Thursday, January 19, 2012

NFL Playoffs: AFC Championship Preview

This game seems to be much easier to predict than the NFC matchup, but I won't fall into the trap and just assume the Patriots are going to pull this one out.  They are 7.5 point favorites in Vegas, but that just seems too steep.  There is no way to say the Patriots are a touchdown better than the Ravens after looking at the entire body of work.

The Ravens come into this game after a 20-13 nailbiter against the Houston Texans.  You could argue that this game was handed to the Ravens on a silver platter, but the defense did play well, and you have to give them credit.  The offense struggled to get anything going, but one has to assume that they will see more success against a porous Patriots defense.

The Patriots absolutely dominated the Broncos, winning 45-10 behind Tom Brady's six touchdown passes.  The defense looked respectable, and the offense looked unstoppable.  Aaron Hernandez might also be the best running back on the Patriots' roster.

The key in this Patriots/Ravens matchup will be when, and how long, the Patriots have the football.  If the Ravens can keep Brady off the field and pressure him while he is on the field, they will see success.  Pressuring Brady, however, is no easy task.  The Patriots sport one of the best offensive lines in the league, if not the best, and despite being a bit banged up before this game, they should have all of their guys back come Sunday afternoon.

When these two teams played in the playoffs two years ago, Ray Rice was able to run all over this Patriots defense to the tune of over 200 yards.  They absolutely dominated the game, despite Flacco's inability to reach 40 yards passing.  The Ravens are one of the only teams in the league that can be successful despite bad quarterback play, which bodes well for them.  Flacco is clearly not a premier passer in the NFL.

The game itself will be physical, hard-fought, and I can guarantee you that Brady will not throw for six touchdowns.  Despite this, I think the Patriots will win the game.  The Patriots pass rush looked great against the Broncos last weekend, and I think we can expect continued success from them.  Flacco and Tebow are similar in that they like to camp out in the pocket, somewhat oblivious to the surrounding pass rush.  Also, the Patriots have a surprisingly good rush defense with Vince Wilfork in the middle, and we will probably see a game where Joe Flacco is forced to beat the Patriots through the air.

Also, even if Ed Reed plays, it is questionable as to whether he will be 100%.  The Ravens absolutely need him healthy if they want any chance at this game, as Reed will have to make a few big plays for the defense to swing momentum.

When you look at the fact that the Ravens are 7-0 against playoff teams, while the Patriots have yet to beat a team with a winning record, it can be confusing as to why everyone is picking the Patriots.  If this game was in Baltimore, the Ravens would win this, no doubt in my mind.  But since this game is in Foxborough, the Patriots have the edge, and I see this one ending on a last-second field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

New England 20, Baltimore 17

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