NFL Playoff Preview: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots

Last weekend, the Baltimore Ravens survived a thrilling encounter against their division rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wildcard weekend. Now they must face another legendary quarterback as they tr

Last weekend, the Baltimore Ravens survived a thrilling encounter against their division rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wildcard weekend. Now they must face another legendary quarterback as they travel to New England to face Tom Brady and the Patriots. Brady and his teammates have been practicing outdoors in preparation for the hostile conditions that are expected at Foxboro on Saturday afternoon. Both of these teams are accustomed to the demands of playoff football, and this will be a classic test between two of the best teams in recent history.

The teams have great mutual respect for each other, and that was demonstrated by Tom Brady’s polite comments towards Terrell Suggs. Brady referred to the player from Ball So Hard University as “phenomenal,” which caused Suggs to react with disbelief. Suggs continued to refrain from using Brady’s name during his time with the media on Tuesday, a practice that he has continued from previous seasons. The two have clashed numerous times on the football field, and it was a fine gesture of respect that surely won’t last after the first kickoff on Sunday.

The last time these two teams clashed, the Patriots dominated in a 41-7 victory that took place last December. That avenged a playoff loss that the Patriots suffered in 2013, when the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. Under the guidance of Belichick and Brady, the Patriots are 12-3 in home playoff games, however two of those three losses have come against the Baltimore Ravens. Their team statistics for offense are nearly identical, and their defenses match up comparably as well. Saturday night should go down as a playoff battle for the ages.

4 Why New England can win

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Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been here before, and both know everything that it will take to beat the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday afternoon. This will be the fourth time that the duo has faced off against the Ravens in the playoffs, but the first time the Ravens will not have Ray Lewis. Brady and the Patriots offense have taken a balanced approach to the passing game, while still maintaining a potent rushing attack. The Patriots have rushed for over 100 yards six times this season, and they rely on a stable of running backs to produce. Any one of the Patriots running backs could be a major factor in the game on Saturday or they may be designated to decoy duty. There still is not any discernable method of determining Belichick’s favored back from game to game.

The game will feature Rob Gronkowski in his first game after being unanimously selected as an All-Pro tight end. Gronk led the Patriots in receiving yards this season with 1,124 yards. He also hauled in 12 touchdown catches. Despite these impressive numbers, the most targeted receiver in the offense is Julian Edelman who earned 134 during the regular season, which he converted into 92 receptions for 972 yards. Brandon LaFell wasn’t much farther behind with 953 yards on only 119 targets. These receivers keep the Patriots offense operating and open up room for Gronkowski over the middle. Against the Ravens secondary that has been devastated by injuries this season, these receivers may have a field day.

3 Why Baltimore can win

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Joe Flacco’s performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend was truly impressive. It reminded many television personalities why Flacco was considered one of the game’s elite quarterbacks and why he deserved his six-year/$120 million contract. Flacco’s stature and poise in the pocket were on display against the Steelers, and was only sacked once while completing passes to nine different receivers. He has playoff experience and is running the Ravens offense efficiently. A solid performance from Flacco is absolutely necessary for the Ravens to win in Foxboro.

Flacco’s favorite target was Steve Smith Sr., who racked up five receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown. Smith will now come up against the Patriots secondary that includes Darrelle Revis. Last year, Smith ripped apart the Patriots secondary while with the Panthers and came to blows with Aqib Talib. Smith told Talib to “ice up” after the game, but this showdown on Revis Island will be one of the key matchups of the game. Hopefully it will be mic’d up because it will be between two of the best trash talkers in the league.

On the topic of trash talkers, the Ravens defense is filled with them. Terrell Suggs has made a career of backing up his big words, especially in the playoffs. Last week, Suggs came up with a huge interception that turned the tide of the game in the Ravens favor. His counterpart Elvis Dumervil also had success coming off the blitz, coming up with two crucial sacks. Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata also had success on the interior of the defensive line, each notching a sack and combining for eight tackles. The production of these four players is necessary for the Ravens to manufacture a pass rush, something that has been necessary for them to stop Tom Brady in the past.

2 Who will win?

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The Patriots do not really have a weakness on offense. They execute just about every play in their playbook with a high degree of efficiency that has made them one of the best teams in the league in recent memory. The Ravens offense matches up comparably in terms of production, but they do not have a red zone threat of the same caliber as Rob Gronkowski. While they Ravens may have the best wide receiver in the game with Steve Smith, Sr., they have a significant drop off after him. Even if he produces as he is capable, the Ravens will still require production elsewhere, which they will not find against the Patriots secondary.

The Ravens biggest defensive weakness is their secondary. They finished the season ranked 23rd in passing yards, which is pretty good considering they have had five season ending injuries to cornerbacks over the course of the season. The Ravens also cut two more cornerbacks before settling on the pairing of rookie Rashaan Melvin and Lardarius Webb. However, the unit, which is rounded out by safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart, is reliant on a pass rush in order to make plays. This unit will be incapable of handling the combined threat of Gronkowski, Edelman, and LaFell while still supplying run support. Brady has struggled on deep balls against the Ravens in the past, but this is a much different secondary he will be facing.

1 Prediction:

Baltimore: 20

New England: 27

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NFL Playoff Preview: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots