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Patriots Super Bowl Bound? Quote the Raven: Nevermore

January 19, 2012

By Ross Mitchell

Some people say I have a tendency to biased toward the Chicago Bears. Some say I often draw comparisons or bring the Bears up when there’s no rhyme-or-reason to do so. These people are correct.

This Sunday the Baltimore Ravens invade Gillette Stadium, hoping to spoil the New England Patriots Super Bowl aspirations. There are many intriguing storylines heading into the game, including;

1. Will Bill Belichick and Tom Brady return to the Super Bowl for the fifth time, or will Ray Lewis embark on his long related return?

2.Can the Ravens shake off post-season mediocrity?

3. Will Baltimore’s pass-rush disrupt Brady?

4. Can both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez be contained?

5. Can the Patriots extract revenge for the 2010 Wild Card drubbing they received at the hands of the Ravens?

6. Will Phil Simms propose to Tom Brady?

Answer Key: 1. Ray Lewis returns; 2. Yes; 3. At least four times; 4. No, but it won’t matter; 5. Dream on; 6. Absolutely

The Patriots are a façade. They are in the AFC Championship game by default. Who of the teams that qualified which qualified for the playoffs stood an honest chance against them? The Broncos? Their defense was the most overrated unit in the NFL. Their offensive flawed. Unforgivably flawed. According to multiple sources in the Broncos organization (including the starting quarterback, the offensive line, the skill position players, the offensive coaching staff, the head coach, and the general manager), the offense wasn’t designed to play from “behind”. Hmm…

Could the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Houston Texans, or the Cincinnati Bengals have defeated New England? I think they would have, if the opportunity ever presented itself. Pittsburgh was decimated by injury a large portion of their only playoff game. In Houston the players who replaced the players decimated by injury were also decimated by injury. There are contestants of NBC’s “Fear Factor” who calm their nerves by telling themselves, “Damn, at least I don’t play for the Texans.”

(Look, I wrote that whole Tebow article, but in no way shape or form did I think the Broncos had any shot at beating the Steelers. I would wager even more that they would lose to the Bengals, Texans, or Ravens)

I think Houston, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati would have been too much for New England because, like Baltimore, they are strong at ever level on defense (defensive line, linebackers, secondary) and are extremely balanced on offense. Pittsburgh actually already beat New England this season, much more handily than the 25-17 final score. Here’s more evidence:

1. First Downs: Pitt- 29, New England- 19

2. Total Yardage: Pitt- 427, New England- 213

3. 3rd Down Conversion: Pitt- 10/16, New England- 3/10

4. Time of Possession: Pitt- 39:22, New England- 20:38

5. Total Plays: Pitt- 78, New England- 50

Granted Niles West High School graduate Rashard Mendenhall would not be available, but Mewelde Moore has been fine carrying the lion-share of the carries. Houston is virtually the same team. Their defense is nasty, volatile, and aggressive. Everything Wade Phillips wasn’t as Dallas’ head coach he is and then some as Houston’s D-Coordinator. Arian Foster and Ben Tate could be the best running back duo in the league, Houston’s offensive line is as good as it gets, and Andre Johnson is one of the most dynamic playmakers on any field he steps on.

(You can cut and paste the description I used to describe Houston and insert Cincinnati. Their running game isn’t as diverse or effective, but Andy Dalton is head-and-shoulders better than T.J. Yates)

But ultimately those teams in their current state are mediocre (via the injury bug). You’d have a tough time convincing me at this point in the season any of those teams were better than Seattle, Arizona, Dallas, or Philadelphia. You can’t convince me they are better than Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, or Green Bay. What am I getting get? The AFC is having a down year. The Patriots are in the AFC Championship game are there because they had a favorable schedule and they stayed relatively healthy (plus New England had two bye weeks, much as the Bears did last season against Seattle).

The numbers don’t lie (Wow! That would be a great name for a show on ESPN). The Patriots can pass on anybody. Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. The same can be said about Belichick and coaching. But New England ranks 20th in rushing offense with 110.3 yards per game. They are 17th in rush defense (117.1 yards per game) and a wretched 31st in pass defense allowing 9 million yards per quarter (the last stat was rounded, down). They finished 0-2 against teams with winning records (the New York/New Jersey Giants and the Steelers).

So to recap, the Patriots can pass but can’t run and couldn’t stop a leaking faucet. If I told you a team in the playoffs struggled that much on the ground, struggled that much stopping the run and the pass (or in laymans terms “defense“), and they weren’t the vaunted New England Patriots, you would delineate their chances for success similar to an ice cube’s chance…you know where I’m going.

