Alright. We can talk morals and try to rebut it with complete and utter hypocrisy until we’re blue in the face, but there’s a football game to be played and that’s all that matters. The Ravens have a tall task tomorrow. Make no mistakes about it, the Patriots probably should win this game. They’ve played dominant football since Week 5 this season. They’ve got the best defense they’ve had in years, albeit not as improved as its made out to be (10th in PPG allowed in 2013 vs. 8th in 2014). They’ve got a healthy Gronk. They’re playing at home in cold weather. They earned the 1 seed they possess without question.
But how much of that matters with a team like the Baltimore Ravens? Joe Flacco has gotten tons of credit and deservedly so, but John Harbaugh hasn’t nearly as much. Harbs is the best motivator in football. He gets his guys up for big games. He and his staff develop effective gameplans and he gets his teams to execute it. And he gets his guys to play physical and wreak havoc on the opposition’s gameplan. So while I fully expect January Joe to go out and do his thing, the Ravens have a great shot in this game because the rest of the guys around him will elevate their performance as well.
Not to mention the Ravens weren’t the slouch in the regular season everyone makes them out to be. You don’t rank in the top 10 in both points scored and points allowed without being a very good football team. Only 3 teams can say they did that. 2 of them are playing in Foxboro tomorrow. You also don’t finish 6th in the NFL in point differential without being good either. +107 is nothing to shake a stick at, regardless of your schedule. So while the Ravens don’t play an aesthetically pleasing brand of football (and never have), the numbers show that they have a well constructed, balanced football team. They simply struggled with inconsistency for chunks of time. The Ravens can beat anybody if they play their game for 4 quarters, and I have all the confidence in the world in Harbaugh getting his guys to do so. Here are the keys for those guys to get a win in Foxboro:
1. Get Torrey Smith Vertical Against Brandon Browner
First things first. I expect Steve Smith to be largely ineffective against Revis. In 3 career matchups against Revis, he’s got a total of 8 catches for 98 yards and 0 TD’s on 17 targets. Maybe he’ll break the mold there, but I really expect Flacco to make his money throwing to Torrey and the rest of the guys. Brandon Browner is likely to be matched up against Torrey. Browner is a 6’4 corner who plays physical. Physical to the point that he was responsible for 15 flags in only 9 games played this year. On the other side, Torrey Smith leads the NFL in pass interferences drawn and it isn’t even close. His speed is too much for DB’s like Browner to handle, so they concede PI flags by grabbing him. Torrey’s 11 PI flags have netted 229 yards, with Jordy Nelson’s 6 flags for 129 coming a distant second. So this matchup is the perfect storm. Torrey’s just gotta get vertical. He’s gotta shed the press coverage and use his legs and put himself in a position for Flacco to throw deep. I’m confident Torrey can break a long one or two, and even if he doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll draw a key flag or two.
2. Get Back To Running The Ball
A great way to make Key #1 a reality is to run the ball effectively. Yeah Joe went out there and threw the rock around in Pittsburgh. That’s just January Joe. But my concern is that the Ravens might get too caught up in all the hubbub and lose sight in the fact that we had one of the best run games in football this year. It looks like Eugene Monroe is healthy enough to be back at left tackle, James Hurst will move from LT to RT, and Marshal Yanda will shift from RT to his comfortable home at RG. When Yanda is at RG, this run game is dominant, and that’s when the play-action with Joe’s arm is so dangerous. Not to mention the more we run the ball, shorten 3rd down, and sustain drives, the more Tom Brady is a spectator. Joe will get his shots to chuck the rock around, but it’ll be helluva lot easier if we don’t forget about Justin Forsett and the run game.
3. Haloti Ngata Vs. The Interior Lineman
Last week Haloti came off his 4 game suspension fresh and raring to go, and it showed. He dominated. The Steelers were ineffective on the ground, and he absorbed blockers for his pass-rushers to get to the QB. He even notched a sack himself. I expect this week to be more of the same. The Ravens will stop the run, I have no doubt about that. They haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher in 27 games, and Ngata is a big part of that. The key for the defense is to get pressure on Brady and make him move laterally. He’s comfortable when he’s able to step up in the pocket. It’s Ngata’s job to get good push against pass protection and take that space away in front of Brady. That way when Suggs and Dumervil come off the edge as they always do, he’s got nowhere to go. We need those pass-rushers to make the game-changing turnovers that win playoff games. Left guard Dan Connolly is banged up coming off of a laundry list of injuries, so he is susceptible to getting bullied. Ngata and Brandon Williams need to exploit that. If we give Brady time and comfort, he will beat us. Plain and simple.
4. Will Hill vs. Rob Gronkowski In The Red Zone
This key is a no-brainer. Gronk is a machine in the red zone and everyone knows it. I expect Will Hill to be the guy tasked with the goal of stopping the machine. He was tasked with covering Jimmy Graham down in New Orleans and executed the job admirably, only holding him to 4 catches. Gronk is a bit of a different animal. He’s more physical and catches balls better in coverage. Plainly put, he’s better. And to be frank, I can’t sit here and tell you how Hill is going to stop him. If I did I would be employed by an NFL team by now. The goal really is just to contain him by whatever means necessary. Make life difficult for him with double coverage and be physical. Compete hard for those balls thrown his way. Be a dog. That’s my best guess at least.
So there you have it. Two tough teams that hate each other duking it out for the right to play in the AFC Championship game. I have confidence in the Ravens to give the Patriots all they can handle. New England better just hope for their sake that the Patriots show up. They’ve been outplayed all 3 times the Ravens have come to play in January. Don’t let us make it 4.