NFL Divisional Playoffs: (6)Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at (1)New England Patriots (12-4) in depth preview and predictions.

The NFL Playoffs are well underway, and things are really about to heat up.

That’s because only eight teams remain in the chase for Super Bowl 49. That list will be chopped down to four after Sunday, once all the Divisional Round games have been completed. As is the case every year, there will be a late afternoon Saturday game to kick the week off, followed by a night game. The following day, there will be a noon game, followed by a late afternoon game. And this year, every matchup is extremely compelling. There’s usually a dud or two every year, but this year’s slate provides four truly intriguing (only one potential blowout) game.

Of all the games, this one is ripe for a potential upset pick. The Ravens have a great recent history in New England in January, having won two of their three playoff meetings with the Patriots since the 2009 season. Granted, the regular season games they’ve played against the Pats since their 24-3 loss in 2004 have been great games (Patriots won a 27-24 Monday Night thriller back in 2007, and lost a 31-30 classic in a 2012 Sunday night game at the buzzer, both in Baltimore). But, the playoffs have been a different story. Let’s look back to those games, in a deep matchup focus.

Ravens at Patriots: A playoff saga for the ages?

Game 1: A colossal bloodbath.

If this series was meant to be a playoff classic, the first game was anything but. The first meeting in the postseason between Joe Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens and Tom Brady’s Patriots took place over five years ago. In January 2010, the first postseason for Tom Brady since he tore his ACL, the Ravens bumrushed the Pats quarterback to the tune of four turnovers, three of which were interceptions, and three sacks. The Ravens led 24-0 after a quarter, and although the Patriots cut the deficit to 27-14 entering the final quarter, they fell 33-14. Joe Flacco played an even worse game than Brady, completing just four of ten passes for 34 yards and an interception, but the team ran for 234 yards, and the defense shellacked the Patriots all game long. The Patriots were 8-0 at home that year, prior to that loss.

Game 2: A titanic heartbreak. 

In 2011, the Patriots and Ravens each had great years. The Ravens went 12-4 in the regular season, while the Patriots went 13-3. As is the case this year, the Ravens went 4-4 on the road that year, while the Patriots went 7-1 home, as they did this year.

In that game, Brady struggled yet again. He completed under 60 percent of his passes in that game, for 236 yards, no passing touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rushing touchdown. His counterpart, Joe Flacco, threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns, one interception, and ran four times for 27 yards. The game was close throughout, with the Patriots alternating between ties and leads throughout the first half. They led 13-10 at the half, and kicked a field goal early in the third quarter. The Ravens then took the lead when Flacco threw a 29-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith 3:38 left in the quarter, and added a field goal to lead 20-16 heading into the fourth quarter.

In that final frame, Brady scored his only touchdown of the game. With 11:29 remaining, he scampered in from a yard out, giving his team a 23-20 lead. On the following drive, Flacco threw an interception to Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo, and on the first play of the next possession, Brady gave it right back. Flacco and the Ravens took the ball to the Patriots’ 33-yard line, but instead of opting for a field goal on 4th and 6, they went for it. Flacco’s pass for Dennis Pitta went incomplete, and the Ravens turned it over on downs. But that wasn’t the worst of it for the Ravens.

After the Patriots punted, the Ravens got the ball at their own 21 with 1:44 left in the game. Flacco converted a pair of third downs via passes to Anquan Boldin, and the team found itself dealing with a first down at the New England 21-yard line with just about 30 seconds remaining. After a nine-yard pass to Boldin, Flacco launched a pass to Lee Evans in the end zone. At first, it looked as if Evans had it, and the Ravens were going to win the game. However, at the last second, Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore dislodged the ball from Evans’ hands. Instead of a touchdown, the result was third down.

Despite having a time out remaining, instead of running for a first down, the team opted to have Flacco throw a pass to Dennis Pitta. That pass, too, wound up incomplete. Now, the Ravens were dealing with yet another fourth down. And this time, they went for the tie. After all, Billy Cundiff had gone a perfect 16 for 16 in fourth quarter field goal attempts over the previous two years.

However, this 32-yarder did not go through. Instead, it sailed way left. Not wide left, but way left. As in, you could plow a bulldozer through the space between the goalpost, and where the ball wound up missing to. The Ravens season was over, the Patriots were headed to Super Bowl 46, and the game went down as a classic.

Game 3: Redemption for the Ravens.

