Conference Title Games (Part Two)

AFC Championship logoThis week was a little hectic with the Eagles signing Chip Kelly as their new head coach and Deadspin breaking the Manti Te’o story (which I knew of 10 days before it was released – I have the text messages to prove it). I didn’t do the research or the digging to deserve any of the credit on this story which is why I didn’t say a word publicly – only to a few close friends. Regardless, we’re all aware of what happened by now so lets move on to the AFC Championship Game.

The Patriots will host the Ravens in a rematch of last year’s exciting conference title tilt. One play here, a play there and it might’ve been Baltimore losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI (sorry…I couldn’t resist). But alas – Lee Evans dropped a TD, Billy Cundiff missed a FG and it was New England that advanced to the big game.

A year later, we’re back where we started with Baltimore headed into Foxborough hoping to knock off the dynamic duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Here’s The Spotter’s View on Ravens-Pats Part 2:

If the Ravens win this game, they’ll have beaten the potential Offensive Rookie of the Year (Andrew Luck), the potential Comeback Player of the Year (Peyton Manning) and the potential MVP of the League (Tom Brady) in three consecutive weeks. They probably shouldn’t even have won the first of these three games but they took advantage of Indianapolis’ mistakes to get by the Wildcard Round and capitalized on the worst defensive play ever to sneak by the Broncos in their Divisional matchup (Quick question: Has anyone figured out what Rahim Moore was doing yet? Anybody?……ANYBODY!!!!!! That has to be the single worst play since Tony Romo dropped that snap in Seattle and arguably the worst defensive play in league history – I’m not exaggerating).

Now the Ravens are here. Again. Getting ready to take on a team that they have always played tough for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVII.

The big story line for the Ravens is MLB Ray Lewis who has his teammates playing a very emotional brand of football thanks to his impending retirement. This team has circled the wagons around their leader and I would think at least part of their post-season success has to be attributed Ray’s last ride. Believe me, nobody in that locker room can stand the thought of ending the career of an all-time  great. It’s put a laser like focus into this group and helped to solidify their goal –  New Orleans – Super Bowl – send Ray out with a ring.

The problem that they’ll face in New England is that motivation and emotion only gets you so far. It can take a great team to dynastic levels. It can bring a good team to the AFC Championship game but it can’t overcome the most successful coaching/QB combo the league has every seen – especially not on the road. I don’t care that last year’s game was close and that the Ravens have a history of playing the Patriots tough. I look at talent and the advantage in this game lies with New England.

Let me ask you this: if your opponent has a 17-year veteran playing MLB with one arm who has clearly lost a step (maybe two) and you possess a game breaking, elite TE with rare athleticism, what would you do? That’s right….attack the middle of the field, repeatedly. TE Aaron Hernandez is a matchup nightmare for the Ravens and Lewis. He seems poised to have a monstrous day.

If the Ravens decide to double Hernandez to take him out of the equation or play him with a safety instead of Lewis, I would expect New England to do the same thing they did against the Texans last week. Houston used Glover Quinn – a safety – to cover Hernandez and it worked. The problem is that New England had a counterpunch. The Patriots continued to spread their RBs out wide in the hopes of dragging a linebacker out to cover them. The result: Shane Vereen went off in the passing game as he regularly abused the Texans linebackers in coverage.

The same principles will apply tomorrow. If the Ravens decide to keep Lewis on the field for the majority of the snaps, I would expect Brady to target him in the passing game. Hernandez, Vereen and fellow Patriot RB Stevan Ridley should shred him up anytime the Ravens decide to play man to man. It’s all about matchups and finding the advantage. Nobody in the league this season (and maybe ever) has done that better than Brady.

The Ravens also don’t have much of a pass-rush to speak of which pushes the advantage further into New England’s corner. The best way to beat Brady has been to pressure him with four rushers, hit him – preferably through the middle of the pocket – and play exotic coverages behind it. Well, the Ravens don’t have the pass-rush to pull this off which means they’ll have to gamble with the blitz.

Blitzing Brady can work but only as part of complete game plan and when used sparingly. If he KNOWS you HAVE to blitz to apply pressure, you’re dead before the ball’s even snapped. He’s the single best anticipation QB playing in today’s NFL. Meaning he knows what you’re going to do based on down and distance, the situation, the score and the personnel/alignment that you’ve shown to him. If he’s able to figure out a pattern based on those factors, he’s very adept at changing the protection scheme to account for your extra rusher.  Brady also has an excellent report with his favorite target, Wes Welker, who seemingly gets a first down reception every single time an opponent blitzes in these situations.

Look, I love Ray Lewis and John Harbaugh and Ed Reed. I really like the Ravens and the way they play football. Their physical and aggressive and emotional. I get it. But looking at the advantages New England has on offense and I can’t envision a Brady-led team falling at home.

“But it almost happened last year”……

Well…..it didn’t happen and this ain’t last year. Lewis had two working arms a year ago, OLB Terrell Suggs wasn’t dealing with his litany of injuries and I have an extremely hard time seeing Joe Flacco outplaying Tom Brady again. Flacco was lights out in the 2012 version of this game. Brady was not. It’s possible a similar scenario will unfold but I would say it’s unlikely. Flacco is arguably the most inconsistent QB in football while Brady is possibly the most consistent of all-time.

Push comes to shove…I’m taking the team with the massive advantage in the passing game, with the Hall of Fame QB and Hall of Fame coach, playing at home, with the motivation of reaching their 6th Super Bowl together in order to cement their shared legacy as the greatest QB/Coach combination in NFL history.  When you look at it like that….can you envision Baltimore winning this game? I can’t. New England rolls.

Patriots 27, Ravens 20

Playoff record: 5-3 (Thanks Rahim Moore!)

SUPER BOWL XVLII  –  Falcons vs Patriots

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