There is one word on the minds of most Patriots’ fans this weekend. That one word is REVENGE. This is because of the beat down the Baltimore Ravens gave the New England Patriots last year in the AFC Wild Card Round. Despite the Pats beating the Ravens early last season, Baltimore went into Gillete Stadium and ran all over New England in a 33-14 victory. This time, New England should come in prepared to play in this game.
Bill Belichick always has a history of winning after his team comes off a bye week. Since 2002, the Patriots are 14-4 in games in which they have had over a week to prepare and they will need it in terms of adjusting to a new offensive style without Randy Moss in the fold. Just as a refresher, two weeks ago, New England’s special teams was the key cog in the New England machine as the Pats rolled to a 41-14 win over their AFC East rivals, the Miami Dolphins. Now, at 3-1, the Pats stand just a half game behind the Jets in the division and now have the chance to beat a team that Is considered by most to be one of the best, if not the best, in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens come into this game at 4-1, with their only loss coming against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2. Whenever you talk about this team, defense is the first word that comes to mind. With Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs along with a tough defensive line, this Ravens team is tough to score on. They have only three takeaways in five games, but they have held every opponent to under seventeen points this season and without star safety Ed Reed. They also have a solid running game with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee as the 1-2 combo that allows Joe Flacco to flourish in the passing game with new weapons Anquan Boldin and T.J Houshmanzadeh. Third year head coach John Harbaugh is in my opinion, one of the most underrated coaches in the games for how he gets his team to play a physical game week in and week out.
Here are my keys to this game:
- A Branch off the old tree – Yes, Deion Branch is back for the Patriots. In a trade Monday, New England received the MVP of Super Bowl 39 from Seattle in exchange for a fourth round pick in next year’s draft. Branch may not bring the same production as Moss, but he has knowledge of the Pats’ new short passing game. This is an offense where he can get his short passes and slowly develop closely into the form he had around five years ago. I expect the connection with Brady to come quicker than usual because they used to play together and Branch will not be expected to do much in terms of catching the deep ball.
- Ravens’ Defense: The reason I make this a key is because this is a completely different Patriots’ offense than Baltimore has seen the last three times they have played New England which includes the epic Monday night game during the 16-0 regular season. The Pats used to spread it out, but without Moss, they would use more multiple tight end formations with the rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Even though no one has a clue of how this Patriots’ offense will play, my guess would be that New England will use the short, quick passing game to establish the newly found balanced running attack. But, Brady will need more than 154 yards to win this time around.
- Flacco’s Turnovers: Joe Flacco has become of my favorite young quarterbacks to watch, but he is turnover prone. He has six interceptions this season. As we all know, against New England, if you turn the ball over, they will make you pay. However, in January, Flacco needed only ten passes to win the playoff game. This is a new Flacco and I have been impressed with the poise he had, particularly in huge road games against the Jets and Steelers this year. Plus, on third downs this season, New England has allowed opponents to get a first down 55% of the time, which is the worst in the league. That is where the discipline of this young Patriots’ defense needs to be sharp.
- Grains of Rice: The key will be can New England shut down one of the top running backs in the league in Ray Rice. Rice ran for over 100 yards last year in the playoff win. I have seen this player play ever since he was the star running back for Rutgers and he is the real deal. That is why, unlike last year, New England’s front seven need to make the first tackle and not allow Rice to get into the open spaces or he will take it to the house. Even if Rice is shut down, don’t forget Willis McGahee who has dominated the Pats over the course of his career. New England should do a solid job stopping the run after they contain Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams two weeks ago.
Prediction: This is going to be a close battle and is going to come down to one thing. Can Joe Flacco avoid the big turnover late in the football game? My gut tells me that Flacco will make the mistake to a certain Patrick Chung. Brady will find his receivers with time in the pocket for short routes and Brandon Tate can make some plays deep. This one comes down to the wire, but I will take Belichick off of a bye in a close game.
Patriots 23 Ravens 20