Here’s why the Patriots will win on Sunday
|01.17.12 at 6:53 am ET|
You know what we’ve got on Sunday?
Two Super Bowl or bust teams.
When the season began, neither the Patriots or Ravens would have been satisfied with a spirited, hard-fought loss in the AFC championship as the conclusion to the season. Nope, the expectations were Lombardi Trophy or Lost Season.
How many other teams, realistically, thought that way in September? The Packers, obviously. The Saints, sure. The Steelers. One more, and it’s almost now charming in its delusion: The Jets.
That’s it. Every other team would have signed for 12-4 and a playoff win. That includes the two remaining NFC teams.
This will be the only Super Bowl or Bust matchup of the entire postseason. Doesn’t mean the winner will win the next game, of course, but it is going to be a particularly brutal defeat on Sunday for the Patriots or Ravens, much more so than for a 49ers team that won six games in 2010 and is way past house money stage, or for a Giants team that missed the postseason last year, won nine games this year and was 7-7 just a month ago. If the Giants lose 23-14 to the 49ers on Sunday I suspect, with some time to gain a little perspective, they’ll look at the season (with that win in Green Bay as the unquestioned highlight) as a whole as a success.
I’m picking the Patriots to win this game, but it’s about as close to a coin flip as it can get. A Baltimore win would be nothing close to a surprise, that defense plus Ray Rice is plenty enough to beat New England. Doesn’t take much to make a case for the Ravens on Sunday.
But three factors stand out when choosing New England, and it’s the first one I believe will matter most ‘¦
Brady vs. Flacco
No quarterback in the history of the NFL has won as many regular-season games in his first four seasons as Joe Flacco (44 – but if you’ll allow a quick caveat: Brady won 48 in his first four seasons as a starter but is disqualified here because he played in one game in his actual rookie season of 2000). Flacco has a career TD/INT ratio of 80-46, which even in the new NFL world of juiced-up passer ratings is impressive. And on Sunday, Flacco won his fifth career postseason game. So you’d think this is a guy that would reside firmly at the elite table of current quarterbacks, below Brady, Rodgers and Brees but right there with Roethlsiberger and Eli Manning (who is two wins away from pretty much locking up a spot in Canton, hard as that may be to believe).
But no one ever puts Flacco in that group, his national temperature is tepid at best. Why? Well, he had his worst season in 2011 (most INTs, TD’s were down, yards per attempt and completion percentage were career lows) and looked very shaky at times against the Texans on Sunday. Probably you remember Baltimore coming to Foxboro and destroying the Patriots in January 2010. Also you might remember this: Flacco stunk in that game, finished 4-for-10 for 34 yards and an INT (10.0 passer rating). In his postseason career he has completed 53.1 percent of his passes with seven INT and six TDs (Tony Romo - who routinely gets massacred by the press for not being a “winner” with just a single playoff win in five games – has completed 59.3 percent of his playoff passes with four TDs and just two INTs). Flacco is a perfectly serviceable NFL starter, perhaps a little more than that. But if he had been drafted by, say, Seattle instead of Baltimore it’s fair to wonder what Flacco would be. Having Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata as teammates can cover up some of the quarterbacking acne.
When the Patriots lost to the Giants in Week 9 they were 5-3 on the season and Tom Brady already had 10 interceptions. Since then the Patriots are 9-0 and Brady has thrown 25 TDs (as many as Flacco has thrown in any season of his career) against three picks. Yup, this Ravens defense is significantly better than any Brady has faced during that stretch (tops in the NFL in pass defense) and the heart of that group dominated him in that playoff game two years ago, but he enters Sunday playing at least as well as he has at any time of his career. Huge head-to-head edge for the Patriots at the most important position.
Understanding The Need For Balance
The three losses:
Buffalo, 45 passes, 26 rushes
Steelers: 35 passes, 12 rushes
Giants: 49 passes, 24 rushes
(And these were not blowout games, obviously, the kind that would force your quarterback to throw and throw some more. The losses were by three, six and four points.)
The nine-game winning streak:
Jets, 26 passes, 28 rushes
Chiefs, 27 passes, 35 rushes
Eagles, 34 passes, 36 rushes
Colts, 38 passes, 24 rushes
Redskins, 37 passes, 20 rushes
Broncos, 34 passes, 36 rushes
Dolphins, 46 passes, 31 rushes
Bills, 35 passes, 30 rushes
Broncos, 34 passes, 30 rushes
OK, the blowout wins (Broncos twice, Eagles) mean more running. And the Redskins/Colts games weren’t quite as balanced as I may have hoped when I began examining this. But keep this in mind – the Patriots passed 19, 25 and 23 more times than they ran in their three losses, and that’s three of the four largest splits of the season. Against this Ravens defense – one of the three or four best in the league by any standard – they have to try and establish the run. If they drop Brady back 45, 50 times he’s a) going to get smacked around and b) very likely turn the ball over a couple of times (that kind of predictably won’t work, opposing teams threw for just 11 TDs against the Ravens). A potential X-factor is Stevan Ridley, who had just four carries last week but with his ability to get outside might be the best bet to have that 75, 80-yard kind of game. And while the Ravens were sixth vs. the run this season, they have allowed over 100 yards rushing in each of the last four games, including 145 to the Chargers in the Sunday night loss a month ago and 131 last week to Houston and Arian Foster. If the pass/rush spilt is close to 50-50 or even 60-40 in favor of passing it a terrific sign for the Patriots.
And The Biggest Difference From 33-14 is ‘¦
Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski. Welker had blown his knee out the week before the playoff loss to Baltimore, Gronkowski had just missed almost his entire final collegiate season with the most fortunate back injury in New England history (payback for Larry Bird, I guess) and Hernandez had finished his last season at Florida.
Julian Edelman was about the only offensive player that showed up that afternoon against the Ravens, and he’s also probably the only skill player for the Patriots that will get any snaps on Sunday. Randy Moss, Sammy Morris, Sam Aiken, Ben Watson, Chris Baker, Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk accounted for all the rushes and receptions. The NFL’s top pass catcher and the most productive tight end duo in league history is the upgrade of all upgrades. If we are drafting skill players from the Ravens and Patriots I might take Ray Rice first – though I’d be very tempted to pick Gronkowkski – but there’s no question the three Patriots are the next choices. This offense is absolutely better right now than the 2007 group, at least better built for the postseason and teams like the Ravens – Welker is at as good as he was that year, Gronkowski/Hernandez as a combo is better than Moss (who caught just seven passes that postseason) and the rest is close to a wash, right? In this NFL I’ll take the great offense over the great but aging defense.