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NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (13-4) at New England (14-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A dominating victory last week enabled the New England Patriots to atone for a few recent playoff failures on their home turf, one of which came at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.
Getting payback for that startling loss will be secondary when the two conference powerhouses lock horns at Gillette Stadium this time around, however, with a spot in Super Bowl XLVI at stake in Sunday's 2011 AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens dealt New England the worst playoff defeat of the abundantly- successful Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era in a 2009 AFC First-Round clash in Foxborough, utilizing a punishing running game and stifling defense to produce an emphatic 33-14 win that afternoon.
Baltimore flexed its muscle right from the get-go in that contest, with running back Ray Rice breaking through for an 83-yard touchdown on the initial play from scrimmage and the defense forcing three turnovers from Brady in the first quarter. By the time the period came to a close, the Ravens had built an overwhelming 24-0 lead.
"We didn't start that game off the way we wanted to on defense," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich recalled. "A team that potent and tough, you can't give up a big run for a touchdown to start the game off like that. Obviously, that's something that we really need to focus on, not letting up any big plays like that, especially to start the game off. The momentum they gained from that obviously just snowballed for the rest of the game."
The Ravens finished with a whopping 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, with quarterback Joe Flacco attempting a mere 10 passes. Brady, meanwhile, was intercepted three times and lost a fumble while recording a substandard 49.1 passer rating that was easily the lowest of the two-time Super Bowl MVP's storied postseason career.
New England was also plagued by poor starts in each of its last two games prior to this season's playoffs, but was able to overcome those sluggish beginnings in wins over Miami and Buffalo. The AFC's top seed had no such issues in last weekend's Divisional Round test, however.
The Patriots sped out to a two-touchdown advantage midway through the first quarter in its matchup with surprising Denver, and didn't take their foot off the gas pedal in thumping the overmatched Broncos by a 45-10 count. The lopsided result ended a frustrating string of three consecutive postseason losses since New England's last AFC Championship appearance, a 21-12 decision over San Diego in the 2007 season.
Brady was razor-sharp in notching his 15th career playoff win, connecting on 26-of-34 throws for 363 yards and tying an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes.
The Patriots now enter Sunday's showdown having won nine in a row, and the club has put up 31 points or more on all but one occasion during that tear.
Second-seeded Baltimore earned its third conference title game berth in franchise history and first since 2008 with this past Sunday's 20-13 ousting of AFC South champion Houston, with an opportunistic defensive display playing a major part of that outcome as well.
The Ravens capitalized on four Texans' turnovers, with 17 of their 20 points coming directly off three Houston miscues. The final takeaway, an interception by veteran safety Ed Reed, thwarted a potential scoring attempt with the Texans down by seven points with under two minutes left.
On the negative side, Baltimore mustered just 227 yards of offense and 11 first downs in advancing, numbers that head coach John Harbaugh knows must improve with the AFC's highest scoring team next on the docket.
"I would anticipate, against the team we're about to play, you have to do a better job offensively in terms of numbers and stats and points, of course, than we did [last week]," said Harbaugh.
The Ravens are 1-1 all-time in the AFC Championship, having downed Oakland on the road in the 2000 edition and falling at rival Pittsburgh during Harbaugh's debut campaign of 2008. New England sports an impressive 6-1 record in conference title bouts, including a 4-1 mark under the Belichick/Brady regime.
Baltimore has never beaten the Patriots in six lifetime regular-season meetings, but as previously mentioned, did come out on top in the lone postseason encounter between the teams with its 19-point win at Gillette Stadium in the opening round of the 2009 Playoffs. New England was able to avenge that loss with a hard-fought 23-20 home overtime verdict over the Ravens last season, with the Pats scoring 13 unanswered points to rally from a double- digit fourth-quarter deficit. Baltimore also left Foxborough with a 27-21 setback during Week 4 of the 2009 campaign and also lost to New England on the road in 1999 and 2004.
Belichick, who served as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95 before that franchise's move to Baltimore to become the Ravens, owns a 4-1 career record against this week's opponent, with the lone blemish coming in the aforementioned playoff loss. Harbaugh is 1-2 against both the Pats and Belichick during his tenure with the Ravens and has compiled a 5-3 overall postseason record.