Just a year after the Ravens had blown their opportunity for a SUper Bowl 46 berth, the team was looking to mend fences. It was going to be the final AFC game for legendary Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, as well as what turned out to likely be the final game of Aaron Henrandez’s career, and Wes Welker’s final game for the Patriots. The teams had already faced each other that year, with the Ravens winning 31-30 on a last-second field goal from Justin Tucker (Cundiff got cut after his AFC Championship miss), less than a day after Torrey Smith’s brother died in a motorcycle accident. The Patriots blew a 13-0 lead in the game, but trailed for just 1:45 in the game, until the final play. It was the one time in the Joe Flacco era that Brady did not turn the ball over against the Ravens, and while I can go on about the stats, let’s just head to the playoff game.

On January 20, 2013, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots faced off in the AFC Championship for the second straight year. Unlike the previous year, the Ravens were just 10-6, while the Patriots went 12-4 (sound familiar?). The lone first quarter score came via a Stephen Gostkowski field goal as the Pats took a 3-0 lead into the second. Ravens running back Ray Rice ran in from two-yards out, and the Ravens took a 7-3 lead with 9:28 remaining in the first half. The Patriots answered with a one-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Wes Welker about five minutes later, and added another field goal to take a 13-7 lead into the second half.

In the second half, it was all Ravens. The game’s lone third quarter score was a five-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Pitta, and the Ravens led 14-13 heading into the final quarter. In the first play of the final quarter, Flacco threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Boldin, giving the Ravens a 21-13 lead.

After Patriots running back Steven Ridley fumbled the ball, the Ravens scored yet another touchdown, once again a Flacco/Boldin connection. With 11:13 remaining in the game, the Patriots were down by two scores. The Patriots swiftly got the ball into Raven’s territory, but on fourth down at the Ravens 19, Brady’s pass to Deion Branch fell short, and the Patriots turned it over on downs. The Patriots defense quickly forced a three-and-out.

And then, Brady imploded. After completing a 36-yard pass to Wes Welker, Brady threw an ill-fated interception to Dannell Ellerbe. The Ravens chewed up nearly five minutes of clock, and by the time the Patriots got the ball back, their chances of pulling a comeback off were very slim. However, with just over a minute remaining, Brady’s pass to Brandon Lloyd was picked off by Cary Williams in the endzone, and the game was over. Yet again, the Patriots fell short in the playoffs, as the Ravens went on to win Super Bowl 47, one of the best Super Bowls in NFL history.

Raven’s 2014 season recap to date:

This year, both teams have had ups and downs. The Ravens began the season with a 5-2 mark, highlighted by a 26-6 home win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 38-10 win over the Carolina Panthers, and two other blowout wins over NFC South teams.

Since then, the team has been up and down. In Week 8, they lost a heartbreaker in CIncinnati by a score of 27-24, before getting blown out 43-23 in Pittsburgh. They won 21-7 against the hapless Tennessee Titans, and after having a bye week in Week 11, won 34-27 in New Orleans on Monday Night Football.

Heading into Week 13, the Ravens looked like they were going to easily make the playoffs. And for most of their Week 13 game against the San Diego Chargers, things looked to be just that way. However, the Chargers hung around, and despite leading by 10 with under four minutes remaining, found a way to lose 34-33.

All of a sudden, the Ravens’ chances got murky, and they needed to essentially win out to ensure an eventual playoff berth. They had better chances than many other teams, but nothing was a guarantee. They took care of business at Miami, winning 28-13 after training 10-0 after the first quarter. They then won 20-12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, before calamity struck.

Despite knowing that a win in Houston in Week 16 would basically give them a playoff spot, the Ravens hit rock bottom in the regular season’s penultimate week. They mustered just 31 yards of offense in the first half, and Joe Flacco was downright horrendous during it. He completed just three of eighteen pass attempts, for 27 yards and two interceptions, as the team trailed 16-0.

The Ravens played better in the second half, but still lost 25-13. Flacco finished 21-o-50 for 195 yards, two scores, and three interceptions. Running back Justin Forcett, who finally broke out this season, mustered up just 19 yards on 10 carries. Ultimately, they needed a Week 17 win against Cleveland, along with Chargers loss at Kansas City.

Go figure, that’s exactly what happened, and after basically doing to the Steelers what they did in New England on that fateful January 20, 2013 game, find themselves back in Patriot country.

 

Ravens statistical breakdown:

Without question, the breakout star for the Baltimore Ravens has been running back Justin Forcett. After Ray Rice’s infamous departure, as well as ineffectiveness from Lorenzo Taliaferro and Bernard Pierce, the forgotten and under-appreciated Forcett has finally been given the reigns, and he’s shined as a result.  He has done a great job making Ravens fans forget about Ray Rice, running for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns, while adding 44 catches for 263 yards. He’s had five games of over 100 rushing yards on the year.

