For the second time in as many years, the Ravens head on the road for Wild Card weekend to take on the AFC East Champs, who are quarterbacked by the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. A season ago, it was Chad Pennington and the Miami Dolphins. This time around, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots – a bit of a step up, no?
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were 8-0 in Foxboro this season, and have NEVER lost a home playoff game together.
The past is the past, and as Ray Lewis says, the Ravens aren’t going to play “the mystique of the Patriots,” they are going to play the Patriots. The Patriots, who, by the way, are not the 3 Super Bowls in 4 years team of earlier this decade. Look no further than the fact that they are even playing on Wild Card weekend to prove that they weren’t as dominant in 2009 as they have become accustomed to. Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, and Tedy Bruschi are nowhere to be found on the defense. Their leading receiver, Wes Welker, was injured in Week 17 and will miss the entire postseason. They were only one game better than the Ravens this season, and if Mark Clayton could have held onto that fateful pass, the records of these two teams could easily be reversed.
None of this is to say that the Ravens will go up to Foxboro and make mince meat out of the Pats. Of course not. However, there is more than a glimmer of hope for our purple and black.
Adding to that hope is the fact that the Ravens have played the Patriots extremely close in their last two meetings, only to fall short in the waning seconds. They don’t seem, for instance, to present the kind of match-up problems that the Colts historically have for the Ravens.
Still, the Ravens will likely need a perfect game from all 53 players (and however many coaches) on Sunday to advance to the AFC’s divisional round.
As Drew Forrester points out, Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh will need to be on point.
The running game will be crucial – ball security and yards after contact from Ray Rice and Willis McGahee will go a long way.
The Ravens’ receivers will have to get open, and not have balls bouncing off their hands in critical situations (see: the aforementioned Clayton, Derrick Mason in Pittsburgh).
The pass rush and secondary will need to come together. Without Welker, the Ravens will be able to turn their attention to Randy Moss. Doubling Moss all day will obviously be the way to go, as the Ravens have no defensive backs who can even dream of containing #81 one-on-one. Welker’s replacement though, rookie Julian Edelman, is no slouch. Edelman caught 37 passes for 359 yards and one score this season, and is basically Wes Welker Light. He doesn’t worry me nearly as much as Welker would, but if the Ravens’ corners, especially Dominique Foxworth, have another bad day tackling, the WR screen to Edelman could prove plenty effective for Brady.
As far as the pass rush, there have been signs of life recently (3 sacks in Oakland, 4 in Pittsburgh). Bringing down Brady though, is a bit more difficult than tracking down Fat Ben and Ja-suckus Russel. He went down only 16 times in 16 games this season. The key won’t necessarily be sacking him a bunch of times, but forcing him to throw before he is ready, and, hopefully, making those (rumored) injured ribs just a bit more painful. If Brady has time to throw, it won’t matter how many guys the Ravens put on Moss, or how many torn ligaments Patriots receivers have – he will CARVE UP this secondary. If the Pats are facing a 3rd-and-15 or something equally preposterous, and Greg Mattison again decides to bring his patented 3-man rush…well, Ravens fans might as well just turn off our TVs.
All of the Ravens will have to keep their heads in the game and focused to avoid stupid penalties. B’More ended the regular season as the most penalized team in the NFL, showing that through two years of John Harbaugh, the zebras still see Brian Billick’s band of thugs when they see those purple jerseys. Of course, some of the same guys that were getting stupid penalties under Billick are still doing it under Harbaugh, so they are to blame more than the coach is.
Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, we’re looking at you. There WILL BE a roughing the passer flag on Sunday. Bank on it. When it comes, accept it and move on. Don’t argue about it. Don’t change the way you are playing. Just move on to the next play, and hit him again.
As far as Joe Flacco, well, if Natty Joe’s day resembles in any way the afternoon he had in Oakland, he’d better have his golf clubs ready. Flacco will need to do a much better job of recognizing the blitz, moving in the pocket, and above all, GIVING HIMSELF SOME TIME AT THE LINE. It’s been a season-long issue, so there is really no reason to believe it will be corrected this week, but, when the Ravens’ offense is huddling, there are routinely 5-8 seconds on the play clock by the time they reach the line of scrimmage. Methinks this is another reason that Joe does so much better in the no-huddle – he has TIME to make reads at the line. When the play clock is winding down, you can tell that he doesn’t even scan to see where the pressure is going to come from. Without turning it into a hurry-up (which could hurt the cause of keeping Brady on the sideline as much as possible), Cam Cameron should plan to use plenty of the no-huddle on Sunday.
If the Ravens can put a full game together – control the clock with an effective running game, move the chains on 3rd down, keep Flacco upright, make sure tackles, avoid stupid penalties, be smart with timeouts – there is no reason they can’t go up to New England and keep their season alive.
Brady and Belichick have another gear for the Playoffs. It’s time for Harbaugh and Flacco to prove that they do, too, by taking what has been an underachieving, up-and-down team, and hitting their stride at the perfect time.
Ravens 28 Patriots 24