Friday, January 18, 2013

Patriots vs. Ravens

It's a rematch of last year's AFC championship game, with Joe Flacco and the Ravens getting another shot at Tom Brady and the Patriots. Last year's setup was perfect: Flacco out-dueled Brady, and would have been in the Super Bowl if not for a missed chip shot by Bill Cundiff. Can Flacco put his team in position to win again? And if he does, can they come through?

Flacco's career has come with good and bad moments, but you have to give credit where credit is due. While he hasn't had the most jaw-dropping of stats, he's the winningest quarterback in the NFL since 2008, he's won at least one playoff game in each of his five season, and he's been absolutely money in these playoffs. Passing for 613 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions in two games against the Colts and Broncos is extremely impressive, but maybe not as impressive as his clutch play and will to win against Denver. I understand that Flacco has had his ugly moments, but with the way he's been playing and what he's shown us, there's no reason he can't keep it up against a New England secondary that's ranked 29th in the league against the pass. And we can't just talk about Flacco without giving credit to his receivers. Torrey Smith has outrun any and every corner back he's been matched up against, Anquan Boldin continues to make impossible grabs that extend drives, and Dennis Pitta has come up with some tough catches in big spots. All of these guys have helped evolve the Baltimore passing game. The pass rush for New England will need to get to Flacco in hopes of rattling him.

You can't gush about the Ravens' aerial attack without talking about Mr. Hey Diddle Diddle. Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and showed it this year, as well as against Denver last week. Topping 131 yards on 30 carries, it's clear that new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is committed to getting Rice the ball more. He's a powerful back who will have a fight against Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and the rest of the Pats' front seven. But this guy is the real deal, and all jokes aside, he should come up big. Plus, he's ability to catch balls out of the backfield cannot be undervalued. Rice is a big threat on offense, and all of the sudden, the Patriots have a lot of guys to take account for.

On the other side of the ball, what more can you say about Tom Brady that hasn't already been said? He's a complete stud (344 yards, 3 TD's against a tough Houston secondary last week), he has a ton of targets (Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and now apparently Shane Vereen), and he's the all-time winningest playoff quarterback in NFL history. I know the Ravens generally play Brady tough, but expect Brady to get his. Baltimore's defense should rise to the occasion,  but they'll be lucky if they can slow down Brady, let alone stop him. The injury to Rob Gronkowski certainly hurts and makes the offense a bit less explosive, but the Raven's pass rush is not what it used to be, and will have a tough time against the Pats' offensive line.

The last time these two teams met, Stevan Ridley ran for 37 yards on 13 carries against a stout Ravens' defense. Since then, injuries have depleted Baltimore, leaving teams to gash them on the ground. However, in two playoff games, the team has held Vick Ballard, Ronnie Hillman, and Knowshon Moreno to a mere 3.8 yards per carry. Yes, Ridley is better than all of them, but he'll have to prove it in order for the Patriots to win. This is the battle to watch in the game, and with Ray Lewis playing inspired football (30 tackles in two games), the yards will not come easy for Ridley, or Vereen for that matter.

Speaking of Lewis, a New England billboard was put up a few days ago with a countdown to Lewis' retirement party, with the countdown set to end when these two teams play, implying the Patriots are going to win. Why do these New Englanders keep doing this? First, a columnist pisses off Arian Foster, and now this? Of all people, you do not want to anger Lewis. He's a player who doesn't need extra motivation, but will gladly take it. The Patriots and their fans have been known for being too cocky for their own good (Welker's foot comments about Rex Ryan leading to his suspension and a New England loss a few years ago), so it will be interesting to see how they react if the Pats do lose.

In the end, I've got to go with the Patriots. I think both quarterbacks will have success in the air, and both running backs will run the ball well, but when push comes to shove, you have to pick Brady over Flacco. This game is going to be a lot closer than many people expect, and I think Flacco will be able to match Brady for most of the game, but I feel like this one will come down to an end of the game field goal drive. Flacco had his shot last year. I think it's Brady's turn.

Patriots 30, Ravens 27

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