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BOSTON (CBS) – The Patriots and Ravens meet at Gillette on Sunday with a trip to Super Bowl XLVI on the line.
It’s the classic battle of Offense vs. Defense. Can Tom Brady lead the Patriots attack to another victory over Baltimore’s powerhouse defense, or will the playoff trend of “defense wins” continue?
Here are the key matchups in Sunday’s AFC Championship.
Tom Brady vs Ravens D
Tom Brady doesn’t struggle against many teams, but the Ravens are one of them. Sporting a 4-1 record can hardly be seen as struggling, but compared to the numbers he puts up against everyone else, the Ravens do a pretty good job at getting the future Hall of Famer to look not so Hall of Fame-like.
Six touchdowns and six interceptions is hardly Brady-esq, but give the Ravens credit, they get to Brady. Whether it’s Ray Lewis in the backfield or Terrell Suggs running his mouth, the Baltimore defense gets his attention.
This week though, it’s been more about respect than anything else. Suggs, who has called Brady a “pretty boy” and said he has rules made for him, actually said Brady will be there as one of the top three quarterbacks of all-time. Ray Lewis has an even more glaring review of his combatant to the North, cutting that number down to two.
“When you speak about Tom, you’re talking about arguably one of the best two quarterbacks of all time,” Lewis said. “You’ve got your hands full from Day One, before you even step on the field with him, because it’s a film study game with him. He wants to [identify] everything that’s coming out and know what you’re in. Your job is to disguise and not show him all of that. It’s a chess match, almost.”
So how does Brady get the upper hand in that chess match? Having a pair of knights in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez help (more on that later), but it’s the hurry-up offense that the Patriots run to perfection that will keep the Ravens running in circles.
“I think it’s hard for them to get lined up, and it’s hard for them to get their calls,” said receiver Wes Welker. “[It's hard] for them to make substitutions from first-and-10 to second-and-2, and different things like that. It makes it tough on a defense. And the faster we can go, the harder we make it on them. It’s been successful for us.”
Most of the time, Brady is snapping the ball while lineman are just starting to think about catching their breath and corners are still discussing who goes where. Keeping pace with Brady will be on the top priority. That and hitting him. Hard.
“It’s always a challenge. I think the challenge is getting lined up and really being able to do what you want to do and not let everything that they’ve done… When you watch film, the thing that you do see is that they have a lot of people out of place, a lot of people scrambling, trying to do this, trying to do that,” said Lewis. “If you can slow that down and let the game take care of itself, then you have a better chance of trying to get it done. But like I said, you watch the numerous games with him going back and forth. He has a lot of defenses scrambling around, and that’s something we’re going to have to be very aware of this week.”
“You don’t want him back there just like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to play catch today,’” said Suggs. “You don’t want him to zone in, get in his zone, so to say,” Suggs said. “So, I think pressure is going to be crucial, but it’s always crucial. But, particularly when you are playing these type of quarterbacks, it’s pivotal.”
While no one really likes to go against Tom Brady, Tom Brady does not really like to go against the Baltimore defense. When he’s not worrying about the pass-rush from guys like Lewis, Suggs and D-lineman Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding, there is Ed Reed in the secondary. Mix all of them together, and there is a defense that can hit the quarterback and force turnovers; a recipe for disaster for any offense, even if it is Tom Brady calling the shots.
“They have a great defense. I think what makes them great is not only the playmakers but all 11 guys play together,” Brady said Thursday. “It’s really been a strength of that team for as long as I’ve been around, and it continues to be. As long as Ray and Ed [Reed] and Terrell Suggs are there it’s going to be a strength.”
“Coach Belichick has a meeting with the all the quarterbacks and you talk about strengths and weak points of a player, and a guy like Ed and Ray Lewis, there’s no real weak points,” he said. “You just have to be careful with the ball around them and understand that this is a team that really can get turnovers and they’ve gotten turnovers against us when they’ve played us. I’m sure that will be a huge difference in the game.”
A great offense against a great defense. If that doesn’t say conference championship, what does?
Patriots Tight Ends vs Ravens Linebackers
When the Patriots faced the Ravens in the playoffs in 2009, Brady had Ben Watson and Chris Baker as his tight ends. They contributed with two catches for eight yards, combined.
Now he has Gronkowski and Hernandez, two lethal weapons in the Patriots offensive attack.
“They’re obviously a huge part of what we do,” Brady said of the combo. “They’re pretty good with the ball in their hands and break a lot of tackles so that’s definitely a plus for us also. We have a lot of yards after catch this year and those two guys certainly do a great job with the ball in their hands.”
“They’ve certainly worked hard. I think all of those touchdowns they’ve really earned through their hard work and preparation and their ability mentally to understand what we are trying to do with them so they can be in a position to catch those,” continued Brady. “Both those guys have really worked hard to put themselves in a position where they can be in a big factor in our offense.”
There is no need to go into all the records Gronk broke this season, or how Hernadez can play running back and in the passing game, is more like a receiver. Instead, here is how the Ravens plan on attacking the two-headed monster lining up for the Patriots.
“Well, you don’t want, particularly this guy, to get into a seven-on-seven matchup with your defensive backs, especially when they have a 6-12, 260-pound tight end that runs about a 4.5 [40-yard dash],” said Suggs, referring to Gronkowski.
Gronk is actually 6-6, but you get his point.
