Sunday, January 22, 2012

Quick Hits - AFC Championship Game - 1/22/2012 - Patriots 23 Ravens 20

First reaction: Wow.  Patriots had no business winning this game. This was a Rodney Harrison/Ty Law/Tedy Bruschi/Richard Seymour Patriots win vintage 2001/2003/2004.  The Patriots could not make any big plays on offense but moved the ball.  The defense kept them in the game and made just enough plays to eke out a win where fortune fell their way.

The defense came out strong with three big three and outs. At that point, if the offense had been sharp, the game would have been over. Credit the Raven's defense, they slowed down the Patriots offense.  Brady made plays, but the big play was never there for the offense.  They Patriots were forced to fight for first downs and struggle down the field.  Once in the red zone, the Patriots wound up kicking too many field goals early.

The Ravens made some big plays down the field against the Patriots defense, but no team was able to pull away from the other.  Joe Flacco made some plays, but looked extremely uncomfortable under pressure.  Often times he had receivers open down field and didn't get the ball there, as the slightest contact by a defender made him throw the ball away.

The officials made it clear that there were going to be no ticky-tack calls during the game, letting defenders from both teams make contact down field.  Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis had to have his helmet ripped off to get a face mask penalty.  One Patriots drive in the first half was extended with an illegal contact call that resulted in Wes Welker making an adjustment and missing the ball which was intercepted.  Had the ball fallen incomplete, I'm not sure a flag would have flown.

Tom Brady had two poor throws, and as good defenses do, the Ravens made him pay each time by making athletic interceptions and keeping the Ravens in the game.  The second interception was particularly egregious as Brady lobbed the ball up in the middle of the field for Matthew Slater immediately after a potentially momentum changing pick by Brandon Spikes.  A controlled, patient, time-consuming drive down the field featuring the hard-charging running of Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis could have broken the backs of the Ravens.



Also, trying to drive and run down the clock, I was very confused by the second down call before the two-minute warning where Bill O'Brien called a toss sweep to Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis on second and three.  Green-Ellis had been a beast running between the tackles all game.  Deviating at that point made no sense. A toss sweep to a shifty back like Danny Woodhead would have made more sense than giving it to Green-Ellis. The third down call to Aaron Hernandez was a fine call, a first down being more important than running the clock down a few seconds.  It should have worked but, again, the Ravens defense played it well.

The Ravens have the whole off-season to kick themselves after that final drive.  Let me point out that Bill Belichick did not "ice" the Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff or make the ridiculous move that some coaches make of running onto the field and calling a timeout a split second before the ball is hiked. The Ravens still had a timeout and chose not to take it.  I thought they looked rushed getting out on the field to get ready for the field goal even though there was no doubt they had to kick the potential game-tying field goal.at that point.

That said, the Ravens had the game won.  Buffalo Bills cast-off Lee Evans had a touchdown in his hands and had no excuse to drop it. A great effort by Sterling Moore to make a play there.  Then, when the Ravens had a chance for first and goal at the two yard line, Sterling Moore again made a great effort to knock the pass down and forcing the Ravens to try to tie the game.

Billy Cundiff had no excuse for missing the kick,  The snap was fine. The punter handled it clean, got the ball down, and had the laces out.  Cundiff rushed and hooked it bad.  A bad kick by a Pro Bowl kicker.  Ouch. Cundiff  missed bad. The ball was on the right hash mark and he hooked it past the left upright and missed the net behind the goal posts by a good margin. A painful loss for the Ravens, as the opportunities were there.

Make no doubt, the Patriots need to play a lot better in two weeks to win that elusive fourth title.

5 Key Points - Patriots versus Ravens 1/22/2012 AFC Championship

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com has long been a favorite writer for his insight and passion for covering the Patriots in direct contrast to some "Superstars of the Media" of this city that "boasts" blow-hards like Ron Borges, Dan "CHB" Shaughnessy, John Tomase, "Gresh", "Felgie", and other winners who come and go in the local sports media. Reiss has constantly reached out to the fan-base and even brought their questions directly to the coach or player at the podium while striving to actually give a well-thought, cogent opinion to go along with the news he regularly brings. This morning he posts his Things to watch: Patriots-Ravens and I just wanted to bring attention to the article add my 2 cents.

