NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (9-7) at New England (10-6)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Twenty-three-and-a-quarter months, two major knee injuries to star offensive players, a slew of veteran defenders, and one offensive coordinator ago, the New England Patriots played a memorable playoff game.
For the first time since that contest, a stunning 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3rd, 2008, the Patriots will play in a postseason game again when they host the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild card round matchup on Sunday.
Though the loss to the Giants - which ruined what would have been the first 19-0 season in NFL history - was less than two years ago, the changes Bill Belichick's club has gone through since that time have altered the complexion of the franchise immensely.
The serious knee injury that ended quarterback Tom Brady's 2008 season in Week 1 was the most notable event, and played a key role in New England missing the playoffs with an 11-5 record last year, but by no means was it the only change the unofficial "team of the decade" endured over that span. Gone from the '07 team are key defenders such as Rodney Harrison (retired), Richard Seymour (traded), Mike Vrabel (traded), Tedy Bruschi (retired), and Asante Samuel (lost in free agency), as well as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who just finished his first season as head coach of the Denver Broncos.
Just last week, another New England lynch pin, wideout Wes Welker, was lost for the year due to a knee injury suffered in the team's 34-27 loss at the Houston Texans. Welker suffered the injury on the same play that he recorded his 123rd catch of the year, tied for the second-most in a single season in NFL history.
The Welker injury, a middling 4-3 record over their last seven games that included losses to the non-playoff Texans and Dolphins, and a disappointing 10-6 mark on the year have conspired to make New England something less than the overwhelming Super Bowl favorite they were when they last reached the playoffs.
The visiting Baltimore Ravens, meanwhile, join the Patriots in the category of 2009 playoff entries with somewhat suspect Super Sunday prospects.
John Harbaugh's squad secured its second wild card berth in as many seasons with last week's 21-13 win at the Oakland Raiders, but Baltimore has an acute lack of quality wins to point to in defense of its playoff resume'. Since an admittedly impressive victory at the San Diego Chargers back in Week 2, the Ravens are 0-6 against teams in the 2009 playoff field, including a 27-21 loss at the Patriots back in Week 4.
Apart from the San Diego game, Baltimore's eight victories came against teams with a combined record of 45-83, with an overtime triumph over a Steelers team that was down to its third quarterback ranking as the best of those wins.
But the key for the Ravens is that they're in the tournament, just as they were last year when they advanced all the way to the AFC Championship after making the field as the No. 6 seed. Led by then-rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, Baltimore went on the road to beat the Dolphins (27-9) and Titans (13-10) before falling at the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers (23-14).
The Patriots lead the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, 5-0, winning home matchups with Baltimore in 1999, 2004, and 2009 and taking road decisions in 1996 and 2007. As mentioned, the most recent matchup took place in Week 4, when New England was a 27-21 home winner in a game that marked the Ravens' first loss following a 3-0 start. The teams have never met in the postseason.
A Baltimore-based NFL team last defeated New England in the 1983 campaign, when the then-Baltimore Colts swept a home-and-home with the Patriots.
Belichick is 3-0 against the Ravens. Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis, MD, got his first NFL job as an assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975. The Ravens' Harbaugh is 0-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens had their peaks and valleys offensively during the regular season, finishing up 13th in NFL total offense (351.2 yards per game) and showing ability to both run and pass the football. The running game, led by Pro Bowler Ray Rice (1339 rushing yards, 78 receptions, 8 TD) and veteran Willis McGahee (544 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 14 TD), ranked fifth in the league (137.5 yards per game), and was tied for the NFL lead with 22 touchdown rushes. Rice went for 103 yards on just 11 carries in the last matchup with New England, while McGahee sparked last Sunday's win over the Raiders with 16 carries, 167 yards and three touchdowns, one of them a dazzling 77-yarder in the second quarter. Flacco (3613 passing yards, 21 TD, 12 INT), who threw for 264 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and an interception in the Week 4 meeting with New England, has thrown just one interception in his last four games and has seven TD strikes over that span. Wideouts Derrick Mason (73 receptions, 7 TD) and Mark Clayton (34 receptions, 2 TD) have been Flacco's most reliable outside targets, and tight end Todd Heap (53 receptions, 6 TD) has come on strong with 133 receiving yards and four touchdowns in his last three games combined. A solid Baltimore o-line has nonetheless allowed 36 sacks on the year.
The Patriots entered last week's contest against the Texans having registered three consecutive strong outings on defense, but took a step back in that regard against Houston. The Texans racked up 439 yards in the game, including 303 through the air by Matt Schaub, and the Pats were gutted for 21 fourth- quarter points in the loss. A pass defense that ranked 12th in the NFL (209.7 yards per game) during the regular season has been an occasional Achilles' heel, as the team has battled to find the right mix of defensive backs and pass rushers. In the secondary, cornerbacks Shawn Springs (40 tackles, 1 INT) and Leigh Bodden (55 tackles, 5 INT) are projected to line up with Mason and Clayton, though Bodden is considered a question mark due to a knee injury. Safeties James Sanders (48 tackles) and Brandon Meriweather (83 tackles, 5 INT) will also have to contribute. The club's top pass rusher has been Tully Banta-Cain (54 tackles, 9.5 sacks), but New England has been an inconsistent pass rushing team. The Patriots were 13th in the league against the run (110.5 yards per game), but allowed just six rushing TDs all year thanks in large part to the efforts of nose tackle Vince Wilfork (43 tackles), end Ty Warren (46 tackles, 1 sack), and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (103 tackles, 1.5 sacks).
