In my week 11 power rankings, when Baltimore was 8-2, I wrote: “According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams since 1991 through 10 weeks. Schatz tweeted that Baltimore’s the 16th best team based on just offense and defense.”
A few days later the Ravens defeated the Chargers in the famous 4th-and-29 game, which certainly didn’t change my outlook on Baltimore. Then the Ravens tanked down the stretch, seemingly fulfilling their reputation as an average team. And let’s not forget: had Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s possible the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs. Without the 13-10 ugly win over Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have finished 9-7 with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker. To be fair, the Ravens did not compete in a meaningless week 17 game, but the point is that the Ravens were barely above-average team during the season that got a few breaks along the way.
Baltimore had a slightly easier than average strength of schedule, and roughly matched their opponents in yards, first downs, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and net yards per pass. Compare them to the juggernaut that is the 2012 Patriots — New England finished with the 4th most points in NFL history — and this game, on paper, should be a blowout.
The biggest flaw in that analysis is that everything I just wrote was equally true last week, when I picked the Broncos to steamroll the Ravens.
Home Field Advantage
With just 9 seconds remaining in the first half of a week 17 game in 2000, the Patriots trailed the Dolphins 17-14. Drew Bledsoe threw a 16-yard pass to Terry Glenn for the touchdown, putting New England up 21-17 at the half. Jay Fiedler and the Dolphins came back to win the game in the second half by the final score of 27-24.
That game, in week 17 of the 2000 season, was the last time the Patriots lost a home game after leading at halftime. Thanks to Scott Kacsmar for pointing that out to me. From 2001 to 2012, a home team has lost a halftime lead in 316 different games, but none of those teams were New England. All of the other 31 teams have lost at least five such games. That’s just ridiculous. Making the stat even more absurd: over that same time period, New England has had a home halftime lead in 71 games, the most in the league.
The Rob Gronkowski injury is a big blow for the Patriots, even though it didn’t seem to slow them down at all against Houston. This isn’t going to be the lead story on ESPN anytime soon, but Ray Lewis is now a liability in pass coverage. Making matters worse, he’s been on the field for every snap this postseason, so don’t expect the Ravens to take him out against New England. Both Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning exploited the middle of the field against the Ravens, as Dannell Ellerbe — the other inside linebacker — is also poor in coverage. If the Patriots had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez healthy, I think Belichick and Brady would have attacked the Ravens linebackers all game with those two.
Wiith Lardarius Webb on IR and Jimmy Smith dealing with groin/abdominal injuries most of the year, Cary Williams, Corey Graham, and Chykie Brown have become the top three cornerbacks in Baltimore. Of the three, Brown is the most likely one to be targeted by Brady, but truth be told, whomever is matched up against Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez is going to be in for a long day. Ed Reed has played well this post-season, so don’t look for the Patriots to attack him.
In the AFC title game last year, Paul Kruger, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs had limited success getting to Brady. This will be the key matchup for the Ravens on Sunday: without Webb in coverage, pressure on Brady will be even more important this year. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are very good, but the middle of the Patriots line can be suspect: center Ryan Wendell is a strong run blocker but a mediocre pass blocker, while former center and now right guard Dan Connolly can be beat. Even left guard Logan Mankins isn’t the same player he was before his ACL injury. The middle of the New England line is where the Patriots are vulnerable on offense, and 3-4 defensive ends Ray McDonald and Calais Campbell each had two sacks in wins over the Patriots. When the Ravens won in September, Ellerbe and Ngata combined for three sacks. Paul Kruger has been the pass rushing star in Baltimore this year and Terrell Suggs is the household name, but players like Ngata, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, Ellerbe and even Lewis could be factors in getting to Brady.
On the offensive side, the most important player on the field for the Ravens is probably wide receiver Torrey Smith, who torched New England just hours after his brother passed away in week three. How Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and the rest of the Patriots secondary handle Smith will go a long way towards deciding the winner. The Ravens passing game is very inconsistent, but that may not be a bad thing for a team that’s a heavy underdog on Sunday. Still, I don’t like the Ravens’ odds in a shootout: Tom Brady is 64-2 at home when the Patriots score more than 21 points.
Riding with Ray
There is no way around it: all the evidence points to the Patriots. They’re home, they’re the better team, they have the better quarterback and the better coach. But that was pretty much the case last week (minus the coaching part), and the Ravens actually outplayed Denver for most of the game. In the light of the Manti Te’o scandal, the lesson might be to just ignore off the field stuff entirely and focus on the actual game. But emotion is a big part of football, and I think the Ravens have bought into this “win it for Ray” mentality. It would be silly to think that the Ravens “want it more” than the Patriots, but take a look at what Ray Rice said on Wednesday:
This is Ray Lewis’ last hooray. You are looking at their coaches, they are coming back next year. Our General, our Captain – this is it for him. If you want to call it riding that emotional high, emotions, everything, of course we are, because we are dealing with something that is going to be a last. Every time that we’ve seen someone in the playoffs … The Colts, coach Chuck Pagano, we love him, but he’s back to coach next year. Peyton Manning is coming back to play next year. Ray Lewis is not. That’s what he said. He made that decision final. I think we all just put our pride aside, and if we are going to ride it, we are going ride it. But, we are going to go out there and give it our best shot for our guy. He’s done it for us for 17 years and led our guys to one Super Bowl. We speak of it, and it stands right here.
I would roll my eyes at any columnist who picked the Ravens to beat the Patriots because of junk like this, so commence the eye-rolling my direction. But I think the Ravens are playing at a higher level than they have all season, and I believe they’re a veteran team that is capable of rising to the moment. They’ve had a full year to digest the agony of losing last year’s championship game, and I think Baltimore plays their best game of the year — and pulls off the upset — on Sunday.
Baltimore 23, New England 21