NFL Pick: No Place Like Home For New England Against Shaky Baltimore
Saturday, January 21, 2012
by Aengus Moorehead
While New England stud QB Tom Brady is focused on guiding the host New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, Brady's counterpart Joe Flacco will be trying to maintain his focus after he was criticized by teammate Ed Reed earlier this week for his play in Baltimore's 20-13 AFC divisional win over the Houston Texans last weekend.
Indeed, safety Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, said Flacco was “kind of rattled” by Houston's defense and “didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense.” That's not exactly inspiring when going up against Brady, who threw for six touchdowns and guided an offense that produced a franchise playoff-record 45 points in last week's rout of Denver. New England has won all six regular-season matchups between the teams, although the Ravens clobbered the Patriots 33-14 in a playoff game in Foxborough in January 2010.
Getting payback for that startling loss will be secondary when the two conference powerhouses lock horns at Gillette Stadium this time around, however, with a spot in Super Bowl XLVI at stake in Sunday's 2011 AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens dealt New England the worst playoff defeat of the abundantly- successful Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era in that AFC First-Round clash in Foxborough, utilizing a punishing running game and stifling defense to produce an emphatic win that afternoon.
Baltimore flexed its muscle right from the get-go in that contest, with running back Ray Rice breaking through for an 83-yard touchdown on the initial play from scrimmage and the defense forcing three turnovers from Brady in the first quarter. By the time the period came to a close, the Ravens had built an overwhelming 24-0 lead.
The Ravens finished with a whopping 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, with Flacco attempting a mere 10 passes. Brady, meanwhile, was intercepted three times and lost a fumble while recording a substandard 49.1 passer rating that was easily the lowest of the two-time Super Bowl MVP's storied postseason career.
New England was also plagued by poor starts in each of its last two games prior to this season's playoffs, but was able to overcome those sluggish beginnings in wins over Miami and Buffalo. The AFC's top seed had no such issues in last weekend's Divisional Round test, however.
The Patriots now enter Sunday's showdown having won nine in a row, and the club has put up 31 points or more on all but one occasion during that tear.
Second-seeded Baltimore earned its third conference title game berth in franchise history and first since 2008 with this past Sunday's 20-13 ousting of AFC South champion Houston, with an opportunistic defensive display playing a major part of that outcome as well.
The Ravens capitalized on four Texans' turnovers, with 17 of their 20 points coming directly off three Houston miscues. The final takeaway, an interception by veteran safety Ed Reed, thwarted a potential scoring attempt with the Texans down by seven points with under two minutes left.
On the negative side, Baltimore mustered just 227 yards of offense and 11 first downs in advancing, numbers that head coach John Harbaugh knows must improve with the AFC's highest scoring team next on the docket.
The Ravens are 1-1 all-time in the AFC Championship, having downed Oakland on the road in the 2000 edition and falling at rival Pittsburgh during Harbaugh's debut campaign of 2008. New England sports an impressive 6-1 record in conference title bouts, including a 4-1 mark under the Belichick/Brady regime.
Baltimore has never beaten the Patriots in six lifetime regular-season meetings, but as previously mentioned, did come out on top in the lone postseason encounter between the teams with its 19-point win at Gillette Stadium in the opening round of the 2009 Playoffs.
New England was able to avenge that loss with a hard-fought 23-20 home overtime verdict over the Ravens last season, with the Pats scoring 13 unanswered points to rally from a double- digit fourth-quarter deficit. Baltimore also left Foxborough with a 27-21 setback during Week 4 of the 2009 campaign and also lost to New England on the road in 1999 and 2004.
Belichick, who served as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95 before that franchise's move to Baltimore to become the Ravens, owns a 4-1 career record against this week's opponent, with the lone blemish coming in the aforementioned playoff loss. Harbaugh is 1-2 against both the Pats and Belichick during his tenure with the Ravens and has compiled a 5-3 overall postseason record.
Belichick has amassed a 15-5 playoff mark during his 12-year reign with the Patriots and is 16-6 in the postseason as a head coach, tied with Chuck Noll for fourth place on the NFL's all-time list for playoff wins.
Time & Venue:
- 3:00 PM ET, Sunday, January 22, 2012. Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Last week's ATS:
- Favourite Baltimore Ravens (13-4) wins but does not cover
- Favourite New England (14-3) wins and covers.
