|Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Ravens||01.19.13 at 2:47 pm ET|
Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game:
Our three favorite matchups on the night:
1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork against running back Ray Rice: It’s No. 1 on our list almost every week for a reason — more often than not, the Patriots have won the battle up front, and when it comes to stopping the run, Spikes and Wilfork are key. Rice had a tremendous night against New England the first time they met this year — he was the only running back to break the century mark against the Patriots this season, as he had 20 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown on the ground (and tore it up through the air as well, finishing with five catches for 49 yards). Meanwhile, the Ravens are almost singularly focused on trying to stop Wilfork this week, and for good reason, as he is in the midst of one of the finest streaks of a thoroughly impressive career. Both he and Spikes will have the primary responsibilities of trying to slow down Rice.
2. Defensive back Aqib Talib against wide receiver Torrey Smith: The premier matchup on the outside. The addition of Talib has allowed the Patriots to do some more things defensively, including more man coverage (as opposed to keeping cornerbacks on one side or another, as they have preferred to do in the past). It’s also allowed the Patriots to move some defenders around where they can play to their strengths, like Devin McCourty at safety and Kyle Arrington in the slot. As a result, Talib has found himself in one-on-one situations this season with the opposing teams’ best receiver — Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and the like. With Anquan Boldin more of a slot presence, look for Talib and Smith to be one-on-one outside. Smith has become one of the best deep threats in the league — he’s not necessarily an elite pass catcher in the mold of Wayne or Johnson (he had 49 receptions for 855 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season), but his faster than Fios speed makes him exceptionally dangerous. (His 17.4 yards per catch in the regular season was fourth-best in the league.)
3. The Patriots running backs against the Baltimore defense: The combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden have done am excellent job bringing true balance to the New England offense this season, but were stymied the first time around against the Ravens — the Patriots managed just 77 rushing yards as a team that September evening. They will obviously be terrifically important this time around when it comes to establishing a ground game, but the backs — particularly Vereen and Woodhead, the latter of whom is expected to play after suffering a thumb injury last week against the Texans — will also be important in the passing game. The Patriots were able to get Vereen matched up on a linebacker on a handful of occasions in the passing game, and made some nice gains as a result. Meanwhile, Woodhead’s presence as a pass catcher is well-detailed, as he remains the first New England running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to finish a season with at least 40 catches and 40 carries. With the Baltimore linebackers having major issues in coverage this season, that appears to be a winnable matchup for the New England offense.
(One more matchup: linebacker/edge rusher Rob Ninkovich against right tackle Michael Oher: The Patriots have flipped their outside pass rushers on several occasions this year, and this might be one of those times where they can exploit probably the weakest overall link in Baltimore’s offensive line. Oher was flipped from left tackle to right late in the season to make room for Bryant McKinnie, but has allowed 10 sacks and 29 quarterback hurries on the season, tops on the team — that includes four quarterback hurries and a hit the first time these two teams played back in September. Ninkovich continues to make big plays on a consistent basis for the New England defense, including an interception last week against the Texans, and could find himself in another big spot this week against the Ravens.)
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: As under-the-radar as a Pro Bowler can be, Jacoby Jones is a guy who can mess things up in a real hurry for the Patriots. A peerless kick returner — he led the league in average kick returns during the regular season at 30.7 yards per return — he must have been salivating at the sight of the New England kick coverage unit last week against the Texans and Daniel Manning. In their divisional playoff win, the Patriots yielded three kick returns of 30-plus yards to Manning, including a 94-yarder. That needs to be fixed if New England is going to win this game. (The strange thing? The Patriots were one of the best teams in the league in the regular season when it came to kick coverage — New England was third-best in the NFL, allowing an average of 20.5 per kick return.)
5. By the numbers (tie, both courtesy of Nuggetpalooza) One: From 2010-2012, the Patriots are a combined +70 in turnover margin in the regular season, by far the best in the league in that span (Packers +41, 49ers +36). But during that same span in the postseason (five games), New England has a minus-four turnover margin, tied with the Saints for the worst in the league in that span. Baltimore’s +10 is the best postseason turnover margin over the last three seasons. Two: While Joe Flacco and the Ravens never threw a pick on a long ball (a pass play of 20-plus yards) during the season, the Patriots’ pass defense picked off a league high eight such passes out of 78 opponent attempts (a league high).
