Patriots Preview - AFC Championship runs through Foxboro
Friday, January 18, 2013
It might just be the new "rivalry" for the modern-day NFL.
In last year's AFC title game, the Baltimore Ravens lost a heart-breaking 23-20 decision to the New England Patriots in Foxboro, after a potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked from the hands of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff missed a field goal attempt that would have tied the game in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
The Ravens extracted at least a small measure of revenge when the two teams met in the regular season on September 23rd in Baltimore...as the Patriots blew a 4th quarter lead and dropped a 31-30 decision in Baltimore on a field goal by Justin Tucker that might have missed its mark. Forget that the Ravens also knocked the Pats out of the playoffs in 2009 with a 33-14 win at Gillette Stadium, or the Patriots returning that favor in the 2010 regular season.
In meaningful games, these two teams are largely unpredictable. Either one can win. And that's what makes a rivalry tick.
In this particular renewal, it's the first time in 25 years that the AFC has had a rematch of the previous seasons' title game. It's the first AFC title game rematch since Denver and Cleveland got after it in back-to-back conference championship games after the 1986 and 1987 seasons. But that's the historical perspective. What matters most in this championship game is what matters most in any big game - mistakes. Or, rather, who makes more of them.
The numbers say the Pats had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing 427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single- season average all-time. QB Tom Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times, enters this game with a 17-6 playoff record, the most wins by a starting quarterback in postseason history. Baltimore historically has outstanding defense, perhaps less so this year, and a certain hall-of-famer at linebacker in Ray Lewis who has announced this is his last round-up.
That defense, however, managed to beat Peyton Manning in Denver a week ago in dramatic fashion, with a 47-yard field goal by Tucker in the second overtime. They have picked it up at the right time thanks to the return of four defensive starters: Lewis (missed 10 games), fellow linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard and star pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
The offense, behind QB Joe Flacco, also had its big moments to keep this season alive. And since firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Week 15 (replaced with Jim Caldwell), the offense has turned it on, putting up 533 yards against the New York Giants in Week 16...and after resting players in the regular season finale, the offense put up a franchise postseason record 441 yards in the first round of the playoffs against Indianapolis.
Then, they stuck 38 points on Denver a week ago. Yes, they've had their moments, too. Can the New England defense rise to the occasion to meet the challenge? That's a question that can only be answered by playing the game.
And continuing the rivalry, for the foreseeable future.
Tempo, Tempo, Tempo
With Baltimore's defense showing some signs of age and vulnerability, keeping them on the field and not allowing them to switch into sub packages will be key. The Patriots need to keep the pressure on the Ravens' defense, not just by scoring points...but by also keeping their offense off of the field and making them one-dimensional. Better to know what's coming at you.
Wear the Flac-co jacket
Joe Flacco hasn't been bad in big games lately...since 2010 Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions in the postseason, compiling a 102 passer rating. Over that same span, Tom Brady has tossed 13 TDs with five picks and compiled a 101.5 rating. Forcing Flacco into mistakes may be THE key to moving onto the Super Bowl. He connected on big plays late against Denver - that can't happen this week.
Carpe Diem, and Carpe Game-em
Seize momentum early. Get the jump on the Ravens, and deliver a KO if you can. But if the knockout opportunity doesn't present itself, just don't shoot yourself in the foot with mistakes of your own. Stay in the game, make adjustments, and let your own offensive weapons wear Baltimore down after their emotional, high-altitude win against the Broncos a week ago.