NFL Football Odds: Patriots -9, O/U 50
The much-maligned Flacco can become the first QB to win 50 games in his first four seasons. He threw two first-quarter TD passes as the Ravens jumped to a 17-3 lead and held off the Texans. Baltimore’s defense, which ranked third in the league with an average of 16.6 points allowed, forced four turnovers but did not have a sack after leading the AFC with 48 in the regular season.
The Ravens need to get RB Ray Rice untracked. He was held to only 60 yards on 21 carries after rushing for 1,364 yards and 12 TDs and leading the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. Rice rumbled for 159 yards and two TDs, including an 83-yard scoring run just 17 seconds into the game in Baltimore’s playoff rout of the Patriots two years ago.
Brady threw for 363 yards and tied a postseason record with his six TD passes in the 45-10 mauling of Denver. Brady, who sat out Wednesday’s practice with a sore left shoulder, was not sacked in guiding New England to its ninth consecutive victory. Second-year TE Rob Gronkowski hauled in three of Brady’s five first-half scoring passes and finished with 10 receptions for 145 yards.
Gronkowski set league records for TDs (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end this season. Fellow TE Aaron Hernandez had four receptions and added a wrinkle with five rushes for a team-high 61 yards last week. Despite building a 35-7 halftime lead, the Patriots got little out of their ground game. New England’s defense ranked 31st in the league during the regular season, surrendering 411.1 yards per game.
Baltimore called for a run on 54 of its 65 offensive plays in its stunning playoff win at Gillette Stadium two years ago, and figure to use a ground-heavy philosophy this week as well with the intention of keeping Brady and New England's allotment of playmakers stranded on the sidelines for as much time as possible. And considering the somewhat shaky performances that Flacco (3610 passing yards, 20 TD, 12 INT) has delivered in the postseason, such an approach seems to make further sense.
The fourth-year quarterback did throw for a pair of scores without a single turnover against Houston, but possesses just a 53 percent completion rate, a 6-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a lackluster 66.2 passer rating in seven career playoff starts. Though the Ravens were held to 87 rushing yards by a stout Houston defense last Sunday, they averaged an impactful 181.6 yards per game on the ground over the final five weeks of the regular season and Rice (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 total TD) surpassed the century mark in three of those tilts.
Three-time Pro Bowl selection Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) rates as Flacco's go-to guy among the wide receiver corps, with fleet-footed rookie Torrey Smith (50 receptions, 7 TD) a dangerous field-stretcher who came through with four touchdowns of over 35 yards during a strong debut season.
The Patriots are coming off a solid showing on defense in last week's rout, with the linebacker pairing of Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) heading up a concerted effort that limited Denver's read-option scheme to a modest 144 rushing yards on 40 attempts and the group unleashing a furious pass rush upon Tim Tebow that accounted for five sacks and a countless amount of hurried throws from the young quarterback.
Getting consistent pressure will also be essential to protecting a vulnerable secondary that permitted a troublesome 293.9 passing yards per game during the regular season, the second-highest total in the league. The Patriots did come up with 23 interceptions over the 16-game schedule, however, with top cornerback Kyle Arrington (88 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PD) tying for the league lead in that category.
New England did fare better in containing the pass during the latter stages of the season after some tinkering from Belichick that included shifting starting cornerback Devin McCourty (87 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) to free safety on nickel downs, and the recent return of safety Patrick Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) from a foot injury has helped stabilize the backfield as well.
Expect New England's game plan to be far less conservative than that of Baltimore's, and for good reason. The Pats boast one of the game's all-time greats at the quarterback position in Brady (5235 passing yards, 39 TD, 12 INT), who generated the second-highest passing yardage total in league history this season and is now a sensational 15-5 as a playoff starter for his career.
Following last weekend's six-score outburst, the star signal-caller has thrown 25 touchdown passes against just three interceptions over the course of his team's nine-game win streak and has surpassed the 300-yard mark in five straight outings as well. While sure-handed slot man Wes Welker (122 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD), the NFL's leader in catches in 2011, usually serves as Brady's primary target, Gronkowski (90 receptions, 1327 yards, 17 TD) has emerged as the most feared member of New England's deep collection of receivers and is coming off a monster night against the Broncos.
The second-year standout hauled in three of Brady's six strikes and finished with 145 yards on 10 grabs, while steady wideout Deion Branch (51 receptions, 5 TD) contributed a 61-yard touchdown catch to the win and No. 2 tight end Hernandez (79 receptions, 7 total) recorded 116 yards from scrimmage (including 61 rushing) while lining up in several different spots as coordinator Bill O'Brien got creative.
