Games like Sunday’s AFC Championship battle between Baltimore and New England make me glow with pride.
It features a contrast of philosophies (Baltimore’s bruising defense against New England’s efficient and devastating offense) and the game’s two weakest outfits (New England’s defense and Baltimore’s offense) playing a large role in deciding which team will advance to Super Bowl XLVI.
There are five key factors that will determine which AFC team leaves Gillette Stadium holding the Lamar Hunt Trophy:
1. Joe Is Not So Cool – The tale of Joe Flacco is starting to remind me of one of my favorite wrestling angles of the 90s. The late Owen Hart lived in the shadow of his big brother Bret, who had already won the WWE title on two occasions. During a tag team title bout during the 1994 Royal Rumble, Bret injured his knee while Owen yelled hopelessly for a tag. After the match was stopped due to Bret’s injury, Owen grew frustrated that his battered sibling could not make the tag. Seething following the loss, little brother went crazy and kicked his newfound rival in the leg and began to repeatedly scream, “WHY DIDN’T HE JUST TAG ME?!?!?!?!?”
This is what Flacco has become in my eyes. When he complained about not getting respect similar to that of other elite quarterbacks, I lost a bit of respect for him. He sounded a little whiny and beat the “woe is me” drum.
His play doesn’t exactly elicit excitement or extreme confidence. Just ask his teammate Ed Reed, who called Flacco’s performance versus Houston into question.
Despite his Flacco’s emo behavior, his performance against New England’s 31st ranked pass defense is likely to play a pivotal role in the game’s outcome. Outside of Tim Tebow, the Patriots have failed to provide great resistance to passers but thrived in one area…interceptions. Only Green Bay’s 31 interceptions topped New England’s 23 this season.
Obviously, Flacco ability’s to protect the ball is essential. Also, as Owen Hart proved, keeping your cool under pressure and adversity is rather key too.
2. The 2009 Trap – Much like folks harkened back to New York’s 2007 playoff run when discussing last week’s Giants/Packers game, a common refrain has taken hold with the Ravens related to their resounding 33-14 win over the Patriots in Foxborough during the 2009 playoffs. If you’re a Ravens fan, it sounds good in principal but there are a few issues with that theory:
- New England’s offense: The Patriots are a vastly different team from the one Baltimore whipped. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were not Patriots; New England’s leading receiver that day was Julian Edelman (six catches for 44 yards and two scores); Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher (14 carries for 52 yards); and most importantly, Wes Welker was out after tearing up his knee a week earlier in Houston. The tight end area alone is enough to keep Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s head spinning this week.
- Flacco: He completed 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards and an interception. If he posts those numbers on Sunday, something is seriously wrong. Baltimore’s defense (and a hip injury) and Ray Rice gave the offense enough cushion to play it conservative. That is not likely to be the case on Sunday.
Perhaps the better comparison is the 2010 meeting, a 23-20 Patriots win in overtime. Flacco played well (27-35, 285 yards, 2 TDs) but New England’s offense survived a shaky day from their fearless leader to win. There is a far greater chance that Sunday’s game resembles last season than the playoff blowout.
3. Cam Cameron…Meet Ray Rice – 13, 8, 5, 10. Nope, those are not yesterday’s lottery numbers. It’s the number of carries for Rice in Baltimore losses. If Baltimore wants to limit New England under 30 points, they’ll need a heavy dose of Rice as a part of the effort.
4. Is It Real Or Fake? – Baltimore’s defense is ranked fourth against the pass and has allowed the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL (11). Ah, but there is a significant red flag with those stats. Look at the quarterbacks Baltimore played during the regular season:
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Matt Schaub (w/o Andre Johnson)
Andy Dalton (2)
That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row. The Ravens D faced three top 15 passing offenses (San Diego, Tennessee, Pittsburgh) and were 2-2. In those games, they surrendered at least 270 yards passing on three of those occasions.
Simply put, this is easily the greatest challenge Baltimore’s defense has faced this season. They better answer the bell…or else.
5. Mr. Brady’s Pocket – Well, this is the game. If Brady is allowed to setup shop as he did last week and so many times this season, Baltimore’s chances of winning are slim. As we’ve heard many times before, the key to knocking Brady off stride (or most quarterbacks for that matter) is moving him off the “spot”, a term used to describe where he feels most comfortable in the pocket.
That burden will fall on the Ravens front seven including Terrell Suggs, who led the AFC with 14 sacks.
The good news for Baltimore fans is that the Ravens are one of the few defenses that can do that. In his last four games versus Baltimore’s defense, Brady’s passer rating has been 76.3, 100.8, 49.1, and 69.5. He is 3-1 in those games but another defensive effort comparable to that gives Baltimore a chance for ultimate success.
BONUS – Reintroducing Bernard Pollard: Hey Patriots fans. Remember this guy? He’s back in Foxborough for the first time since tearing up Brady’s knee as a Chief in 2008. One year later, he was a Texan when Wes Welker tore his ACL a week before New England’s playoff meeting with the Ravens. At this rate, Pollard is likely to be responsible for Bill Belichick tearing a quad muscle.
SUMMARY: This is a crossroads game for Baltimore. After a bye week, they played very uninspired football for three quarters until Reed put T.J. Yates out of his misery.
I could be way off about this but something seems off with Baltimore. Normally, they are full of bravado. Since the second quarter versus Houston, they appear to be a team quite aware of their mortality. That’s not the way to head into a conference championship game…especially against New England.
Due to New England’s defensive inconsistencies and lack of strong personnel, Baltimore should be in this game but I don’t think their defense can hold up for 60 minutes against the Patriots.
THE PICK: NEW ENGLAND 30, BALTIMORE 20