It has been a tale of two careers for Tom Brady. Prior to Brady's lost season of 2008, the Patriots primary rival was Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Since Brady had his knee reconstructed, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens have been the Patriots biggest hurdle on their way to the Super Bowl.
In the 2009-10 season, the Ravens upset the Patriots in the playoffs in Foxboro, 33-14. The Patriots never had a chance in that game. Ray Rice raced 83 yards on the first play from scrimmage for a touchdown. At the end of the first quarter, the Ravens led, 24-0. Flacco only needed to complete four passes in ten attempts. Brady threw three interceptions and only threw for 154 yards.
Last year, in the AFC Championship Game, Brady struggled against the Ravens defense yet again. The Patriots won, 23-20, despite Brady not throwing a touchdown pass and being intercepted twice. The Ravens could have won the game if Lee Evans could have held onto a pass in the end zone late in the game. They could have tied the game and sent it to overtime if kicker Billy Cundiff didn't shank a 32-yard field goal with eleven seconds left on the clock. Could have.
Cundiff and Evans are no longer on the team.
Earlier this year, the Ravens escaped with a 31-30 victory against New England in Baltimore. It is a game remembered, mostly, for head coach Bill Belichick running after a replacement official following the game and grabbing the official's arm as he exited the field.
It was also a game notable for Ravens' wide receiver Torrey Smith's performance. Smith's younger brother died in a motorcycle accident less than 24 hours priors to game time. Smith responded with 6 catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
There were also several questionable calls by the replacement officials. Even the game winning field goal was questionable.
It is odd that with two teams with so much significant recent history, not too much stock can be given to these recent games. A lot has changed.
Most importantly, for the Ravens, Ray Lewis announced prior to the playoffs that this would be his last season. The news appeared to be just the spark the team needed. Baltimore had lost four of their last five regular season games, but responded with victories at home against the Indianapolis Colts and on the road against the number one seed Denver Broncos.
For the Patriots, the mid-season trade acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib has changed the dynamic of their defense. Talib has brought an aggressiveness to the defense, allowing them to blitz more often. It has also allowed Devin McCourty to switch to safety. McCourty has proven to be a ball-hawk as a safety, whereas, as a cornerback, he hardly ever knew where the ball was. The Patriots also don't have a safety who can cover as much ground as McCourty.
The tandem of Talib and McCourty will be pivotal. Flacco's effectiveness is throwing deep downfield. More specifically, Flacco likes to throw deep down the right sideline. If the Patriots line up Talib at right cornerback, with McCourty over the top on that side, they should be all set. Patriots safeties' mantra this week should be "Don't be Rahim Moore."
The one thing that always scares me about the Ravens is Ray Rice. I don't know-- maybe it's the on-again, off-again nightmares I have of that 83-yard opening play TD run in the playoffs. Inexplicably, it appears Rice's role in the Ravens offense has diminished slightly this season. Rice had the fewest rushing yards (1143) and the fewest receptions (61) this year since his rookie season of 2008-09. Patriots fans can only hope that recently appointed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell forgets about him even more this week.
The hope will be that coach John Harbaugh will get caught up in the shootout mentality and drop Flacco back to pass fifty times. While Flacco has cut down on his interceptions, he is prone to holding onto the ball too long in the pocket and taking unnecessary sacks. He is also prone to fumbling the ball. This sounds like Rob Ninkovich territory to me.
It is also important to note that Flacco is two different quarterbacks at home and on the road. Flacco had a 99.0 quarterback rating (15 TD, 5 INT, 62.2% completions, 295.4 yds/gm) at home. On the road, his rating dropped to 74.9 (7 TD, 5 INT, 56.9% completions, 181.8 yds/gm).
Offensively, the Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski. Unlike last year, I am not as concerned. The emergence of running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen give the Patriots a new dimension which not even the Ravens have seen from New England.
Vereen came out of no where to make five catches and score a total of three times last week. I can't remember the last time the Patriots had such a speedy, versatile, explosive running back.
While BenJarvus Green-Ellis was always a work-horse running back, you never got the sense he could break off a fifty-yard run. With Vereen and Ridley, you get the sense they can score from anywhere on the field.
Another big difference from last year when Gronkowski went down is that this year the Patriots have a wide receiver wearing no. 85 who can actually contribute. Brandon Lloyd, quietly, had a very solid season with 74 catches for 911 yards. He allows the Patriots to stretch defenses by working the sidelines while Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez work the middle of the field.
The Ravens aging defense should have a hard time keeping up with Brady's hectic pace on offense. Safety Ed Reed, 34, was non-existent (2 solo tackles, 0 passes defended) last week in Denver and Ray Lewis, 37, is a shell of himself. His lateral movement is no where near where it once was. While his tackle totals seem unaffected, most of his tackles are occurring 6-8 yards downfield.
An X-factor for the Ravens will be the special-teams play of Jacoby Jones. Jones averaged 30.7 yards per kick return (2 TDs) and 9.2 yards per punt return (1 TD) during the regular season. The Patriots struggled on special teams last week and at pivotal times during the regular season.
My predictions: Brady will struggle. He usually does against the Ravens. They are in his head. I say Brady throws for 250-275 yards with a couple of touchdowns and a couple of interceptions.
I think Stevan Ridley goes for over 140 yards rushing. The Ravens gave up 122 yards per game during the regular season. As long as the Patriots don't run the ball inside the tackles all the time, but make the Ravens defenders run sideline to sideline, there will be opportunities. Remind the aging Ravens defenders this will be their 19th game of the season.
Joe Flacco will throw one interception (my crystal ball says Brandon Spikes) and will get strip-sacked once (Ninkovich?). Ray Rice will be a non-factor, mostly because the coaching staff won't utilize him correctly. I think Torrey Smith has a nice game, and Anquan Boldin will have a nice second half after being forgotten in the first half. Overall, the Patriots defense plays well. Unlike last year, there will be no Julian Edelman playing defense.
Final score: Patriots 28, Ravens 20. Jambalaya, baby!
As for the NFC...
Please allow me to toot my own horn here for a second. I was 4-0 in my picks during Wildcard Weekend and I was 4-0 last week during the Divisonal Round. That means I am a perfect 8-0 during these playoffs so far. Toot! Toot!
Having said that, I think the NFC Championship Game pick might be the easiest one I've had to make so far out of the ten games in the playoffs--- and is probably why I'll get it wrong. I don't see any way the Atlanta Falcons beat the San Francisco 49'ers. I don't care if the game is being played in Atlanta where the Falcons are 8-1 this season. I think Atlanta is soft.
And, yes, I am on board the Colin Kaepernick bandwagon. Last week's performance was one of the best post-season performances I have ever seen from a quarterback. 181 yards rushing from a quarterback?!?! Are you kidding me? Plus, he throws for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
Final score: San Francisco 38, Atlanta 20.