“You really just have to try and contain it. I think Hernandez, he is a phenomenal talent. Gronkowski, the only thing I really don’t like about him is that he went to the U-of-A [University of Arizona],” joked Suggs, who attended Arizona State. “Other than that, he is still a really good tight end, too. They are really good. We definitely have our hands full. This will probably be the best offense we’ll see all year.”
The Ravens will be bumping and pushing Gronkowski and Hernandez all afternoon, trying to get them off their routes and out of a comfort zone. And with the Ravens getting physical, so will the Patriots tight ends.
“It is a big challenge; the best team we are playing so far all year. They have a big front and they’re all physical and we can’t go out there and be soft. You have to be physical and be able to play up with them,” said Gronkowski.
But Baltmore’s main concern is not Gronk and Hernandez, because they know Brady will find whoever is open.
“Brady throws it to everybody. I’ve been saying that all week. He’ll throw it to an offensive lineman,” joked Reed. “We’re looking at everybody that’s eligible that’s going out on a route and not going out on a route. We’re paying attention to everybody. Everybody has a responsibility. They have 11 guys on the field. We have 11 guys on the field. Everybody has to do their responsibility.”
And those players are open because of the dirty work Gronk and Hernandez do.
“They’ve always had somebody to open up for Wes, it seems like,” Harbaugh said of Welker. “Whether it was all of the receivers … Randy Moss comes to mind. But, they’ve always had guys to push the coverage up field and clear out space for Wes. That’s part of their plan all the time.
“Wes Welker is the guy that leads the charge. Gronkowski is pushing the ball up the field, it seems. Hernandez is pushing the ball up the field, it seems. And then they’ve got good receivers outside that can get over top. It’s pretty much the same formula. There are a couple of different faces, but pretty much the same idea,” said Harbaugh.
Hernandez was listed as questionable with a concussion on Friday’s final injury report, and his participation in the game will be key for New England. He presents matchup problems because of his size and speed, and now that he comes out of the backfield, it’s another wrinkle for the Ravens to worry about.
With Welker, Gronk, Hernandez and anyone else who gets open, the Ravens defense is going to have their hands full.
Then again, so will the Patriots defense…
Ray Rice vs Pats Rush D
Two years ago, before some Patriots fans were even settled in to their seats, Ray Rice had Baltimore up 7-0 with an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
While that play probably replays over and over in their heads, Vince Wilfork had an interesting answer when asked how many times he’s watched the big run that was the first nail in the 2009 Patriots’ coffin.
“None, because it doesn’t have any relevance to what we’re doing. That was a couple of years ago and this is a new ball club,” said Wilfork. “They have guys on their team that weren’t there and I know we have guys on our team that weren’t there. Really, that doesn’t (play into it).”
It’s likely head coach Bill Belichick played that replay for Vince once or twice this week, but they don’t need to see it to know what they’re going up against.
“He’s one of those guys that can do it all. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s good in blitz pickup. He’s a small guy, but at the same time he’s strong,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said of Rice. “He always has his feet going, breaks a lot of tackles, so he’s a dangerous weapon for them. There’s a reason why he’s their leading receiver and leading rusher. You rarely see that. He’s a great player.”
“I’m not saying they don’t have any other playmakers on that side because they do. If you look around, they have guys in every position that’s at the top of the league in something. It starts with Ray Rice,” said Wilfork. “If he has a good day, they’ll have a good day. We have to do a good job of slowing him down and hopefully everything else will fall in place for us.”
Slowing down Rice means quarterback Joe Flacco will have to set the tone on offense, something the Patriots would much rather prefer than having Rice run wild. The last time the two teams squared off, a 23-20 overtime win by New England in the 2010 regular season, Rice was limited to 88 yards on the ground and kept out of the end zone. After that 83-yard run in 2009, the Pats held Rice to just another 79 yards the rest of the way.
“They’ve always done a great job of coming in with a game plan and executing it,” Rice said of the Patriots defense, noting the last time these two teams faced the Ravens came out on the losing end. “Whether that’s limiting the big run, or making us march the ball down the field and limit us to three points, that’s been the kind of games I’ve been in with them since I’ve been playing. But we have to come in with a game plan and execute it. The key to championship football – everybody knows – is execution.”
Gresh & Zo Whiteboard: Stopping Ray Rice
He also knows that the more he and the Ravens offense are on the field, the more Brady and the Patriots offense are on the sidelines. In turn, Rice could be the Ravens best defense against the Patriots.
“To a certain extent, that’s very true. Anybody will tell you, when you can keep a quick-striking offense off the field, it limits the game,” said Rice. “But with that being said, I think we have a great balance on this team. I think when we run it effectively, it sets up the pass. When we pass it effectively, it sets up the run. So, in order to keep Tom Brady off the field, I’m just going to say we have to simply execute at a high level. We have to play championship football. In championship football, it doesn’t matter how you win it. You just have to execute effectively, and I know I’ll be a major part in this game plan.”
Bottom line is, if the Patriots limit Rice they will win the game. Keep him to short gains and don’t let him beat you in the passing game. Linebacker Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will be the key to this.
The Patriots defense is feeling confident after their performance against Denver, and say they’re peaking at the right time. Now they just have to keep it going.
Tune in to the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens Sunday, January 22 at 3pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage begins with a special two-hour Patriots GameDay on WBZ at 11:00am, with Patriots Preview beginning at noon on the Hub!