Joe Flacco is still extremely erratic, but the last time he was in the playoffs, he won the Super Bowl, and earned a massive $120 million contract. He has reliable receivers in Steve Smith Sr (79 catches, 1,079 yards, six touchdowns), who despite having several dud games since Week 6, has still done a solid job rejuvenating his career. The Ravens still have Torrey Smith, who has been money over the past eight games, and has scored in eight of the last 12 games. 

Defensively, the team is all about stopping the run. They are 23rd in the league in pass defense, but fourth in rush defense. Against a team like the Patriots, that may not be the best thing. The Patriots can be balanced, but are not afraid to sway their game plan heavily in any direction, as proven in the Colts game.

That said, the Ravens boast a ferocious pass rush, lead by Terell Suggs (12 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks). As a team, the team has garnered 49 sacks, and has been on a roll lately. Given their elite rush defense, as well as their pass rush, the defense can really put a damper on the Patriots’ hopes to succeed offensively in the game.

Patriots 2014 season recap to date:

As for the Patriots, the season has been quite a crazy one. The team lost its opener at Miami by a score of 33-20, despite leading 20-10 at halftime. Tom Brady was sacked four times, fumbled twice, and the team was outscored 23-0 in the second half. It was a rough way to start off the 2014 regular season. 

The following week, the Patriots destroyed the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 30-6 on the road. However, after barely edging out the Oakland Raiders in Foxboro, the Patriots hit rock bottom.

On Monday, September 29, 2014, the Patriots visited the Kansas City Chiefs for a Monday night game. In the first quarter, they allowed Jammal Charles to score a touchdown, and things only got worse from there. Long story short, the Chiefs scored the game’s first 27 points, the Patriots failed to score until 3:26 was remaining in the third quarter, and after Brady’s third turnover, which was a 39-yard interception return that gave the Chiefs a 41-7 lead with 10:39 remaining, the quarterback was benched. The Patriots lost 41-14, and everyone proclaimed the dynasty over.

However, just six days later, the tune completely changed. In a Sunday night game where the Patriots were hosting the NFL’s lone beaten team, they straight up demolished the Cincinnati Bengals. The Patriots led 14-0 after the first quarter, 20-3 at halftime, 34-10 in the third, and won the game 43-17. The team racked up over 500 yards of offense, and did not commit a single turnover. Brady threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns, the team ran for 220 yards, and the tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wight combined for 16 catches, 185 yards and two touchdowns. It was a complete and thorough beatdown, and the Patriots looked to be back on track.

In Weeks 6 and 7, the Patriots faced a pair of divisional opponents. First they beat the Bills 37-22 in Buffalo, before barely edging out the struggling Jets at home. Then the Patriots really took off.

In Week 8, the Patriots cleansed out the Chicago Bears. They led 38-7 at halftime, winning 51-23 in the end. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Tim Wright and Brandon Lafell each had their best games of the season. Brady completed 30 of 35 passes for 354 yards, and five touchdowns, while Gronkowski caught nine passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Lafell garnered 11 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown, while Wright caught seven passes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

The following week, the Patriots hosted Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in a highly anticipated matchup. After Stephen Gostkowski gave the Patriots a 3-0 lead, Ronnie Hiilman’s one-yard run gave the Broncos a 7-3 lead heading into the second quarter. From there on, the game was all New England.

They began the second quarter scoring with a field goal just 41 seconds in, and followed up with a five-yard Brady touchdown pass to Julian Edelman, an 84-yard punt return touchdown by Edelman, and a five-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Shane Vereen.  At halftime, the Patriots led 27-7.

With 11:06 remaining in the third quarter, Manning threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas, cutting the Patriots lead to 27-14. They never got any closer, as the Patriots kicked another field goal. On the first play of the next Denver drive, Manning’s pass was intercepted by Brandon Browner and returned to the Broncos 10-yard line. On the ensuing play, Brady threw a touchdown pass to Lafell, and the New England lead swelled to 37-14. In the end, the Patriots won 43-21, with Brady throwing for 333 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. Gronkowski and Edelman each had stellar games, while Lafell and Vereen also played well. And things kept on rolling thereafter.

In Week 11, following their bye, the Patriots visited the Indianapolis Colts. They led 14-10 at the half, but a dominant second half resulted in a 42-20 victory. Jonas Gray had his breakout game, running for a team record 201 yards and four touchdowns. Various other players  made contributions, but in a game where Brady had ups and downs, it was Gray who led the charge.

The following week, the Pats hosted the Detroit Lions. Despite leading just 7-6 in the second quarter, the Patriots turned it into a laugher. They made the score 24-6 by halftime, and ultimately won 34-9. Brady threw for 349 yards and two scores, as well as a pick. Despite the fact that Joan Gray got benched for oversleeping after the Colts’ game, the team still managed to run for 90 yards on 20 rushing attempts. Brandon Lafell, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Tim Wright each had good offensive showings, and the team was at its peak.

