Ravens@Patriots: Preview & Prediction

In the first of the divisional round games to be played on Saturday, the Baltimore Ravens look to tread a familiar path to the Super Bowl as they head into Foxboro to take on a refreshed New England team who, chances are, would have been far more comfortable facing someone other than Joe ‘Playoff’ Flacco this week. After his 259 yard, 2 touchdown performance helped his team comfortably ease past the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday, Flacco has now won 10 post season games since he entered the NFL in 2008, more than any other quarterback over that period. 7 of those wins came on the road, including 2 in the very stadium he hopes to claim victory in once again this week.

Over the course of his last 5 playoff games (including a win against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII), Flacco’s statistics are imperious. He has won all 5, connecting on 91 of 155 passes for 1,399 yards, 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions, achieving a passer rating of over 100.0 in every game. Tom Brady, in contrast, has lost 3 of his last 5 (including Super Bowl XLVI spectacularly to the New York Giants) completing 118 of 198 for 1,415 yards, 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, with a passer rating above 100.0 on only 1 of those occasions. Stats aren’t everything, we know that, but there is certainly an argument for Joe Flacco to be heralded as one of the finest post season quarterbacks in NFL history, and should he lead his underdog Ravens to another victory in New England, that opinion could well be cemented.

I picked the Steelers to beat the Ravens last week, citing the fact that Baltimore’s beaten up offensive line and secondary wouldn’t be able to handle the Steelers’ pass rush or Ben Roethlisberger’s deep ball to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. In many ways, I was right, but ultimately, I was wrong. The Ravens rookie left tackle James Hurst had a torrid time against James Harrison, allowing him to get by on multiple occasions to hurry Flacco, and it was only Flacco’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly that meant he escaped with only one sack against him. Antonio Brown caught for over 100 yards, but was certainly held in check more than I expected.

The key to Pittsburgh’s passing woes was the complete lack of any threat in the run game. I knew that the absence of Le’Veon Bell would be an issue, but I underestimated just how much, and with his replacements Ben Tate and Josh Harris combining for only 44 yards on 14 carries, Big Ben was leant on too heavily against what proved to be, as expected, a very effective Ravens pass rush. The returning Haloti Ngata was formidable up front, aided by Brandon Williams, and both had numerous hurries and tackles as well as a sack apiece. On the outside, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs were their usual authoritative selves, with the former picking up 2 sacks and the later recording a quite magnificent interception by clamping the ball between his mighty legs before it could touch the turf.

In summary, Le’Veon Bell’s absence, and the pressure levied upon Big Ben as a result was directly responsible for the Pittsburgh passing attack’s inability to flourish to the high standard we’ve become accustomed to, and, ultimately, the final result.

This week against the Patriots, Baltimore will look to put Brady under the same type of pressure, but the offensive line of New England should be far more equipped to cope, having given up only 26 sacks this year, the 4th least of any team. New England will also be able to reduce the gravity of the pass rush by running the ball more effectively than Pittsburgh managed, ironically via former Steelers running back LaGarrette Blount, who was picked up by Belichick after his acrimonious exit from The Steel City back in November.

A healthy running game will allow plenty of time in the pocket for Brady to test the Ravens’ secondary, and with the fearsome Rob Gronkowski and efficient Julian Edelman, along with Brandon LaFell all seemingly fit after being rested in week 17’s loss to the Bills, the Ravens defensive backs will need to be on top form to slow down the home team. In the New England secondary, Darrelle Revis has been playing at a phenomenal level, over the course of the season allowing only 41 completed passes from 79 thrown his way. He matches up very well historically with Flacco’s favourite target, Steve Smith, who in 3 previous games against him has managed just 2 catches for 21 yards from 10 attempts.

On paper I see only one result, a comprehensive Patriots victory, and though the old adage of “The game’s not played on paper” certainly runs true, as long as Belichick, Brady and company don’t let the idea of Baltimore being their ‘Bogey team’ enter their thoughts, this game should be plain sailing for the boys from Massachusetts.

Final Score: Baltimore 20 – 31 New England

As always, any thoughts, comments or just want to disagree, hit me up on twitter! – @DylanBaker1986