But they are the Patriots and they won a game at home against a .500 team. They do have Tom Brady, they do have Bill Belichick. They did go 18-1 in 2007 and won three Championships (the most recent of which was in 2004). We have to give them the benefit of the doubt, ESPN tells us we have to. No we don’t!

I’m going to paraphrase an NFL head coach circa 2009. His team is coming off a loss and as he meets with his coaching staff he vents his frustration with the fault-line sized flaws in his team’s makeup. Here we go:

“Boy, we’ve got nothing. I mean we’ve got no answer. If [the other team] doubles [the coach’s deep threat] up-top and jams [the coach’s possession receiver] at the line, we’re screwed. We can’t run the ball, we can’t stop anybody. And unless we get this fixed we’re not going to be able to beat anybody worth a damn.”

Who does that describe perfectly? The 2011 New England Patriots. And who was the coach who provided that description? If you watched NFL Network’s “A Football Life”, you’d know it’s New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick! Remind me how the 2009 New England Patriots ended? Right, a 33-14 home loss to…the Baltimore Ravens! Ah symmetry.

Since that game the Patriots defense has plummeted faster than Chad Ochocino’s (insert statistic here). They have lost their deep threat, gained two great tight ends, and have remained solid on special teams and the offensive line. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think New England is bad. I just don’t think they’re that good. And don’t kid yourself, Belichick is providing the same commentary he did three years ago to his coaching staff as we speak. Or as you sit here and read this, semantics.

Meanwhile, deep in Ray Lewis’s underground layer…

The Ravens are “that” good. They have been all season long. Three of their four losses are nothing more than “let down” games after big wins. They lost at Tennessee and at Seattle after beating the Steelers. They lost in Jacksonville after drubbing Houston the week before. Their final loss was on the road against San Diego in an absolute must game for the Chargers. Are these losses acceptable? No, but it isn’t damning either. It certainly isn’t enough to sway my pick for Sunday. Here’s why:

Take a gander at the Ravens record against teams with a winning record: 7-0. Nearly half their season was against teams who finished above .500 . They have six victories against four playoff teams (including two against the Steelers and the Bengals, each). Which weighs more heavily in your mind? Seven wins against the league’s best or four losses against the league’s worst? So they didn’t get up for the Titans, Jaguars, Seattle, and San Diego. They haven’t lost in a “big-game” all season. Which trend is likely to continue?

(FYI: The average winning percentage of teams Baltimore beat was .516. New England’s was .423. Baltimore also beat five more plus .500 teams than New England played)

In my mind there are two keys to a Ravens victory:

1. Keep Tom Brady on his back

2. The offense runs through Ray Rice

Disrupting a quarterback’s timing is the best defensive strategy in football, plan-and-simple. Dating back to their Super Bowl loss against the Giants, teams have defeated the Patriots by making Tom Brady uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing him to throw the ball sooner than he’d like. The Ravens rank second in the league in rush defense, fourth in pass defense, and third in sacks. Bodes well.

Joe Flacco has come under much scrutiny this week for appearing “rattled” against the Texans defense. I honestly felt he played very well within himself, taking what the defense gave him and eliminating turnovers. He didn’t manage the game (a popular buzzword), he played effectively. But he shouldn’t be asked to win the game. The Ravens should pound the ball with Ray Rice.

Rice finished the regular season second in rushing yards (1364). He also caught 76 passes for 704 yards, brining his yardage total to an eye-popping 2068. He had 15 total touchdowns (12 rushing, 3 receiving). Anquan Bolden is a fantastic receiver (and perhaps the toughest player in the league). Torrey Smith and Lee Evans can stretch the field, and Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are competent tight ends. Flacco has plenty of weapons, none more valuable than turning around and handing the ball off the Rice. None more valuable than keeping the Patriots offense off the field.

(There is one stat that weighs heavily in New England’s favor; turnover differential (New England +17, Baltimore +2). Baltimore has to win the turnover battle. The Ravens cannot give Brady a short field and cannot get into a shoot-out with the Patriots)

I’m going to say 31-20 Ravens. Baltimore returns to prominence. I think the game will be tightly contested and will be close for the duration. Ultimately I think Ray Lewis will outplay Tom Brady. I think Terrell “T-Sizzle” Suggs is in Brady’s face all game. I think Ed Reed comes up with a late interception to seal the victory, and John Harbaugh and company book their trip to Indianapolis.

(And then I will enroll at “Ball-So-Hard University” and study under Professor Sizzle)

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