1. Pass protection for Tom Brady. If Brady has time to throw, like he did in the divisional round against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots are at their highest level of explosiveness. This puts the spotlight on left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. If third-year offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) is cleared to play, that would further bolster the Patriots up front. Empty sets, with no players in the offensive backfield along with Brady, are a big part of the Patriots' attack and that will be a game within the game to monitor in terms of how the Ravens defend "empty" looks. 
In addition to this being simply the one thing the Patriots did NOT do in 2009, the Patriots have the ability, if Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer) is healthy to bring Nate Solder in as a 3rd tight end and basically give the team a six man offensive line.  In that set they could line up Gronk tight to the line on the opposite side of Solder, put Aaron Hernandez in the backfield, Wes Welker in the slot strong or weak-side and Deion Branch out wide.  Hernandez then can empty the backfield to the opposite side of Welker, he can split wide to allow the Patriots to have "trips" on one side and Gronk in isolation on the other side, or simply stay in the backfield as a 7th blocker or slip out for one of his short catches where he beats a linebacker and turns it into a big game.

2. Ray Rice as dual threat There were only two running backs in the NFL who led their team in rushing yards and receptions -- Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. This is priority No. 1 for the Patriots' defense, limiting Rice on the ground (1,364 yards, 2nd in NFL) while also accounting for him in the passing game (76 receptions) as a check-down option. Looking for a possible unsung contributor, perhaps it's linebacker Dane Fletcher. He helped "spy" Rice in a 2010 regular-season meeting between the teams. 
Ray Rice is the offense for the Baltimore Ravens. Period. Great job by Mike Reiss digging up the nugget about Dane Fletcher as spy on Rice ("like white on rice" is inappropriate and in poor taste, so I'm not making this pun here) as he did previously. Rice is a handful for any defense, and if the Ravens are to have any chance at all, they HAVE to have Joe Flacco attack the Patriots secondary deep with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin (deep middle of the field is where he works best).  If the linebackers are up in the box, Flacco has the opportunity to strike deep.  That said, San Diego had that same game plan against the Patriots, and once their running backs started putting the ball on the ground, a back and forth battle (Phil "Biff" Rivers is much more comparable and capable to hold his own in a shoot-out than Flacco) became a strong win for the Pats.

3. Who wins inside the 20? The Ravens ranked first in the NFL in red zone defense (TD percentage), surrendering just 16 touchdowns in 42 trips. The Patriots' red zone offense was the NFL's second-best, with 47 touchdowns in 72 trips. It's a battle of strength on strength inside the 20, where the space gets tight. Look for the Patriots to go empty to try to loosen things up.
Red Zone offense and defense is something that seemingly comes up every time Bill Belichick is speaking.  That Patriots game plan is built around scoring touchdowns on offense inside the 20 and holding their opponents to field goals.  Danny Woodhead becomes a huge x-factor for New England in the Red Zone with his ability to operate out of the spread offense as a darting runner or catching a pass swung out of the backfield.  With all the attention given (and rightfully so) to the tight ends ends and Wes Welker, Woodhead could end up with the ball in his hands in space with one man to make miss making the difference of four crucial points squarely on him.

4. Ravens' coverage vs. "Boston TE Party" Few teams have had the answers to limit Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season. Safety Bernard Pollard figures to be involved in some form, so that will be a matchup to watch. One other possible wrinkle: The Patriots have had success going with a three-tight end package at times -- using offensive lineman Nate Solder as the third option -- and then throwing out of it. When looking to strike the balance between playing physical up front but also maintaining a threat in the passing game, that could be an effective approach at times. 
Speaking of those tight ends, am I the only one that wants to see Bernard "Brady's knee" Pollard juked out of his shoes and breaking his ankles trying to stop Hernandez or getting bowled over in the open field by the runaway Gronk train?  Again, a key in deciphering the Ravens pass defense has to start with Ed Reed and where he is on the field and what he sees going down.  The man is simply the best secondary player in this generation, bar none. Charles Woodson is great, but he's no Ed Reed (and don't throw that weak-ass Troy Polamalu crap over here...the man is Brandon Meriweather running around out of position out on the field with a better PR man).

5. Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Patriots' Vince Wilfork The two defensive linemen won't be on the field at the same time, but they represent what this game figures to be all about -- an all-out slugfest at the line of scrimmage. They are the two most powerful players on both teams' defense. We remember the 2009 wild-card round game in which Ray Rice raced 83 yards on the first offensive play, with Wilfork brushed to the side. If the Ravens can establish that type of command up front, it could be a long day for the Patriots. The Patriots seem better prepared to avoid that type of performance this time around.
Ah, yes. The two beasts of defense. In addition, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, et al need to be stout up front.  Games are won and lost in the trenches, and the past two years (three if we count 2007 Super Bowl versus the Giants) in the playoffs the Patriots were dominated on both sides of the ball and lost winnable games.  To get to the big game, this must not happen. 

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