Tom Brady has all the superlatives when you talk about a quarterback: Accuracy, anticipation, poise. But, like any quarterback, he can be affected by pressure. If the Ravens can make him move off his spot, and don't give him the easy step-up lane, they can hope to limit his success. Hope is the operative word.
All the facial hair in the world can't mask the fact that Joe Flacco has been an inconsistent quarterback. He has a great arm, but he seems like more of a "point-and-shoot" guy and not someone who can read and breakdown a defense. Against a porous Patriots secondary, however, he could find some down-the-field throws available to him. He'll have to hit a few to keep up with Brady.
This group consists more of journeymen than special players, but the Patriots get the most out of each and their skill sets. BenJarvis Green-Ellis is quick to the hole and Danny Woodhead is a serviceable scat-back in the run and pass games. Rookie Stevan Ridley might possess the best all-around skills of the bunch, but his fumbling problems have relegated him to spot duty.
Ray Rice has proven himself to be an elite back in this league, in both the run and pass phase. He's patient to the hole and always a threat to hit the cutback lane. He'll be a load for the Patriots' linebackers. Vonta Leach is like another lineman in the backfield, and he neutralizes at least one tackler for Rice on any given play.
New England is a matchup nightmare, interchanging and pairing Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker on the same side of the formation. Playing off of their talent, the Patriots bunch and stack their receivers to soften coverage and rub underneath route runners to catch and run in space. This group might also be New England's best asset to their run game -- playing the personnel chess match through Gronkowski and Hernandez together.
Torrey Smith adds a vertical dimension to a receiving corps that doesn't do much to stretch the field otherwise. What Baltimore does have is a pair of tight ends, in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who can cause matchup problems for the Patriots' linebackers. Of course, Rice is pulling double duty and has to be accounted for as a dangerous receiving threat. Overall, they haven't shown a consistent ability to win versus one-on-one coverage.
The Patriots' offensive line was able to protect Brady for 129 snaps without a sack, which is impressive considering they have rotated between Sebastian Vollmer, Matt Light and Nate Solder at tackle. The edges will be under assault with the Ravens' exotic blitz schemes. Having veterans like Brian Waters and fellow Pro Bowler Logan Mankins helps in picking it all up.
Bryant "Mount" McKinnie is only getting older, so it doesn't help him when Flacco holds onto the ball. Luckily, the Patriots don't bring a ton of pass rushers to the table. A key for the Ravens will be how well they can move Vince Wilfork in the run game, starting with Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, center Matt Birk and Ben Grubbs.
The strength of the Patriots' defensive line? Meat. Lots of it. It all starts with Wilfork and Kyle Love, who are two-gap pluggers with enough athleticism to allow the Patriots to rotate their defensive fronts. However, these big linemen are going to have to stay active and move well laterally. The Ravens' offensive line is famous for creating cutback lanes for Ray Rice -- adapting the Houston Texans' zone blocking scheme after acquiring Leach at fullback.
Haloti Ngata possesses a rare combination of size, speed and quickness, which allows him to dominate at the line of scrimmage. It takes more than one blocker to handle him and sometimes more than two -- the same goes for Terrence Cody. Cory Redding, Brandon McKinney and Pernell McPhee also add to a deep rotation that keeps offensive linemen off of the linebackers. The ability to keep fresh legs rotating is crucial for fourth quarter superiority up front.
The Patriot linebacking corps is hit-or-miss. With change along the defensive line, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have not been able to run free like the New England linebackers of years past. And in recent weeks, they have had alleys to attack but haven't always pulled the trigger to come downhill. Against the zone scheme of the Ravens, these linebackers are going to have to play instinctive to stay unblocked -- something they haven't consistently done.
The quarterback of the defense is Ray Lewis, and while he is up in years, you have to love his ability to lead a defense in big games. Lewis brings with him Terrell Suggs, who will have to attack Tom Brady off the edge. New England attacks the middle of the field better than almost anyone, which means Lewis and his compatriots better prepare to be tested early and often.
We have seen wide receivers (Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater) playing defensive back for New England this season, and that pretty much tells the tale. The Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense during the regular season and remain susceptible on the back end because their front four doesn't consistently generate a pass rush. Devin McCourty has moved to safety to get Edelman and Slater off the field, but New England's secondary leaves a lot to be desired.
Baltimore's secondary has found new life with a healthy Ed Reed playing free safety and corners who can lock-up man-to-man. Lardarius Webb and company will have their hands full with the Patriots' receiving corps, but Webb, Reed, Chris Carr and Jimmy Smith are all capable of making plays on the ball.
Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker who has hit 84.4 percent of field goals for his career -- and he's successful 88 percent of the time on field goals in games with a margin of less than seven points. If the Patriots offense can't overcome the Ravens defense, they at least have a kicker who can split the uprights in a pressure situation. He's also made all five of his field goals in the fourth quarter this season.
Billy Cundiff is another arm of the Ravens' defense, scoring a touchback on 59.5 percent of his kickoffs (which ranks him sixth in the league). On the other hand, Cundiff did place a kickoff out of bounds in last year's matchup with the Patriots, so they'll need him to be on point in this game and make New England's offense have to continually drive 80 yards on the Ravens defense.
Three Super Bowl rings will earn you a lot of respect in this league. Bill Belichick has them, and his teams continue to win games with holes in personnel. The Patriots have talent at all the key positions offensively, but he has shuffled parts on his defense and still won games. Belichick and his staff has proven over the years that they are the best at team-specific game planning.
John Harbaugh's team is a reflection of himself -- they are passionate but under control. As a former special teams coordinator, Harbaugh is very detail-oriented; his team hits you but they don't rack up penalty yards doing it (they rank 29th in penalty yardage against). At the same time, with Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed on this team, he doesn't have to do much to captain the ship.
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