Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots — Sunday 6:30 PM ET (CBS)
For the third time in the Joe Flacco era, the Ravens are set to cross paths with the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs. Baltimore pulled off the upset in the ’09 playoffs, beating the Pats at Gillette Stadium 33-14, despite only completing four passes in the entire game. But Brady and the boys were able to get revenge last year in the AFC Championship game, winning 23-20, thanks largely to a dropped touchdown by Lee Evans and a shanked 32-yard game-tying field goal try with 11 seconds to go by Billy Cundiff. This time around the stakes are equally as high, as the Ravens and Pats get set to do battle for a Super Bowl berth.
It’s not every day that you get to see a non-divisional rivalry as heated as the one these two teams share, and there is certainly no love lost between the two Beasts from the East. They last faced off in Week 3—a seesaw battle, which the Ravens ironically won thanks to a made field goal by their new kicker, Justin Tucker, as time expired. The field goal soared what appeared to be directly over the upright, and the call could have gone either way. This prompted Bill Belichick to grab a replacement official as they were leaving the field, and led to hours of speculation about whether or not these officials were competent enough to call the game. Luckily for them, Tate-Gate happened the very next night on Monday Night Football, ensuring that the officiating would be up to par the next time these two teams squared off.
Ravens WR Torrey Smith, playing just a day after his brother passed away, was the star of that first meeting. The former Maryland Terrapin finished up the evening with 6 catches for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Raven’s emotional victory.
But the past is the past, and come kickoff on Sunday afternoon the scoreboard will read 0-0. Although, if Baltimore’s top-ranked special teams continues to play the way they have all season, that score may not last too long. The Ravens, fresh off a 38-35 double OT victory over the top seeded Broncos, are riding high with momentum, and have no intentions of cutting Ray Lewis’ retirement parade short.
Free-agent-quarterback-to-be Joe Flacco (7-4 record as in the playoffs) has done everything in his power to warrant a long term extension in Baltimore with his play of late. Through two rounds of action he has the highest quarterback rating of any signal caller in the playoffs, and his 70-yard hail mary touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with no timeouts and 30 seconds remaining allowed the team to live another day. Though the irrelevant, yet highly discussed, argument of whether or not Flacco is “elite” is sure to go continue for the foreseeable future, after his postseason performance there is no more debating his leadership or clutch gene.
Also, the Bernard Pollard factor cannot be overlooked. Pollard has crushed the hopes and dreams of Pats fans many times in recent years, including dishing out season-ending injuries to Tom Brady (2008) and Wes Welker (2009), as well as spraining Rob Gronkowski’s ankle in last year’s AFC title game. It should be noted that all three of those injuries occurred on clean plays, but if there’s one player New England doesn’t want to see on D, it’s him.
But even before Bernard gets a crack at them, the Pats will already be banged up. They’ll be without Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and possibly Danny Woodhead this Sunday on offense. And on the defensive side of the ball Chandler Jones (ankle) looks to be a game time decision as well.
New England has done a good job of adapting to its injuries thus far, not skipping a beat on offense, and instead using the newfound opportunities to get other players involved in the game plan. Like second-year running back Shane Vereen, who became just the third player in NFL history to record two receiving touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in the same playoff game. Aaron Hernandez helped pick up the slack at tight end in the Patriots 41-28 win over the Texans, hauling in six catches for 85 yards.
But the real reason that the Pats have been able to keep on winning, regardless of who’s lining up where on offense, is because of the man under center, Tom Brady. The recently-crowned “winningest playoff QB of all time” had a quarterback rating of 115 versus the Texans, completing 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He’s now 11-2 in his career at home in the playoffs, and a victory on Sunday would tie him with his childhood hero, Joe Montana, for the most Super Bowl appearances ever by a starting quarterback (6).
For the Ravens to have a shot at pulling off a second consecutive upset, they’re going to need to emulate what got them here in the first place. They’re going to need to hit on a few deep passes, win the special teams battle and make the big plays on defense. Of course those three things are all easier said than done, but the fact that they’ve won in Foxboro before should give them a confidence most road teams lack when facing the Pats.
Unfortunately, confidence doesn’t necessarily put points on the board, and matching New England’s offense is a task few teams can handle. History indicates this game will be tight, but ultimately I think the Patriots firepower on offense will be too much for the Ravens to handle. Brady and company walk away with the W, and a shot at Super Bowl No. 4.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Ravens 24
Daniel Chiavetta is TDdaily’s AFC East blogger. Follow him on Twitter @Danye33.