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Though he didn't mirror the eye-popping numbers he posted in 2007, Brady (4398 passing yards, 28 TD, 13 INT) was named the league's 2009 Comeback Player of the Year earlier this week after throwing for the second-most yards of his career. Brady is 8-0 in home playoff games as a starter since taking the QB reins in 2001, and has won 23 straight Gillette Stadium contests overall since a loss to the Jets in October of 2006. It remains to be seen, however, how well Brady functions without the ultra-reliable Welker in the fold. Randy Moss (83 receptions, 13 TD) will continue to be receiving option number one, but players like Julian Edelman (37 receptions, 1 TD), Sam Aiken (20 receptions, 2 TD), and tight end Ben Watson (29 receptions, 5 TD) could have to take on a more central role with Welker out. Four different New England running backs have garnered 60-plus carries this season, but it appears that veterans Fred Taylor (269 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Kevin Faulk (335 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 3 TD) will be in line for the most backfield touches against the Ravens. Taylor scored a pair of TDs in last week's loss to the Texans. Faulk will be appearing in his 17th postseason game as a Patriot dating back to 2001. A strong New England line allowed just 18 sacks on the year.
First-year Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has a major headache on his hands, as he attempts to handle Brady and the New England attack with a makeshift secondary. With former starters Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb both out for the year due to knee injuries, figures like Chris Carr (44 tackles, 2 INT, 1.5 sacks), Frank Walker (16 tackles, 1 INT), and Domonique Foxworth (53 tackles, 4 INT) will have to play over their heads against the New England group of receivers. Safeties Ed Reed (50 tackles, 3 INT) and Dawan Landry (89 tackles, 4 INT) will be central to the cause as well, as will a wildly inconsistent pass rush led by Terrell Suggs (59 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Jarret Johnson (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT), and Trevor Pryce (31 tackles, 6.5 sacks), all of whom had sacks of Brady back in Week 4. The Ravens were solid against the run in 2009, leading the NFL with 3.4 yards allowed per carry. Linebacker Ray Lewis (134 tackles, 3 sacks) was a key part of that effort, while defensive tackles Haloti Ngata (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Kelly Gregg (63 tackles, 3 sacks) set the tone at the point of attack.
Give the edge to the Patriots in the battle of the kickers. Stephen Gostkowski (26-of-31 FG) has one of the most reliable and strongest legs in the league on field goals, also ranking in the NFL Top 10 in touchbacks with 21. His counterpart, journeyman Billy Cundiff, is just 12-of-17 since replacing the erratic Steve Hauschka in Week 11. Cundiff has previous playoff experience with both the Cowboys and Saints, and is 1-of-2 on postseason field goals.
Ravens punter Sam Koch (43.7 avg.) has a bigger leg than the Patriots' Chris Hanson (39.7 avg.), and both players have four games worth of postseason experience.
The Ravens averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return on the year, tied for the best figure in the league, and have received a nice effort in that area from second-year-pro Jalen Parmele (31.3 avg.) of late. Baltimore does have a kickoff return for a TD this season, but that went to cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is out for the year. Chris Carr (8.2 avg.) has been nothing special on punt returns for the Ravens.
Matthew Slater should get another shot on kickoff returns for the Patriots after averaging 31 yards on a pair of returns last week, and with the usual punt returner Welker out, either Edelman (10.5 avg.) or Faulk (6.2 avg.) figures to be the guy there.
The Patriots rank in the bottom half of the league in opponents' kickoff return average (24.7) and punt return average (9.0), but did not give up a touchdown return in either area. The Ravens allowed 7.6 yards per punt return and 20.3 yards per kickoff return, and the lone TD they surrendered in either area went to the Bears' Johnny Knox on a Week 15 punt return.
The blowout of the wild card round just might begin at Gillette Stadium around 1pm on Sunday afternoon. These teams played a close contest in New England back on Oct. 4th, and if Mark Clayton doesn't drop a catchable ball inside the 10-yard line in the waning moments, maybe the Ravens even win the game. But October 4th was a long time ago, before Brady got his feet underneath him in the wake of his knee injury, and before the Ravens were passing off a group of suspect cornerbacks as starters. Even without Welker, the Patriots will throw the ball at will against a Baltimore team that doesn't cover or rush the passer well, and the road-soft Ravens will go relatively quietly against a New England team that has never lost a home playoff during the Brady/Belichick era.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Ravens 13
01/07 13:24:06 ET