Stop me if you’ve heard this before – the Patriots, Giants, 49ers, and Ravens are playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Okay, I understand recent memory hasn’t been kind to some of these teams in the playoffs (see Ravens, 49ers), but if we take a look at history these teams have been in this situation before. A lot. These teams combined have been in the NFC or AFC Championship game an astounding 25 times before this year (this year brings that total up to 29).
It’s no wonder why these teams have made it this far this year. The Giants, 49ers, and Ravens boast three of the league’s top defenses, while the Patriots bring a highly explosive offense to the table. When we look at the four teams remaining this year, there’s a lot to break down on both sides of the ball (thus the reason why this is a two-part blog). . So, let’s get right into it.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP – RAVENS @ PATRIOTS – SUNDAY, 3:00 ET, CBS
This is the classic matchup of high-octane offense going up against a historically vaunted defense. For years now, the Patriots have been in this situation, led almost exclusively by the arm of Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Recently, we have seen the Pats defense seemingly take a nice rest while the offense goes to town on the unfortunate souls that are the opposing defense. The offensive line for Brady and co. has been nothing less than stellar for the past decade. How else can you explain Matt Cassel looking good behind center?
Because of the o-line, we constantly see Brady in the pocket picking apart the secondary, looking at all the routes, making a sandwich, watching film, and making a phone call to his wife Giselle before a defender comes even close to touching him. Of course, Brady threads the needle to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, or any other of the myriad of Wide Receivers, Running Backs, or Tight Ends Brady chooses. It truly is incredible watching the Patriots go to work in the passing game, and it’s an aspect of the Patriots game that can give the Ravens fits all day long.
Meanwhile, we look at the Ravens defense and cringe. No way, not even in our wildest dreams, do we want to be lined up against the likes of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, or any other member of the flock of Ravens that seem to always be around the ball. Seriously, don’t dream it. I did, and Lewis still knocked me out.
I have seen a lot of people knocking the Ravens defense for being too old and ineffective lately. If going 12-4 in the regular season with one of the best defenses in the league, giving up 287 yards per game with a turnover differential of +2, is ineffective and old, then what does this defensive unit look like when clicking on all cylinders? That’s a scary thought. Also, you don’t get to this point without an incredible defense like what the Ravens have.
We can’t forget about Ray Rice in the whole equation. Establishing himself as one of the premiere running backs in the league, Rice is a potent weapon in the Ravens offensive attack. We know what can happen when Joe Flacco hooks up with Wide Receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, or Lee Evans (hello, big plays!), but it’s been the 1,364 rushing yards by Rice that has set up the Ravens offensive assault. If the Patriots want any hope of stopping the Ravens offense, it starts with stopping the running of Rice.
MATCHUP BREAKDOWN: RAVENS SECONDARY vs. PATRIOTS TIGHT ENDS. This is the chess match of the game that coaches Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh will have to figure out. The Ravens must figure out how to cover tight ends Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As expected, the Broncos couldn’t do it Saturday night. The Patriots’ tight end tandem combined for 14 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, Gronkowski and Hernandez were going up against the inexperienced safeties of the Broncos. At least the Ravens counter with veteran safeties Reed and Bernard Pollard, who have 16 years of combined NFL experience, and we know how much Reed wants to finally have a Super Bowl ring.
PREDICTION: For those of you tuning in to this game expecting a high scoring affair, you will be sorely disappointed. As bad as the Patriots defense has been this year, ranking 31st overall in the NFL, they were incredible against the Broncos, getting to Tim Tebow and dropping him for 5 sacks in the game. It’s hard to go against any team that puts up 35 points in a playoff game, much less the first half like the Patriots did on Saturday (a game in which they won 45-10), but the Ravens refuse to make this a shootout. I suspect this will be a defensive game, and that heavily favors the Ravens. I like the RAVENS to go to Indianapolis, winning the AFC Championship, 24-20.
For the NFC Championship breakdown, click here.