For the first time since 2007, the New England Patriots find themselves just sixty minutes away from getting back to the Super Bowl. First, they have to take care of business at home against a tough Baltimore Ravens’ team. Last Saturday, the Patriots made a statement to the rest of the league by playing great football in all facets of the game. Tom Brady had six touchdowns, including five in the first half and the defense neutralized Tim Tebow and the power option attack once again.
The Ravens survived their tough divisional round test against the Houston Texans. However, they are dealing with some inner turmoil, or as Ed Reed likes to call it “motivation”. A lot of scrutiny has been put on their quarterback Joe Flacco. People have said that he cannot win the big game unless he gets help from his dynamic running back, Ray Rice, and the dominant defense that has been the staple of the Ravens for the past decades. This game has a lot of hate, particularly the Ravens’ defense dislike of Tom Brady and all the calls he seems to get. They can dwell on the fact that they went into Foxboro two years ago and stomped on New England 33-14 in the AFC Wild Card round.
Let’s take a look at some keys for this crucial game this Sunday (3:00 EST, CBS):
A Branch off the Receiving Tree: If this key sounds familiar, I actually used the same one for last year’s Patriots-Ravens preview where I predicted a 23-20 overtime win. I do think Branch is, once again, the X-factor for this game. All the attention is being focus on the dynamic tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well as the speed of Wes Welker. However, we all know that Tom Brady loves to look Deion’s way as well, particularly on some key third downs. In his first game with the Patriots last season, Branch emerged as a primary target for the Ravens. He had nine receptions for 8 yards and a touchdown with 12 targets. Baltimore will have to watch out for Deion, particularly in the middle of the field because last week, Patriots’ fans saw on the 61 yard touchdown reception that he can still get yards after the catch.
Flustered Flacco?: The Patriots need to confirm what Ed Reed and the rest of the NFL saw last week. Joe Flacco did look flustered in the pocket and he was not getting the ball away quick enough to targets like Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith. I think Flacco is not going to play great, but he will not play horrible either. When you are repeatedly told you cannot do something in life, it just adds motivation and an extra chip on your shoulder. In last year’s matchup, Flacco was 27/35 for 288 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. I think he can have a similar game if the Ravens can get productive carries from Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. However, I question whether the Baltimore signal caller can get the ball into the end zone and make those key third down plays against a Belichick defense that has improved in those situations over the course of the year.
Dig Up Some Ground: A lot of people think that Tom Brady can carve up a Raven defense that only has Terrell Suggs as its main pass rusher. However, while I don’t disagree with that, I think the Patriots need to use some ground game to limit the amount of blitzes. Now, Stevan Ridley might not see much of the field this week after his fumble in garbage time against the Broncos. Keep this stat in mind: In last year’s game, the Patriots, as a team, ran for more yards (127) than Baltimore (98). I look for Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis,and even Shane Vereen to try to provide some yards on first down to keep the defense guessing. Plus, Aaron Hernandez could be used as a rusher, just not as much as the Denver Bronco game after the head injury he suffered in the 4th quarter.
PREDICTION: This has the feeling of a revenge tour for the Patriots and Tom Brady had that look in his eye last Saturday that he is going to make sure this team gets back to the Super Bowl. That being said, I think this game is going to stay close. The Patriots are favored by a touchdown in Vegas, but I could see this game being closer. Ray Rice might not run for 130+ yards, but he gets 80 or 90 yards on an average day (Unless offensive coordinator Cam Cameron decides otherwise). Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots’ defense is going to step up in another big game and force Billy Cundiff field goals instead of touchdowns. New England’s balanced offense will book them a ticket to Indianapolis and Super Bowl 46.
PATRIOTS 27 RAVENS 23