I’d like to offer a big “settle down” to everyone that wants to keep reminding fans that the Ravens beat up on the Patriots in the playoffs in 2009. We know, we remember, it happened.
It’s also hardly relevant to this weekend’s game.
As I recall the Patriots were without Wes Welker for that one. He blew out his knee in a week 17 game against Houston and watched from the owner’s box with Mr. Kraft as the Ravens scored a 21-0 lead in a heartbeat and destroyed the Pats. Ray Rice had a huge game and the Pats never had a chance.
That game was only about 700 days ago. A lot has changed. For one, Welker is back and better than ever. The Patriots have received a ton of coverage about how they’ve revolutionized the passing game with Gronkowski and Hernandez (we’ll get to them more later). That may be true, but Welker has been a huge weapon for Tom Brady this year as well. WW had 122 catches — one shy of his career high — and over 1,500 yards and 9 TDs. He may be little, but he’s a huge weapon. To me he’s the X-factor in this one. The Ravens are going to try to do everything they can to slow down the Boston TE Party, which will open things up for Welker in the slot, not to mention Deion Branch (51 rec, 701y, 5 TD), who knows how to rise to the moment.
Those tight ends are the ones getting all of the attention, and deservedly so. Rob Gronkowski (90 rec, 1,327 yards, 17 TD) had maybe the best season any TE has ever had. Hernandez would be the No. 1 guy for every other team in the league, except maybe New Orleans and San Diego. He pulled down 79 catches for 910 yards and 7 TDs, and we found out that he can run the ball too. When they’re on the field, Brady is deadly. According to ESPN Stats Tom Brady threw 25 TDs and just 3 INTs when both tight ends were on the field. I think they’ll be on the field quite a bit against the Ravens.
But Rich, the Ravens are a great defense. They’ll pressure Brady and force him to make mistakes.
My counter is that if you blitz Brady, you’d better get to him. If you don’t he finds open receivers and makes plays down the field.
The Ravens were fourth against the pass and third against the run this year, they can ball on D. However, let’s keep in mind they had 2 games against Cleveland to pad those stats, beat up on Cincy twice (who was not nearly as good as their record), not to mention games against St. Louis and Indy.
They haven’t faced any of the top passing teams in the league, except Pittsburgh, who they torched early in the season and then lost a close one. San Diego passed all over the Ravens late in the season and blew them away.
It comes down to the New England offensive line’s ability to protect Brady and give him time to throw the ball. If they do, the Pats win. I don’t expect New England to put up 45 this weekend, but I don’t think they need to. If the Patriots get to 28 they win because I don’t think Joe Flacco is good enough to win this game.
Flacco has been mediocre at best over the last two months of the season. Since November 10 he’s not thrown for more than 227 yards in a single game, and that was against Indy. He has not throw a ton of picks (4) during that stretch, but he’s hardly lighting it up either. Coach Harbaugh does not let Flacco win games for them, he just doesn’t let him lose them.
Rice has been the one solid standout on offense for Baltimore. He’s tough to tackle and he makes big plays. He had over 1,300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, plus another 704 yards receiving and 3 TDs. He’s a weapon, no doubt.
While the Patriots defense is hardly a reincarnation of the 86 Bears, they’re not as bad as people think. Last week they looked fantastic against the Broncos, but that was an easy game plan to put together. Historically, though, Bill Belichick lies to take what you do best and take it away and make you beat them another way. The Patriots will look to take Rice out of the equation as much as possible and make Flacco beat them down the field.
That is a recipe for a high-scoring game. The Pats will make some mistakes on defense. The Ravens will have their share of big plays that go for 25-plus yards, but the Pats are also one of the best teams in the league at creating turnovers. New England created 34 takeaways this season, which is better than 2 per game. Certainly they give up yards, but they also steal the football.
NE will try to borrow from the Houston game plan of last week, the team that the Pats would be facing if they had a reliable quarterback (TJ Yates threw 3 INTs, including a horrible one in the final minute). The Texans allowed Rice just 60 yards on the ground, a 2.9 yards per carry average and he did not have a run that went for more than 10 yards. Houston has superior defensive talent than the Patriots overall, but if New England can keep Rice to around 100 or fewer yards they’ll be in great shape. Remember Houston wanted to play at a slow pace and slug it out with the Ravens, the Patriots will look to do the opposite. They’ll break out the no-huddle and try to run the long-in-the-tooth Ravens defense ragged.
My pick: Patriots 31, Ravens 20.
In the other game we’ve got a team of destiny against a team of destiny. Something’s got to give.
I won’t get into the detail I did with the previous game, but here are my quick thoughts on 49ers-Giants.
Everyone under the sun is picking the Giants. They keep saying how great it is that they can pressure the passer without blitzing and that the defense is rock solid. That’s great against teams like New Orleans and Green Bay, and they deserve a ton of credit for going to Lambeau and winning last weekend, but I’m not so sure it’s that big a deal against the 49ers.
San Francisco is one of the most balanced defensive teams in the league. This is hardly the old days of Montana-to-Rice. They’re smash mouth football players that don’t mind settling for field goals and will hit you square in the jaw on every play. The big question mark with the 49ers has been quarterback Alex Smith, but I’d say he answered a lot of questions with two of the gutsiest drives of the season of the year inside the last 3 minutes of last week’s game against the Saints. The dude came through in a big, big way.
This Giants team has been a Jeckyl and Hyde crew all season. Let’s not forget that they were just 9-7 and needed to win a showdown against Dallas on the final night of the season just to get into the tournament. They’ve already played 2 playoff games, blowing out Atlanta and then Green Bay. New York has been too inconsistent this year, winning 3 straight games just once.
These two teams played earlier this season, in San Fran, and the 49ers hung on for a 27-20 win that day. I really love the way San Francisco is playing and I think they do it again. I know that the Patriots fans are pining for a rematch of Super Bowl 42, but I don’t see it happening. We’ll have to settle for stories about how Tom Brady loved the 49ers as a kid for 2 weeks.
My Pick: 49ers 30, Giants 24
To set the tone for the weekend, here’s one of the best football movie speeches ever, Al Pacino’s “Inches” speech. Don’t click if you don’t mind a couple of bad words. If they don’t bother you, enjoy …
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.