It took two overtime periods and playing a mile above sea level to outlast the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional Playoffs last Saturday in what surely will go down in the annuals of NFL playoff history.
For this Ravens team they now turn their collective attention to a foe they’re getting to know quite well in the New England Patriots. The Ravens beat New England here in Baltimore back in late September, 31-30, but that’s regular season. All everyone thinks of is the nightmare that was last year’s AFC Championship Game when the Ravens were a dropped pass and then a missed kick away from playing in Super Bowl XLVI.
But that game is now ancient history. Both of these teams are different than last year, but also the same as well. They know each other extremely well, what each strengths and weaknesses are. The personnel may change, but its usually the same cast of characters. Each team anchored by two surefire Hall of Fame players in Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and New England’s Tom Brady.
Regular season wins are nice, but the Ravens won’t be able to exorcise past failures until they beat the team that took what they thought was theirs last January. For the Ravens to be successful and punch their ticket to New Orleans in February, they’ll have to build upon the momentum that started to show itself against the Indianapolis Colts.
Here are the three keys for the Ravens to defeat the New England Patriots and advance to Super Bowl XLVII.
Slow The Patriots Array of Players on Offense
As the Patriots do often and do well, they get many guys involved in the offense in different ways. Last week, Shane Vereen was active all over the field, scoring three touchdowns against the Texans. New England will try to match-up Vereen with a linebacker to utilize his speed, something to watch defensively for the Ravens.
It feels like the Patriots have been more dynamic with Rob Gronkowski out, they use a combination of Vereen and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield in addition to their featured runner, Stevan Ridley. Ridley is a strong, elusive back though the Ravens held him in check with only 37 yards on 13 carries in Week 3. Woodhead received the lion’s share of carries in that game, rushing for just 34 yards on 15 carries.
Wes Welker is a key for them in the slot, as is Aaron Hernandez who lines up and plays more like a receiver but the Ravens could see plenty of looks from him in the slot. Hernandez was still recovering from an ankle sprain when the Patriots and Ravens clashed in Week 3, but will be heavily targeted by Tom Brady in this one. Hernandez finished with seven catches for 66 yards in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
They have Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch (who they seem to cut every other week) in the fold as well. Lloyd was very active in the first meeting, catching a team high nine passes for 108 yards. Branch has seen action in 10 games this season, starting four. He could be used in more three and four receiver sets should the Patriots go that route.
For the Ravens to slow the attack, they’ll need to bring the pressure to Tom Brady. Moving him around in the pocket, now allowing him to get his feet set to make throws, much like they did with Peyton Manning in the 2nd half of the game. The Ravens will have to be very mobile in this one; we saw the Patriots use their TE’s effectively last year, the linebackers will have to be able to locate and find Aaron Hernandez (yet another weapon) and tackle, keep everything in front instead of chasing and tackling.
In the secondary, Corey Graham should probably see a good amount of time facing Wes Welker in the slot and Cary Williams should see Brandon Lloyd. The corner play has been a lot better collectively since Graham was inserted in the lineup. Williams plays well off the ball at times, but his closing speed to the ball helps him out. They’ll need to keep everything in front of them and not be burned by the double move. Play tighter to the line of scrimmage and don’t allow anything behind them.
Continue The Effective Running Attack
Jim Caldwell didn’t abandon the run last week in Denver, even with Bernard Pierce limping off with an injury. Ray Rice was effective and even the runs where he didn’t get a lot of yardage, helped to set up throws down field. Bernard Pierce looks like he’ll be ready to go on Sunday. It will bring a different dynamic in this match-up because Pierce didn’t have the role then that he has now. The mix of speed and power will help the Ravens and it will help Joe Flacco be able to make throws, use the middle of the field effectively with Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Anquan Boldin and of course take shots down the field with Torrey Smith.
Rice ran for just 67 yards in last year’s AFC Championship game as the Pats keyed in on him, but he ran for 101 yards and a TD in the win over New England in September. What will help the running attack is the outstanding play of late by the offensive line which is now the correct line to use. They’ve blocked really well up front, the left side of Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele have been effective because they are athletic enough to get out in front and move people, especially Osemele. I think the Ravens will run and run more early, they’ll make it work and that will help the rest of the Ravens dynamic offense to get going.
To avoid Vince Wilfork, the Ravens should run more stretch plays to the left and especially the right with Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher. Blocking up front will have a heck of a time trying to stop the behemoth Wilfork. Matt Birk will probably need help from Yanda in double teams.
Play Better Special Teams
Special Teams was absolutely atrocious last week so hopefully Jerry Rosburg has corrected the issues and has this unit ready to roll because you know the Patriots had a watchful eye on it as well. Even they had their own problems last week allowing a huge return on the opening kickoff by Texans returner Danieal Manning.
In last week’s game in Denver, the Ravens allowed nearly 53 yards per return on three kick returns, including a touchdown and 90 yards on three punt returns and a score. Meanwhile, New England allowed 54 yards per return on four kick return chances by Danieal Manning.
Field position is crucial in this game and the Ravens will need to have more than just the punter being close to tackling the returner in this game. It comes down to knowing your assignments and making the tackles in open space that need to be made. Easier said than done, right?
Hope everyone has recovered from the excitement and stress of the win in Denver because more than likely this game will go down the same way. The Ravens wanted the Patriots in this re-match and they get it. They’re a determined bunch who want to send Ray Lewis to New Orleans instead of packing it up for the season. No one wants to be that person to let Lewis down. It’s in front of the Ravens for the taking and they are clicking on all cylinders right now.
Ravens 27 Patriots 23
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.