6. Quote from an opposing scout regarding this Sunday: “This week against the Ravens, the Patriots should use the multiple attack that they used last week, for several reasons. They have several personnel matchup advantages against the Baltimore defense. As we saw last week, Shane Vereen, out of backfield as a receiver is a winnable matchup. In addition, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd spread out the defense individually and as a group, and will also make things tougher for a Ravens’ secondary that has matchup problems. Adding Stevan Ridley and potential of the run makes it even harder for Baltimore to prepare for, especially when several of the pieces are in packages together and New England runs the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.” — For more of the scout’s breakdown CLICK HERE.
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|Video: ’4th and Goal’ breaks down AFC title game between Patriots and Ravens||01.18.13 at 2:52 pm ET|
In the latest edition of “4th and Goal,” WEEI.com’s Chris Price takes a look at this week’s AFC championship game between the Patriots and the Ravens, and some points of emphasis for New England.
|Devin McCourty: As a safety, my mentality has changed||01.17.13 at 2:20 pm ET|
FOXBORO — It’s been a transitional year for Devin McCourty.
He played some safety in college, as well as last season, but with the midseason addition of cornerback Aqib Talib, the Rutgers product is now putting “safety” on his W-2 instead of just “cornerback,” as it appears he’s made the full-time switch — for now — to the back end of the defense. He said Thursday morning it’s meant an occasional change to his preparation.
“I’ll always watch film and prepare,” he said. “I think my mentality has changed a little bit as far as trying to be the head communication guy back there with [fellow safety] Steve [Gregory]. So not just being able to watch and see how the play affects me or how I’m going to play something, but just to be able to watch things and see if I can get any type of keys or pre-snap reads that I can let everybody else on the defense know.”
McCourty has learned about the need to be more vocal in his approach.
“Vocally, I’ve really thought about speaking more; as soon as I see something, trying to yell it out to the defense. So I think the biggest thing I’ve changed is my mentality and how I approach it,” he said.
“Playing a little safety in college, you had to do it, but what I’ve got here is totally different, communicating in the NFL and letting guys know what’s around them. I’ve just kind of been learning on the job and each week has gotten better and I’ve gotten more conformable. So I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”
As Talib said on Wednesday, the biggest thing for the Patriots defensive backs to keep in mind this week — particularly the safeties — is the arm strength of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco, who has been one of the best in the league when it comes to completing passes of 20 yards or more, was able to connect on several deep throws last Sunday in a divisional playoff win over the Broncos.
“I think you have to be aware of it,” McCourty said of Flacco’s arm strength and big play ability. “You have to know, just like any other team we play, that week you scout them, you watch film and you understand what they do well and you have to know those things. You can’t just go out on the field and play everybody the same. I think it will be key just watching film and understanding what Flacco does really well.
“I think he does a good job of handling their team and making the right decisions,” McCourty added. “I think playing quarterback puts a lot on you. I think he does a good job of not turning the ball over. When you see a guy make the plays he made last week, with I think a little over a minute left it was 70, 80 yards — to make that play down the field is big. I think he’s clutch and he makes plays for them.”
When it comes to the Ravens’ receiving corps, McCourty offered his thoughts on Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.
“[Smith is] a fast guy; he moves. That’s not to say he’s not physical at all, but I think one of his biggest strengths is his speed, and if you give him a step or two, it will turn into three or four. You just have to be aware of how fast he is,” McCourty said. “[Boldin is] a very physical guy. I mean, you can tell, I think, by his size and his strength. He really uses that to his advantage of how physical he can be out there in routes and in blocking.”
|Logan Mankins: Spygate taunts don’t get under my skin||at 1:47 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Logan Mankins has never been one to mince words, and so when a reporter asked him Thursday morning if Spygate taunts from opposing players — like the one from Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo earlier this week that came via Twitter — ever get annoying, Mankins was quick to respond.
“Nah, that was a long time ago,” responded Mankins.
The reporter followed up, asking if it got under his skin at all.
“No, but you are,” responded Mankins with a smile.
