Antigonish - January 19, 2012 - In a game featuring the conferences top two seeds, the Baltimore Ravens (2) look to upset the favoured New England Patriots (1), who historically have put home field advantage to good use in both the regular season and in the playoffs.
This should be a great game, with each team having definite strengths they will wish to deploy and weaknesses that they will wish to cover up. The Patriots boast one of the league’s best passing attacks, with QB Tom Brady having a veritable arsenal of weapons at his disposal in the passing game, while the Ravens are known for their stifling defence and a solid running game. Which team will emerge as Super Bowl finalists? Read on my friends, read on!
When New England has the Ball
Brady will look to his favourite targets early and often. Wes Welker, who is seemingly open on every underneath play due to his incredible quickness and sync with Brady presents a definite challenge to every defense. All TE Rob Gronkowski did was to set the single season record for TD’s and receptions for TE’s, and presents definite matchup difficulties with his size, speed and great hands. We should not forget about TE Aaron Hernandez, who uses TE uncanny speed and shiftiness for a TE to line up everywhere, including the backfield, to get open and break big plays. Oh yeah, Deion Branch is no slouch either. Clearly then, the Patriots present a huge challenge to any defense - but this does not mean they cannot be stopped. Their running game has been decent, but is a RB by committee affair, with a number of one dimensional runners combining to provide some balance, but little real production. BenJarvus Green Ellis (the Lawfirm) provides the tough running inside, but is not an explosive threat, while Stevan Ridley has shown some promise, but has also put the ball on the ground, and may not yet be fully trusted in a big game atmosphere.
The Patriots will struggle to run vs. the Ravens, as big DL Haloi Ngata is a load who requires constant double teams, and LB Ray Lewis still fills the hole quickly and with violence. Look for this game to be decided, from the Patriots perspective, through the air, where despite Brady’s unquestionable brilliance, he will need to contend with a fearsome pass-rush led by Terrell Suggs, in addition to an opportunistic secondary featuring ball-hawking safety Ed Reed. The Patriot offensive line will have its hands full throughout the game, and must keep the pocket clean for Brady to work his magic, for if there is a defence in the league that has a chance to slow down the Patriots passing attack, this is it. Advantage - New England, but only by a hair
When Baltimore has the Ball
Baltimore RB Ray Rice is one of the best runners in the league, a small but powerful runner who seems to bounce off tacklers and find the open hole to daylight more often than not. The Ravens passing attack is also capable of moving the chains, with QB Joe Flacco possessing the big arm to find WR explosive rookie Torrey Smith down the sideline, or steady veteran Anquan Boldin in the middle. Veteran WR Lee Evans, who has battled injury most of the year, could be a critical factor for the ravens, as he still possesses the speed to open things up for the running game and take the focus off of Boldin. If he is eliminated as he has been for much of the year, however, the Ravens offense will remain somewhat one-dimensional, and give the Patriots some breathing room on defense. Make no mistake, the Ravens cannot expect to go toe to toe with the Patriots in a points race, as their offence does not boast the wide array of weaponry that the Patriots possess - and Flacco will never be mistaken for his pass-happy counterpart on the Patriots.
In Baltimores’s favour, however, New England’s defense has been run on with frequency over the course of the season, and will certainly be challenged to shut down Rice. In addition, if the Patriots have an Achilles heel as a Super Bowl contender, it is their secondary, and this is likely to be the area that decides the game. If New England can shut down the Ravens offense, the game is theirs, if they cannot, the advantage will swing to the visitors. Advantage: Baltimore
Home-field advantage is a definite factor, as New England rarely loses at home. Special Teams are strong for both sides, and while execution can always influence the outcome of a game, neither team looks to have much of an advantage here. Coaching could also be a factor, for although Baltimore’s Harbaugh has done a wonderful job in guiding the Ravens to this point, it is hard to argue against Belichik as the best coaching mind in the business. Advantage: New England
I have to go with the favourites here, although I believe this game will go down to the wire, and will be determined by how much time Brady is permitted in the pocket by the Ravens pass rush. If he has time, he will find the open receiver, but if Lewis, Suggs et all can put consistent pressure on him and Reed can make the big plays in the secondary he is known for, the Ravens have a definite chance to return to the Super Bowl. In a nail-biter, look for Brady and the Patriots to find a way playing at home!
Final Score: Patriots 28, Ravens 24.