Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ravens-Patriots Preview

The AFC will continue to demonstrate that there's a clear hierarchy as old stalwarts New England and Baltimore will do battle in the AFC Championship game tomorrow. Since 2000, only the Pats (4), Steelers (3), Colts (2), Raiders (1) and Ravens (1) have been the AFC's Super Bowl representative. Of the championship game representatives; its 19 of 24 counting tomorrow's game (Pats 6th, Ravens 3rd). That's a remarkable level of consistency (yes, I know the Raiders shouldn't thrown in a consistency argument unless it has to do with losing and firing coaches) in a supposedly parity-driven league. Enough with the history lesson, here's the five questions for tomorrow's contest.

1. Which Ravens defense shows up?

Will it be the only that completely shut down the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, or the one who looked slow against the Texans, needing gift turnovers to win last week. If the Ravens think they can giveaway chances for takeaways against Tom Brady, they will be sorely mistaken; and he won't make the throws T.J. Yates made all day last week. Even if the Ravens look quicker against New England, that's not going to be enough; leading to my next question...

2. How do the Ravens cover Gronk, Hernandez and Welker?

It's the question every team playing the Patriots face. Obviously, the Broncos didn't have an answer. Everyone who believes the Ravens have a chance point out to their playoff win in New England back in 2009. Little known fact: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were still in school when that game took place, while Wes Welker was injured the week prior to the playoff meeting. A little easier to beat the Pats when they best three offensive weapons weren't involved. If I'm Baltimore, I'm not allowing Gronkowski and Hernandez beat me deep, and if that means Welker ends with 15 catches in front of me, then so be it. Ravens need to pick their poison and that is hoping for less possessions, allowing the offense to stay close.

3. How do the Patriots stop Ray Rice, who had his way two years ago?

Unfortunately for New England, they don't have the defense that Houston has; who did a great job with Ray Rice, fixing what they did wrong in the earlier meeting and winning battles at the line. One thing the Pats must do is to not allow an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game like they did in that last meeting. Everything fell apart after that. Makes this a huge game for guys like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes who must not allow Rice to reach second level on his runs. Also means that you'll see eight men in the box, daring Joe Flacco to throw. You know where this is headed...

4. Can Joe Flacco make the Pats pay if they sell hard on the run?

Flacco has been much maligned that no one seems to have faith in his ability to win, at least that's the perception I see. Well, tomorrow is a perfect chance for Flacco to prove doubters wrong, especially if New England won't allow anything from Ray Rice in the running game. Flacco can always use Rice as a pass-catcher, and should benefit from Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith against the Patriots secondary. Even Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta will be valuable options for Flacco and a good Flacco would only open up the defense more so that Ray Rice can run in the second half.

5. So who wins?

If the Ravens play mistake-free football, limit the possessions in this game and get some pressure on Tom Brady with Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs (avoiding too much blitzing), the Ravens can win. Seems like too much needs to go right for Baltimore for this to happen. And you can never stop Rob Gronkowski. Add that Joe Flacco is facing the defense that has the most takeaways in the AFC and the task for the Ravens is too great. Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, winning 31-14.

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