Belichick has amassed a 15-5 playoff mark during his 12-year reign with the Patriots and is 16-6 in the postseason as a head coach, tied with Chuck Noll for fourth place on the NFL's all-time list for playoff wins.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore called for a run on 54 of its 65 offensive plays in its stunning playoff win at Gillette Stadium two years ago, and figure to use a ground-heavy philosophy this week as well with the intention of keeping Brady and New England's allotment of playmakers stranded on the sidelines for as much time as possible. And considering the somewhat shaky performances that Flacco (3610 passing yards, 20 TD, 12 INT) has delivered in the postseason, such an approach seems to make further sense. The fourth-year quarterback did throw for a pair of scores without a single turnover against Houston, but possesses just a 53 percent completion rate, a 6-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a lackluster 66.2 passer rating in seven career playoff starts. Though the Ravens were held to 87 rushing yards by a stout Houston defense last Sunday, they averaged an impactful 181.6 yards per game on the ground over the final five weeks of the regular season and Rice (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 total TD) surpassed the century mark in three of those tilts. The versatile back has also made his mark as a dynamic pass-catcher, placing second among players at the position in both catches and receiving yards (704) in addition to leading the entire NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,068) this year. Three-time Pro Bowl selection Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) rates as Flacco's go-to guy among the wide receiver corps, with fleet-footed rookie Torrey Smith (50 receptions, 7 TD) a dangerous field-stretcher who came through with four touchdowns of over 35 yards during a strong debut season.
The Patriots are coming off a solid showing on defense in last week's rout, with the linebacker pairing of Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) heading up a concerted effort that limited Denver's read-option scheme to a modest 144 rushing yards on 40 attempts and the group unleashing a furious pass rush upon Tim Tebow that accounted for five sacks and a countless amount of hurried throws from the young quarterback. Ninkovich (74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 INT) and Pro Bowl lineman Vince Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT) each tallied 1 1/2 sacks to help New England move on, and they'll be counted on along with pass-rush specialist Mark Anderson (29 tackles, 10 sacks) to make Flacco similarly uncomfortable within the pocket come Sunday. Getting consistent pressure will also be essential to protecting a vulnerable secondary that permitted a troublesome 293.9 passing yards per game during the regular season, the second-highest total in the league. The Patriots did come up with 23 interceptions over the 16-game schedule, however, with top cornerback Kyle Arrington (88 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PD) tying for the league lead in that category. New England did fare better in containing the pass during the latter stages of the season after some tinkering from Belichick that included shifting starting cornerback Devin McCourty (87 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) to free safety on nickel downs, and the recent return of safety Patrick Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) from a foot injury has helped stabilize the backfield as well.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Expect New England's game plan to be far less conservative than that of Baltimore's, and for good reason. The Pats boast one of the game's all-time greats at the quarterback position in Brady (5235 passing yards, 39 TD, 12 INT), who generated the second-highest passing yardage total in league history this season and is now a sensational 15-5 as a playoff starter for his career. Following last weekend's six-score outburst, the star signal-caller has thrown 25 touchdown passes against just three interceptions over the course of his team's nine-game win streak and has surpassed the 300-yard mark in five straight outings as well. While sure-handed slot man Wes Welker (122 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD), the NFL's leader in catches in 2011, usually serves as Brady's primary target, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski (90 receptions, 1327 yards, 17 TD) has emerged as the most feared member of New England's deep collection of receivers and is coming off a monster night against the Broncos. The second-year standout hauled in three of Brady's six strikes and finished with 145 yards on 10 grabs, while steady wideout Deion Branch (51 receptions, 5 TD) contributed a 61-yard touchdown catch to the win and No. 2 tight end Aaron Hernandez (79 receptions, 7 total) recorded 116 yards from scrimmage (including 61 rushing) while lining up in several different spots as coordinator Bill O'Brien got creative. Physical running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667 rushing yards, 11 TD), who's never fumbled in over 500 career carries spread out over four seasons, remains the favorite to lead the backfield in touches when the Patriots do run the ball, however. New England had an AFC-low 17 turnovers during the regular season, while its 65.3 touchdown percentage inside the red zone ranked second in the entire NFL.
