Ray Lewis’ powerful locker room speech from last year’s heart-tearing loss in the AFC Championship at the hands of the New England Patriots included the prospects of holding heads high, getting back to work, and returning to the very same position this season.
Despite the incredible odds against accomplishing such a feat, the Ravens defeated the top seeded Broncos, 38-35, in Denver last Saturday, in a double overtime thriller, and now head to New England to take on the Patriots once again in the AFC Championship, Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m.
New England beat up the fully-faded Houston Texans last Sunday, 41-28 at home, to earn their much-coveted position in the NFL’s final four Championship Weekend.
Baltimore won the most recent chapter in this heated rivalry, 31-30, on a last second Justin Tucker field goal, in Week 3 on Sunday Night Football way back in September. Here are some keys to this week’s rematch.
In last year’s AFC Championship, the Ravens had difficulty getting their running game on track, largely due to Patriots absurdly large nose tackle, Vince Wilfork. His size advantage over Ravens center Matt Birk often left Ray Rice with neither time nor room to get the ball up-field. Rice finished with just 67 yards on 21 carries.
Against Denver, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell showed a commitment to the run by feeding Rice 30 times (including the overtime periods). Caldwell’s unwavering insistence on handing off on first and second downs, thereby creating third and manageable 5-7s, during the 4th quarter and into overtime, proved effective because even when drives stalled, the Ravens had already moved the ball for a few first downs, which improved the so critical field position battle. Rice finished with 131 yards on the ground.
The Ravens will need to devise a plan to help Birk handle Wilfork, with guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda assisting over center. Wide receiver Torrey Smith will likely receive a lot of defensive attention because of his torching of Champ Bailey for two touchdowns (could have been four) in the first half last week, so there will be room for Rice to make big gashes if he can get through the defensive line and into the second level.
Brady Hurry or Hurry Brady
It’s no grand secret that the success of the Patriots revolves squarely around the capabilities of future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Brady excels in reading the coverage, taking what is there even for short yardage, capitalizing on mistakes while making none, and essentially slow-bleeding a defense to death.
His hurry-up offense thrives on not allowing the defense to make substitutions, which the Ravens make plenty of along the defensive line based on down and distance. Ngata, Suggs, Jones, McPhee, Kruger, Upshaw, Kemoeatu, Cody, and Tyson all regularly see playing time.
Last year, Baltimore forced just two Patriot punts, which really isn’t good enough to win no matter what happens in the final minutes. As Brady goes, so do the Pats, and if you pressure him, hurry him, sack him, lock down his receivers on short routes (Williams and Graham vs. Welker and LLoyd) while not letting up anything deep (Reed), and win first down, then you stand a pretty good chance of winning the game.
Chess with Bill
Any game against Bill Belichick has an element of chess strategy to it. In the AFC Championship last January, the Patriots ran the ball opportunistically, which was effective against Baltimore’s defensive alignment when expecting pass. This could be the case again since the Ravens struggled defending the run throughout much of the season.
The Patriots will be without their best offensive weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, which helps Baltimore by eliminating him from nightmare match-up decision making. The Ravens also must identify running backs going deep down the sideline against linebackers, which the Broncos used for a touchdown to Knowshon Moreno, in similar fashion to Brady’s 33-yard strike to Shane Vereen last Sunday, which put the nail in Houston’s coffin in the 4th quarter.
Joe Flacco showed against the Broncos last week that with the game on the line, and when facing elimination, he has what it takes to make the big time throws needed to propel the team to victory.
Ray Lewis showed in his 17-tackle performance that he’s not ready to hang it up just yet, and the elevated play of his surrounding teammates is sending the message that they are right there by his side.
But… are the Ravens too tired, especially on defense, after last week’s mile high melee? Will Brady be too much for Ray and his bionic arm? Is there a mental edge in either direction (redemption vs. repetition) because of last year’s wild Baltimore-breaking finish? Who will go to the Super Bowl?
Fortunately, we will know by Sunday night… WHO’S READY?!?!