Since that Week 12 win over the Lions, the Patriots have been walking on eggshells. They lost a close 26-21 game in Week 13 at Green Bay, after Gronkowski dropped a tough pass in the endzone late in the fourth quarter, and sluggishly defeated the San Diego Chargers 23-14 the following week.

In Week 15, they had their final dominant performance of the season. Looking for revenge against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots opened up the scoring with Kyle Arrington’s 62-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown just minutes into the game. Despite that, amongst other things, the Pats only led 14-13 at halftime.

In the second half, however, New England took over. The Patriots scored on their opening drive of the second half, when LeGarrette Blount ran in for a touchdown from three yards out. After a Dolphins three-and-out, a Stephen Gostkowski field goal made it 24-13 Patriots. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was picked off by Patrick Chung on the very next play, and on the opening play of the following Patriots drive, Brady hit up Gronkowski fir a 27-yard touchdown. Each team punted, and then, Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman to make the lead swell up to 38-13. The Pats added a field goal in the fourth, giving them a 41-13 win in dominating fashion.

Since clinching their sixth-straight AFC East title after that Week 15 win over the Dolphins, the Patriots have not played well. They struggled to a 17-16 win at the Jets, and in the final game of the season, the  starting offense barely did anything in the first half, in a 17-9 home loss to the bills. Both games can be forgiven, because the Jets always play the Patriots hard, and the Patriots had virtually nothing to gain in Week 17. All in all, it’s been a great year for them.

Patriots statistical breakdown:

For the New England Patriots, there is no notable weakness. Offensively, they have the ninth-ranked pass offense, and 18th-ranked rush offense. However, they have proven that whatever the opposing defense gives them, they will take advantage of the given scenario. Tom Brady has been great, throwing for 4,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. In the running game, LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray have each proven their ability to dominate a game given the opportunity, while Shane Vereen (391 rushing yards, 447 receiving yards, five total touchdowns) has had his moments.

As far as the receivers go, there’s so much to defend. Rob Gronkowski (82 catches, 1,124 yards, 12 touchdowns) has reemerged as the NFL’s top tight end, while Julian Edelman (92 catches, 972 yards, four touchdowns, ten rushes, 94 yards, one touchdown) is one of the league’s top slot receivers, and Brandon Lafell (74 catches, 953 yards, seven touchdowns) finally had his breakout campaign. Tight end Tim Wright (six touchdowns) has shown his ability to showcase his skills on occasion, and this pass offense is quite a ferocious one.

Defensively, the Patriots have the ninth-ranked rush defense in the NFL, and the 17th-best rush defense. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich leads the team with eight sacks, while Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones each have six. For Jones, the total is just about half of what he had last year, but he only played in ten games this season, and is finally healthy. The squad’s tackling lead is Jamie Collins with 116, and he’s also garnered four sacks and two picks.

But the most formidable section the Patriots defense is it’s secondary. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has reminded the league that he is perhaps the best corner in the game, while Brandon Browner, despite all the penalties, has mad a lot of plays. The matchup between Steve and Torrey Smith against these two will be one to really keep an eye on.

Game Prediction:

Honestly, this game could go either way. The Patriots have had great seasons end prematurely before, and on two occasions, the opponent has been the Ravens. They should be 3-0 in Baltimore, but due to the dropped pass by Lee Evans and missed field goal by Billy Cundiff, both of whom were let go after that 2011 season, the Patriots held on that year. But, they have also lost to teams like the Jets in the playoffs, which was the case in 2010. They went 14-2 that year, and had been dominant in five of the final six games of the season. But in the playoffs, they fell quick.

A lot of people are jumping on the Ravens’ bandwagon, and for good reason. They looked great in Pittsburgh last week, and the last time they were a Wild Card team, they won the Super Bowl. However, they have been underwhelming on occasion this season, and have not played anyone of New England’s level. They have not played against a receiving core like New England’s, nor have they faced such a ferocious secondary. Oh, and let’s not forget that in last week’s 30-17 win in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were playing without the league’s top dual threat running back in Leveon Bell. As a result, the Steelers were extremely one-dimensional, and Ben Roethlisberger played dumb.

Not only is New England healthy, they are used to being in this position. They have gone 7-1 since 2001 in the game following a first round bye, and are facing a Ravens team that might not be as good as previous Ravens squad that make the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good. But, I do not see the Ravens getting lucky on Divisional Saturday like they did two years ago in Denver. Rahim Moore does not play for the Patriots, and they will be ready for the challenge. In the end, I’m going to pick a score that’s way too close for comfort because, well, this matchup has a history that can shatter at any moment. Prediction: Ravens 23, Patriots 27.

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