Navigating a Baltimore stop unit that placed first overall in pass efficiency defense and yielded a league-low 11 touchdowns through the air during the regular season won't be easy, and Brady's been intercepted a total of five times in the last two encounters between these clubs. The Ravens lived up to their reputation for thievery in last week's win as well, with cornerback Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT) picking off Texans rookie T.J. Yates twice and big-play artist Reed (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) garnering his eighth interception in 10 career postseason assignments to help seal the victory.
All-Pro outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (70 tackles, 14 sacks, 2 INT) paces a pass rush that will need to be in top form on Sunday, with rookie end Pernell McPhee (23 tackles, 6 sacks) shining in a situational role to aid the cause, while the accomplished combo of esteemed inside linebacker Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and space-eating tackle Haloti Ngata (64 tackles, 5 sacks) key a run-stopping effort that was second-best in the league in the regular season (92.6 ypg) but did give up 131 yards on the ground to the Texans.
Despite the presence of Harbaugh, a special teams coordinator in Philadelphia for nine seasons prior to arriving in Baltimore, this wasn't an area of strength for the Ravens in 2011. The coverage units were especially poor, with the team surrendering the second-highest average on kick returns (29.7) and allowing 11.9 yards on punts in addition to allowing three runbacks for touchdowns (two punt returns, one kickoff).
Kicker Billy Cundiff (28-of-37 on field goals), a Pro Bowl participant the previous season, was pretty reliable from shorter distances and good on kickoffs, but hit on just 1-of-6 three-point tries from beyond 50 yards. Webb was a bright spot on punt returns, however, averaging nearly 12 yards per touch and taking one back for a touchdown in a December win at Cleveland, and the talented young cornerback is now handling kickoffs as well after regular David Reed tore his ACL late in the year. Punter Sam Koch averaged a career-best 46.5 yards per attempt, though the sixth-year pro does have a tendency to outkick his coverage at times.
New England, on the other hand, has shown few weaknesses on special teams. Punter Zoltan Mesko was third in the NFL in net punting (41.5 avg.) and knocked 24-of-57 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line in an excellent second pro season, while dependable kicker Stephen Gostkowski made 28 of his 33 field goal attempts and was a strong 10-of-13 from 40 yards out or more.
Reserve receiver Julian Edelman (10.9 avg.) also had a sound year as the primary punt returner, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown against Kansas City in November, while fellow backup wideout Matt Slater was named as the AFC's Pro Bowl special teams player as the captain of the Patriots' quality coverage groups. Kickoff returns were the lone aspect that wasn't up to par, with New England ranking 29th in that category and running back Danny Woodhead averaging a pedestrian 21.9 yards per attempt as the main guy.
The last three regular-season meetings between the teams have been decided by a total of 12 points.
Baltimore was only 4-4 on the road this season, including a 34-14 drubbing at San Diego in which it looked powerless to stop the passing game.
New England is 5-1 SU in its last 6 games when playing at home against Baltimore
New England is 7-1 SU in its last 8 games when playing Baltimore
New England is 6-2-1 ATS in its last 9 games
Baltimore is 1-4-2 ATS in its last 7 games when playing on the road against New England
The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Baltimore's last 6 games when playing on the road against New England
Baltimore is 2-4-2 ATS in its last 8 games when playing New England
Though this year's playoffs have had an affinity for high-scoring affairs, there's reason to believe a shootout won't be taking place here. The Ravens have been one of the league's toughest teams to score upon, and especially so in the red zone, and New England's usually-devastating offense has had difficulty reaching its normal lofty standards against some of the better foes on the schedule (i.e. Pittsburgh, the New York Giants).
Baltimore's lack of production on that side of the ball during last week's win is a big concern, however, as the odds of the efficient Patriots giving the ball away as many times as the Texans did are quite low, and the Ravens' traditionally-furious pass rush hasn't shown as much bite outside the comfortable environment of M&T Bank Stadium (only 15 of Baltimore's 48 sacks during the regular season came on the road).
As long as New England can protect Brady sufficiently, the Patriots won't have too much of a problem moving the football, and although the touchdowns won't be nearly as plentiful as in past weeks, there should be enough points to get past a Baltimore squad that needs big plays out of its seasoned defense to counterbalance an offense that can be deficient in that area.
NFL Football Pick: Take Patriots.
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