Navigating a Baltimore stop unit that placed first overall in pass efficiency defense and yielded a league-low 11 touchdowns through the air during the regular season won't be easy, and Brady's been intercepted a total of five times in the last two encounters between these clubs. The Ravens lived up to their reputation for thievery in last week's win as well, with cornerback Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT) picking off Texans rookie T.J. Yates twice and big-play artist Reed (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) garnering his eighth interception in 10 career postseason assignments to help seal the victory. Baltimore did not come up with a sack against Houston, however, though that's hardly the norm for a crew that topped the AFC with 48 quarterback takedowns prior to the playoffs in addition to leading the NFL in red-zone scoring defense, with opponents reaching the end zone on a scant 38.1 percent of possessions. All-Pro outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (70 tackles, 14 sacks, 2 INT) paces a pass rush that will need to be in top form on Sunday, with rookie end Pernell McPhee (23 tackles, 6 sacks) shining in a situational role to aid the cause, while the accomplished combo of esteemed inside linebacker Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and space-eating tackle Haloti Ngata (64 tackles, 5 sacks) key a run-stopping effort that was second-best in the league in the regular season (92.6 ypg) but did give up 131 yards on the ground to the Texans.
Despite the presence of Harbaugh, a special teams coordinator in Philadelphia for nine seasons prior to arriving in Baltimore, this wasn't an area of strength for the Ravens in 2011. The coverage units were especially poor, with the team surrendering the second-highest average on kick returns (29.7) and allowing 11.9 yards on punts in addition to allowing three runbacks for touchdowns (two punt returns, one kickoff). Kicker Billy Cundiff (28-of-37 on field goals), a Pro Bowl participant the previous season, was pretty reliable from shorter distances and good on kickoffs, but hit on just 1-of-6 three-point tries from beyond 50 yards. Webb was a bright spot on punt returns, however, averaging nearly 12 yards per touch and taking one back for a touchdown in a December win at Cleveland, and the talented young cornerback is now handling kickoffs as well after regular David Reed tore his ACL late in the year. Punter Sam Koch averaged a career-best 46.5 yards per attempt, though the sixth-year pro does have a tendency to outkick his coverage at times.
New England, on the other hand, has shown few weaknesses on special teams. Punter Zoltan Mesko was third in the NFL in net punting (41.5 avg.) and knocked 24-of-57 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line in an excellent second pro season, while dependable kicker Stephen Gostkowski made 28 of his 33 field goal attempts and was a strong 10-of-13 from 40 yards out or more. Reserve receiver Julian Edelman (10.9 avg.) also had a sound year as the primary punt returner, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown against Kansas City in November, while fellow backup wideout Matt Slater was named as the AFC's Pro Bowl special teams player as the captain of the Patriots' quality coverage groups. Kickoff returns were the lone aspect that wasn't up to par, with New England ranking 29th in that category and running back Danny Woodhead averaging a pedestrian 21.9 yards per attempt as the main guy.
Though this year's playoffs have had an affinity for high-scoring affairs, there's reason to believe a shootout won't be taking place here. The Ravens have been one of the league's toughest teams to score upon, and especially so in the red zone, and New England's usually-devastating offense has had difficulty reaching its normal lofty standards against some of the better foes on the schedule (i.e. Pittsburgh, the New York Giants). Baltimore's lack of production on that side of the ball during last week's win is a big concern, however, as the odds of the efficient Patriots giving the ball away as many times as the Texans did are quite low, and the Ravens' traditionally-furious pass rush hasn't shown as much bite outside the comfortable environment of M&T Bank Stadium (only 15 of Baltimore's 48 sacks during the regular season came on the road). As long as New England can protect Brady sufficiently, the Patriots won't have too much of a problem moving the football, and although the touchdowns won't be nearly as plentiful as in past weeks, there should be enough points to get past a Baltimore squad that needs big plays out of its seasoned defense to counterbalance an offense that can be deficient in that area.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 23, Ravens 17
01/18 09:59:53 ET