There are a lot of fresh faces in the conference championship games this weekend, but with names like Belichick, Brady, Lewis, Reed and Suggs, the AFC tilt will still feel very familiar.
The top storylines:
1. Rivalry renewed. The Patriots have been synonymous with big offense for a decade, while the Ravens have been synonymous with fierce defense. It’s a great battle of good versus evil, and they have quite a heated history.
2. Tom Brady goes for four. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since Brady and Bill Belichick won their third championship together. This is their best chance since 2007 to relive the glory days. And let’s be real: the window might not be open for too much longer.
3. Final chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? Both future Hall of Famers are close to retirement. Lewis would love to lock up his second championship, while Reed is still chasing his first.
The last time they met…
- New England 23, Baltimore 20 back in Week 6 of 2010, but the Ravens pummeled the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs in New England.
- In the Baltimore playoff victory, Ray Rice was the difference, running all over the Pats while Joe Flacco completed just four passes. The Ravens outscored the Patriots (who have been known as slow starters this season) 24-0 in the first quarter, cruising to victory after that. The Baltimore defense intercepted Brady three times and shut down the New England running game.
- But in the more recent regular-season matchup, the Pats won in overtime despite losing the turnover battle 2-0. Flacco actually outplayed Brady, who has now thrown five picks in his last two games against Baltimore.
Injuries to watch:
- Reed (shoulder and ankle) is banged up, but he’ll play.
- Everyone’s practicing for the Patriots, including Brady, who sat out Wednesday with a shoulder injury.
Eight factors that have me leaning Patriots in a double-digit victory:
1. The Ravens can’t stop New England’s offensive weapons. At this point, I don’t think anyone can. Baltimore’s defense is fantastic against the run, but unfortunately, the Pats hardly rely on the run. The Ravens don’t have the personnel to stop the triple threat of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Lewis and Bernard Pollard don’t have the ability to do so at this point, and while Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain are good players, both are less than 100 percent.
2. Only a great pass rush can limit New England’s offense. And right now, the Ravens don’t have a great pass rush. Although they finished the regular season with 48 sacks, they failed to get to get to T.J. Yates last week and have just three sacks in their last four games. Terrell Suggs had a ridiculous season, but he still has a tendency to disappear at times. Again, if you can’t stop those receiving weapons, you have to hit Brady a lot. I don’t get the feeling Baltimore can do that.
3. I don’t trust Cam Cameron. The Patriots had an issue with slow starts during the regular season, but they kicked that last week in Denver. If they can get out to an early lead, I get the feeling Baltimore’s offensive coordinator will panic and abandon the running game, putting the skittish Joe Flacco on an island against an underrated pass rush.
4. Plus, New England’s front seven can stop Rice. This is a unit that is healthier than it’s been all year with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes playing together for only the eighth time in 18 games. Patrick Chung’s presence has also helped a middle-of-the-pack run defense. Belichick is very familiar with this team, and I’m expecting him to outsmart Cameron by loading the box and removing Rice from the game early. Baltimore beat the Pats in the 2009 playoffs by jumping out to an early lead after Rice scored on the first play, and then rode him the rest of the way, throwing on just 10 of 62 plays. That’s the recipe for success Sunday, but the odds of them starting that well again at Gillette Field aren’t very good.
5. I don’t trust Flacco either. I don’t care about his playoff record on the road, Flacco has a career playoff passer rating of 66.7 with more interceptions than touchdowns. In eight postseason games, the guy has completed only 53 percent of his passes. To boot, he’s coming off of his worst season as a pro and a miserable game against Houston. I realize that this New England defense isn’t as good as the Texans’, but they’re actually much better than you think: they surrendered more than 27 points only once all year, have been superb in the red zone and the pass rush has stepped it up big time in December and January. It’s cliche, but this is a quarterback’s league, and you’d be crazy to pick a Flacco-led team over a Brady-lead team just because lightning struck once in the past.
6. Baltimore got lucky in the divisional playoffs. They were probably outplayed at home against a depleted Texans team led by a third-string quarterback, getting bailed out by turnovers. After barely surviving against a mistake-prone Yates, they’re in big trouble at Foxboro. Sure, they’ll benefit from having Torrey Smith go up against a weak secondary without the likes of Johnathan Joseph or Danieal Manning, but this is still a defense that has 16 sacks in its last four games.
7. More on lightning not being likely to strike twice: New England slipped up two years ago against this very Ravens team at Gillette, but that was an anomaly, as was their loss to the Jets last year. First, those teams didn’t have the unique offense that this one does. Second, Tom Brady is now 9-2 at home in the playoffs and has lost just three home games in total since 2006. Meanwhile, Baltimore was only 4-4 on the road this year, with losses to Jacksonville, Tennessee, Seattle and San Diego, all of whom didn’t qualify for the playoffs.
8. And about that Baltimore defense… A lot has been made of the fact New England hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record all season, while Baltimore is an impressive 7-1 against teams with winning records, but the seemingly bulletproof Baltimore defense still worries me on the road. They faced only one top-10 offense this season, giving up 34 points in San Diego only a month ago. And if you go back, they have struggled against elite offenses on the road dating back to 2008, winning in Houston last December (but giving up 28 points), in San Diego earlier in ’09 (yet giving up 26) and beating the Pats in a game carried by the offense in the ’09 playoffs.
In conclusion, the Pats could make a mistake against Lewis and Reed. Brady has five picks in his last two games against this smart defense. That worries me, as does the unpredictability of the New England defense. But a lot has changed since that previous playoff meeting, and winning once at Gillette doesn’t make it a trend.
GLS prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 21
(Playoff record: 7-1 straight up; 4-3-1 against the spread)