it comes to the Ravens covering the pass. The Ravens have yielded the highest passer success rate this year at 59.3%. That’s higher than Brady’s success rate this year (56.7%).

What’s the word, Nick? Is your Brady-boner so large that you’re predicting another 5-TD half for the UGGs salesman? (It’s not going to happen.)

Nick: If even you in all your Patriots-hatred agree that New England should be able to move the ball through the air, what should keep Brady from connecting for a touchdown pass or two in the first half  (I’m not so naive to think he’ll go for five again)? There isn’t anything else to cover when defending the Pats. They don’t run the ball except to keep pass-rushers honest, so stopping the run doesn’t make much of a difference, and they just throw outs, quick slants, and screens as a de facto running game anyway.

Mike: Brady will always put up yards. But, the Patriots lose games when big plays don’t go their way. Assuming this weekend is snow- and bullshit-tuck-rule-free, I’m going with the Ravens. Final Score: Ravens 27, Patriots 17

Nick: It just doesn’t make much sense to think Brady will be able to pick apart the Ravens secondary, but also assert the Pats won’t find their way into the end zone. What will suddenly change in the red zone? Also, I disagree. The Pats don’t need a big play to succeed. They can thrive just fine on short, quick passes underneath to move the chains and march down the field. It all depends if the Ravens can get pressure; if not, someone will inevitably get open, and Brady will find him.

I’m a little nervous that I feel so good about this game. That’s never a good sign. Now I feel like the Pats will lose. Oh well. If it’s worked once, it’ll work again:

Screw it. Final Score: Patriots 27, Ravens 20

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s