By: Rich Bergeron
Sunday's NFL nightcap features what promises to be an epic game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens in a cold and stormy Foxboro, Massachusetts. The game kicks off at 6:30 PM EST and will be aired on CBS. It is also a rematch of a week 3 battle that came down to the wire. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco threw for 382 yards in that game, and the Ravens won by a single point thanks to a Justin Tucker field goal that barely soared inside the right upright as time expired. The last time the Patriots met the Ravens in the playoffs, it was their field goal that won the game. This year's contest might be just as close, but don't count on it.
Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis has the most to play for in this game, and it will be up to him and his defense to decide if the team moves onto the Super Bowl. The Patriots have always been better on offense this season than they have been on defense, but that hasn't really mattered late in the season. They won 7 of their last 8 regular season games, only falling to the San Francisco 49ers by a slim 7-point margin in week 15. The Pats led the league in points scored and total yards while coming in at ninth in average points scored against and rushing yardage against. Their pass defense was much worse, ranking 29th in the league with an average of 271.4 passing yards allowed during the regular season. The Ravens were much better than the Patriots on defense throughout the year, though their offense only cracked the top 10 in one category: average points scored (24.9). Still, Ravens QB Joe Flacco proved last week he can be just as dependable as Brady when it comes down to the last second.
Flacco's Hail Mary connection late in the fourth quarter of the Ravens overtime win against the Denver Broncos last week proved he can be just as "elite" as he wants to be considered in the NFL. He'll have a chance to really prove he belongs in that category this week, and he'll try for his third straight week without throwing an interception. He's also only been sacked twice in the post-season. Flacco is more on his game than he's ever been, and going up against Tom Brady and all his Super Bowl rings is a true blessing in disguise for Flacco. If he can really outshine his counterpart in this game, the NFL experts and pundits will gladly put him in the elite category.
Unfortunately for Flacco, these are not the same Patriots who fell to the Ravens in week 3 of the regular season. This is a much improved squad with new stars on both sides of the ball. Last week, Patriots Running Back Shane Vereen averaged 5.9 yards per carry after a season in which he served in more of a supporting role for the breakout running of Stevan Ridley. Both Ridley and Vereen scored rushing touchdowns last week. A late season acquisition on defense also helped the Patriots win last week as Cornerback Aquib Talib racked up 9 solo tackles and an assist as the Pats rolled over the Texans by a score of 41-28. Talib, imported from Tampa Bay, is picking up the slack for the Patriots defense in a big way. He came in at a perfect time to make a monumental difference.
Though this is bound to be an "any given Sunday" type of game where either team could win it in the right conditions, the Ravens put in a very long and ugly game last week. Penalty flags flew from every direction with both teams struggling mightily at different times in the contest. As much as Flacco's arm and the talent and speed of his receivers helped edge the team to victory, there was also quite a bit of lucky breaks that went his team's way. The cold and thin air of Denver was a perfect opportunity to practice for playing in New England weather, but Baltimore won't benefit from the poor coaching decisions of an opponent this week. Pats Head Coach Bill Belichick would never ask Tom Brady to hand off the ball on 3rd and 7 when a first down on offense could end the game. He is also a master of adjustment, which will help the Patriots if the Ravens happen to get a head start on points in the game.
Prediction: Tom Brady will put on a passing clinic in this game, and the Ravens defense will have a hard time dealing with the dynamics of Wes Welker's breakout speed and the running attack the Patriots will execute between throwing downs. Aaron Hernandez will also have a big day at tight end thanks to Rob Gronkowski's absence. Ray Lewis' retirement party will feature him being on the field for the bulk of this game. Ray Rice will not be able to rack up any huge runs, because the Patriots will be able to learn from how the Broncos managed to contain Rice last week. Brady will avoid getting sacked by getting rid of the ball quickly with more passes to the flat and a strong running game that will establish itself early in this game. The defense for the Patriots will be classic "bend but don't break" and will allow more field goals than touchdowns this week. Flacco will give up his first interception of this year's playoffs and never recover from the resulting frustration. The Patriots are virtually unstoppable at home, and despite the past history of these two teams the Patriots have improved enough to make sure this game doesn't come down to a field goal. Final Score: Patriots: 34 to Ravens: 19.