The retort is par for the course for Mankins, who always plays with an edge. (Quarterback Tom Brady once said with a grin that the occasionally feisty Mankins “plays until the echo of the whistle.”) The first time the Patriots and Ravens met this season, there was plenty of pushing and shoving between the two teams, and Mankins talked about why that was on Thursday.
“I think we’re two emotional teams, so stuff happens out there,” he said. “You just always have to be smart about it. A penalty just hurts your team, so you can take it a little ways — you just have to make sure you never take it too far.
“That’s the only way I know how to play and I’m going to keep doing it until they tell us we can’t.”
Following are more highlights from his Thursday morning Q&A with the media.
|Gronkowski only one missing from Pats practice||at 1:20 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Rob Gronkowski was the only player missing from the start of Patriots practice Thursday afternoon as the team went through a session on he lower fields behind Gillette in sweats and shells. (Gronkowski, who suffered an arm injury in last Sunday’s divisional playoff win over the Texans, is expected to be sidelined for the rest of the postseason.) The only player who returned to practice was cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who missed Wednesday practice because he was attending a required pretrial hearing in Nebraska related to his felony arrest last April for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots. WEEI-FM 93.7 will broadcast the AFC championship game between the Patriots and Ravens on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
|Brandon Lloyd: When it comes to playoffs, Tom Brady is all about work||01.16.13 at 9:51 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Brandon Lloyd has been around Tom Brady for a relatively short time — especially when it comes to the postseason — but the veteran wide receiver has come away impressed at the way the quarterback prepares for the postseason.
Lloyd, who finished his first full season with the Patriots with 74 catches for 911 yards and four touchdowns, said that when it comes to prep work, the quarterback treats each game the same.
“It’s the same preparation, the same commitment, the same commitment to developing relationships with the pass catchers, with the offensive line,” Lloyd said Wednesday afternoon. “We still get our one-on-one time and routes and one-on-one time in film study. So he does that with all of the players and he spends a lot of time with us. You get that during the regular season and he is still doing that now. So it is the same.”
When it comes to what has surprised Lloyd the most about Brady, he said it all comes back to the work.
“I think how detailed his work ethic is,” Lloyd said. “We all work hard and we all say that we do work hard. We like to think that the best players are the hardest workers and Tom proved that when I got here.”
Like fellow veteran Aqib Talib, Lloyd is going through his first postseason experience. Even though he said there were “no nerves, no jitters” when it came to his first career playoff game, he said Wednesday he takes a page out of Brady’s book and uses the same “one-game-at-a-time” approach that got him through his first full season in New England.
“That’s how I have been approaching it,” said Lloyd, who had five catches for 32 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s divisional playoff win over the Texans. “It seems like ever since Thanksgiving there have been the biggest games of my career, and it’s not changing now in the playoffs. The approach that I’ve always taken in my career, regardless of the magnitude of the game, is to approach it like it is a regular game, and that’s been helpful for me.”
FOXBORO — Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin said Wednesday that the difference between last year’s AFC title game and this year’s contest was that the Ravens were going to win. When he was informed of Boldin’s boast later Wednesday afternoon, Patriots center Ryan Wendell simply shrugged.
“The difference between this year’s AFC championship and last year’s AFC championship is that they’re different teams,” he said. “We’ve got new players and some of the same players that were in that game; they’ve got new players and some of the same players as well.
“Nothing matters that happened in the regular season. Nothing matters that happened last week. We’re two good teams that are going to squaring off in this game. All that really matters is who goes out and performs.”
That was the tone that Wendell’s teammates took when informed of Boldin’s statements. The Patriots were able to stay on message and not rise to the bait, which is pretty much business as usual around Gillette Stadium.
“I guess it is just the way we do things — we’ll see on Sunday what happens,” said right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said. “I don’t think we take too much into consideration from what happened last year. It was a different team for both of us. I think both teams deserve to be in that game on Sunday and we will see what happens.
“We think it is going to be a tough game and we respect Baltimore, so we know how tough it is going to be. We still have to bring our best and just go from there, I guess.”
Earlier in the week, Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo took a shot at the Patriots on Twitter, ripping the Patriots’ no-huddle offense and lobbing insults referring to “Spygate” and the 18-1 season of 2007. He later apologized.