The AFC seeding worked out just the way it's supposed to, with the No. 2 Baltimore Ravens visiting the top-seeded New England Patriots. The Ravens live and die with defense, while the Patriots got here with offense. It's a classic conflict of strength vs. strength, but don't be surprised if the Ravens' offense or Patriots' defense ends up being the difference in this game.
These teams last met in the playoffs on Jan. 10, 2010 in Foxboro, and it ended up as the first postseason loss at home for Tom Brady. That game got away from the Patriots almost immediately, as the Ravens held a 24-0 lead after one quarter of play. New England turned the ball over three times on very short fields (at the 17-, 25- and 9-yard lines), allowing Baltimore to jump out in front. The Ravens only scored nine points the rest of the game, but it was too late for the Patriots to mount a comeback.
That really was a long time ago in NFL years, though. Only four offensive starters and two defensive starters from that dreadful day remain with the Pats. Brady and company have developed a fast-paced, high-scoring offense, especially at home, where they average 32 points per game. The Patriots defense may give up 362 yards per game at home, but they only allow 18 points per contest. Baltimore has to figure out how to score touchdowns -- not field goals -- if they want to advance to the Super Bowl.
How will the Ravens' defense deal with Tom Brady and company?
In last week's 45-10 throttling of the Denver Broncos, the Pats employed 35 snaps of no-huddle, fast-paced offense and 30 snaps from a huddle. Five of New England's six touchdowns came from the no-huddle package. Typically, the Pats will start a series with a huddle play and go right to the no-huddle on second down. If they catch the Ravens in a defensive personnel grouping they like, they continue in the no-huddle to prevent substitutions and limit the defensive calls. Here's a quick breakdown of the Patriots' different looks from last week's game:
» Huddle, Brady under center (15 run, 5 pass): The 15 runs produced 50 yards and were predominantly used at the start of series. The five passes yielded three completions for 34 yards and a touchdown. Nate Solder reported tackle-eligible for one pass play as an extra blocker, and it resulted in a touchdown.
» Huddle, Brady in shotgun (2 run, 8 pass): The two runs produced just eight yards, but this aspect of their offense has been used more extensively in past games. Because of that, Lewis can't make a pass-defense check every time. Brady completed seven of his eight passes for 79 yards.
» No huddle, Brady under center (11 run, 3 pass): The Patriots really stressed the Broncos with this package by putting Aaron Hernandez in the backfield as a running back and handing him the ball four times for 56 yards. Belichick knows this package creates significant matchup problems for any defense, and if the Ravens make a run check to Hernandez in the backfield, expect Brady to drop back and get Hernandez out on Lewis.
» No huddle, Brady in shotgun (1 run, 19 pass): This is the most dangerous package the Patriots present right now. Lewis may know it is a passing set, but he also is going to watch a cut-up of this package that's going to have 12 completions for 154 yards and four touchdowns. Pretty imposing stuff.
If you look at the Patriots' offense in a simpler form, grouping all the shotgun snaps together, you get a big pass tip: 3 run, 27 pass. Ironically, that may be exactly what Belichick and Brady want you to think. Thus, look for early run plays from shotgun!
Likewise, the Pats have been run-dominant with Brady under center (26 run, 8 pass), so get ready for Brady to break that run tendency with early passes from these sets.
Finally, Brady is playing like a man possessed right now. He is not about to turn the ball over three times like he did in 2009. In 11 postseason games at Foxboro, he has thrown 23 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and been sacked once every 38 pass attempts. The Ravens didn't get to T.J. Yates once last week, and they will struggle to get to Brady, who wasn't sacked at all last week either.
Can Joe Flacco keep up with the Patriots' scoring machine?
Joe Flacco went into Pittsburgh this year, threw the ball 47 times for 300 yards and beat the mighty Steelers. But he only connected on one TD pass. (Fortunately, it came on the game-winning drive.) He will most likely need to connect for at least two scores in this game. Ray Rice had a big day against the Patriots in that 2009 playoff game with 22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He will need another day like that to support Flacco and the passing game. When the Ravens came to Foxboro last year in the regular season, they could only mount 99 yards on 34 carries with no touchdowns. Predictably, the result was a Ravens loss.
Flacco is 4-4 on the road this year with just 10 touchdowns, six interceptions, three lost fumbles and 19 sacks. The Ravens can't afford to turn the ball over against this Patriots team. As for the 19 sacks, that equates to one sack every 16 pass plays. Flacco went down five times in 32 attempts last week at home against Houston. If that's an indication of things to come, then the mediocre New England defense should get to Flacco more than once or twice.
The Ravens would love to get out of this game with less than 30 pass calls, but the nine teams that have come to Foxboro this season have had averaged 39 pass plays per game. (It's hard keeping up with Mr. Brady ...) Tom Terrific won't pile up six touchdown passes like he did last week, but Flacco has never thrown more than two TD passes in a playoff game.
Which team will enjoy more success on the ground?
With all this focus on the passing game, we shouldn't overlook the running game. The Ravens need a big running day to keep Brady off the field and hopefully close out the Patriots in the fourth quarter. Surprisingly, the Patriots have more rushing touchdowns than the Ravens (18 to 15), and the Baltimore defense has given up more rushing touchdowns on the road (seven) than the Patriots defense has given up at home (five). Both running games are very comparable when it comes to explosive runs over 10 yards. The Patriots have 43 and the Ravens have 45.
The Ravens have been widely criticized this year because their run game can disappear at times on the road -- Rice has occasionally been the forgotten man. In four road losses this season, Rice carried the ball a grand total of 36 times for 155 yards and zero touchdowns. In the team's four road wins, he had 80 carries for 519 yards and four touchdowns. I'm almost certain he'll be fed the ball the way he was in the road wins.
As for the Patriots run game, it is certainly diverse, with nine different players getting carries this season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the lead back with 11 rushing touchdowns, but expect some runs from Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez and someone who might not have logged a carry at all during the regular season. As Belichick told me this week, "We have versatile players that can do different things."
I don't see the Patriots putting up 30-plus points, but I also don't see the Ravens eclipsing 21 points. Turnovers have been critical in the playoffs and they will continue to be a major factor in this game. New England wins a thriller. Patriots, 24, Ravens 21