Well, the stage is set. The Baltimore Ravens return to the crime scene where their dreams were robbed at Gillette Stadium due to the dropped pass heard around Charm City.
The New England Patriots will host the Ravens once again this Sunday in the first AFC Championship game rematch in consecutive years since the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns clashed in back-to-back conference title games following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The Broncos beat the Browns in both meetings. This time, the previous loser from last year will be the winner.
New England narrowly escaped with a 23-20 win this time last year, after a potential go-ahead touchdown reception was knocked from the grasp of former Ravens receiver Lee Evans, followed by a missed field goal by former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
But last year’s loss is a distant memory as Baltimore looks to lay it all on the line in its fourth AFC Championship appearance in franchise history.
“We fought hard to get back to this point,” said Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco. “We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we’ve put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a great game.”
Due to a couple of questionable decisions by the Broncos, the Ravens miraculously defeated Denver 38-35 and improved its road playoff record to 8-5 (.615), the highest road winning percentage in postseason history (minimum 10 games).
Flacco’s breathtaking 70-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver/return specialist Jacoby Jones was the longest game-tying or game-winning scrimmage touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter of an NFL playoff game.
“I had my eye on the ball, I wasn’t even looking at the safety,” said Jones, whose 70-yard touchdown was his first catch of the game. “As soon as he missed and it hit my hand, I was like, ‘Touchdown.’”
Ravens’ offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell discussed what happened with that play.
“There was a lot going on in that play,” said Caldwell. “Very, very good pass protection, Joe (Flacco) making just a heck of an effort trying to buy a little time, and obviously, a great throw down the field and Jacoby (Jones) getting in position to make the catch. They improvised a little bit. That’s what great players do. These guys are getting better all the time. This is the time of year that you are going to have to make plays like this, because it’s very, very difficult to win consistently in this league.”
The Patriots advanced to their 10th AFC Championship with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round. The Patriots are 7-2 in AFC Championship Games, including 4-0 at home. With the victory, quarterback Tom Brady recorded his 17th playoff victory as a starting signal caller, surpassing his childhood idol, Hall of Famer Joe Montana (16) for the most in NFL history.
“Tom is a great competitor,” said Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. ”He’s our leader and we all follow him. There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady.”
Meanwhile, Belichick earned his 18th postseason win as a head coach, eclipsing Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs (17) for the third-most in NFL history. He trails Hall of Fame coaches Don Shula (19) and Tom Landry (20) for the most wins by a head coach in NFL playoff history.
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots win last weekend, including two touchdown passes to running back Shane Vereen, who had only eight career receptions prior to Sunday’s game.
Vereen also had a one-yard touchdown run against the Texans, becoming the third player in NFL history with two touchdown catches and a touchdown run in a playoff game, joining former NFL running backs Roger Craig and Rickey Watters.
“I think the two best teams are in the finals,” said Brady. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it’s very fitting. We played them early in the year. They got us. We’re going to have to play our best game this week.”
How the Ravens Will Win
It’s safe to say that this encounter with the Patriots is probably the first time the Ravens (and their fans) feel good about their chances against Tom Terrific. So, it’s probably safe to say that the Patriots will host an opponent, outside their division, that is not afraid of them.
The Ravens should be successful in their deep ball game against New England, if they play an aggressive ball control contest. Meaning, the Ravens can mix things up in the running game with ball carriers Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. When the Patriots sent three defensive linemen to compress the pocket, Flacco will hit his pass-catchers underneath for first downs, and occasional big gains.
“Ray (Rice) has done a tremendous job running the ball, and that’s kind of where it all starts,” said Caldwell. “Usually, it’s the other way around. Typically, for the most part, you establish a pretty good running game, and then, obviously, things help to open up a little bit, because you can’t do anything all the time in this league. You have to be able to balance the run and the pass. You can’t throw deep all the time. You have to go intermediate and short. You have to mix it up as much as you possibly can, and that’s what we have been trying to do.”
The Patriots will compress the pocket to force Flacco outside where their defenders can quickly get to him. Baltimore must have a protection plan at the edges in order for Flacco to get the ball out his hands for designed deep throws.
“We’ve got guys on the outside that can do it,” said Flacco. “Torrey (Smith) has been big. Jacoby (Jones), Anquan (Boldin) – those guys are good at doing those kinds of things. We’ve been able to exploit some of that on the defenses that we have played. It definitely gets us going. It is a big part of why we won those games. I don’t think we need it to be successful, but it definitely helps us out.”
Baltimore’s wide receivers are bigger and faster than the Patriots’ defensive backs. Without forcing the issue, Flacco must hit those deep targets in stride to setup or put points on the board. The Ravens will be in attack mode throughout the contest, and if they get out early, they will pound the ground with runs and short passing plays.
Why the Patriots Will Lose
The Patriots will lose? That’s almost impossible when Brady is at the controls. The Ravens match up well against the new Dodge Dart endorser. However, stopping Brady is easier said than done.
“It’s easier said than done. Any quarterback you want to get him off the spot and disrupt the timing of things,” said Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh. “He (Brady), obviously, gets the ball out very quickly. They have a lot of control passing stuff underneath with good receivers, mainly 83 (Wes Welker) and 81 (Aaron Hernandez) who do a great job underneath, but all of them. The offensive line does a good job, so that’s something that you shoot for doing. You have to do it; you have to be successful doing that or you’re not going to stop this offense.”
Getting to Brady is difficult, due to his ability to get the ball out quickly. Nevertheless, the Ravens’ defense has been playing solid, discipline football since the return of star linebacker Ray Lewis and the emergence of cornerback Corey Graham, as he became a solid contributor to the secondary. Since the secondary is on the same page, defensive coordinator Dean Pees can continue to be aggressive in his play-calling.
In order for the Ravens to stay fresh despite Brady’s no-huddle, speed offense, Pees must recognize the situation and have his defense rotated properly between plays to keep pace against New England’s offense. The Ravens’ defense must play faster because oftentimes against the Patriots, they were a split second off on making stops against New England in the past two contests.
New England will execute its no-huddle speed offense with its five wide receiver sets. The Patriots are like a well-oiled machine that manufactures first downs first, which helps them to take shots down the field. The Patriots love to throw their short-intermediate passes around screens to gather a lot of yards on the ground with their short, but quick pass catchers.
The Patriots will send their pass catchers in crossing patterns underneath the Ravens’ zone defense to help draw Ray Lewis out or force him to go the opposite way they want to go. Lewis will be ready for that, and his teammates must stay at home as the plays will come to them.
Baltimore is one of the best teams in the NFL in terms of fundamental sound tackling. The Ravens will keep the Patriots’ receivers in front of them, but they must maintain physical play throughout the game to throw them off their timed routes.
The Ravens must stick to their game plan because the Patriots will, no matter the situation. Clearly, the Ravens must not let their frustrations get the best of them. New England will do things, offensively, to get under the Ravens’ skin. For instance, the Patriots’ tight ends, like Aaron Hernandez will chip on the Ravens’ linebackers and defensive backs at their blind side to create lanes.
Fortunately for the Ravens, they have been playing disciplined football as of late.
And with all that’s been said, Lewis will do his fame dance one more time – in New Orleans.