The Patriots have looked like three different teams this season. They struggled in September and their offense limped to the finish line. In the two months in-between, they were easily the most dominant team in the AFC, crushing playoff teams like the Bengals, Broncos, Colts, and Lions by at least 20 points each. An offense built on short passing and long drives somehow put up 40 points five times. At their best, no one could touch the Patriots in Foxborough. But we haven't seen a complete game out of New England since Thanksgiving. That's a serious concern.
The Ravens have won playoff games in Foxborough before, but these are two dramatically different teams than two years ago. Baltimore's defense actually looks much better and more physical than they did when they won the title. The defensive line can rush the passer and stuff the run well. The Ravens' offense had a Week 16 meltdown and needed help to get into the playoffs, but that doesn't matter now. They have looked as complete and balanced as any team for most of the season. There's a reason the Ravens are fifth in Football Outsiders' metrics for the season; they don't have many weaknesses.
Tom Brady, Patriots: It's on Brady to expose the one clear shortcoming the Ravens' defense has. Ben Roethlisberger was not able to take advantage a Ravens secondary that includes Anthony Levine, Rashaan Melvin, Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, and nothing close to a "shutdown" cornerback. Baltimore kept two safeties back and got pressure with their front four. No one is better at picking out mismatches before the snap, going through his reads, and snapping the pass out quickly than Brady.
Only two Patriots teams under Belichick have been more pass heavy than this squad, yet they are a compact offense that doesn't make many big plays. An inconsistent running game and lack of a deep threat puts pressure on Brady to be precise and pick up a lot of third downs. The Ravens don't have anyone to cover Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman will be trouble for a diminished Lardarius Webb. This feels like a game in which the Patriots will emphasize their weapons over the middle, including tight end Tim Wright and running back Shane Vereen.
The Ravens know they need to apply quick pressure to disrupt Brady's timing. The Jets' got a lot of pressure up the middle in Week 16, and tested an inconsistent Patriots offensive line's communication. Baltimore coordinator Dean Pees timed his blitzes perfectly last week in Pittsburgh and knows what bothers Brady after spending six seasons with the Patriots. The return of Haloti Ngata made the entire defense better, with Brandon Williams excelling at nose tackle and Courtney Upshaw quietly playing well. Pernell McPhee can play inside and out and Terrell Suggs still hustles like a rookie. This is a deep and varied Ravens front that needs to win battles quickly because Brady isn't going to hold the ball for long.
Matchup to watch
Baltimore's tight ends are coming off a strong game in Pittsburgh, but the Patriots will live with Owen Daniels and Crockett Gillmore getting a lot of targets. We'd guess that Darrelle Revis is more likely to cover Torrey Smith. Brandon Browner doesn't have the speed to keep up. He's overrated and a penalty magnet. Another option would be to put slot cornerback Kyle Arrington on Torrey Smith with a safety over the top, much like the Patriots did against T.Y. Hilton and the Colts. That would leave Revis to try to erase Steve Smith for much of the day.
The matchup on the outside will be fascinating because we expect Belichick to leave his cornerbacks in man press coverage often. That will allow him to get creative up front and manufacture a pass rush by creating different looks. In Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins, Belichick has his most athletic and versatile trio of defenders ever in New England. Jones is a physical freak and often rushes from the inside on passing downs. Hightower can line up as an edge rusher or inside linebacker. Collins' range as a blitzer and in pass coverage is crazy. Game Rewind showed that Baltimore gave up a lot of pressure against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers didn't finish plays.
This Patriots team is far different than previous groups. They are more athletic and less stout at the point of attack. They rotate defenders far less, with seven players suiting up almost every snap. That's why we expect Belichick to compensate for a weakness and sell out to stop the Ravens' running game with extra defenders in the box. He'll trust his secondary to hold up. This much we know: Joe Flacco is not afraid to pull the trigger deep early and often. He's a dangerous playoff quarterback because he knows aggression wins. This game could be decided by who comes down with those mid-air tosses after Flacco goes deep.
These teams are far different than two seasons ago. The Ravens have 36 (out of 53) different players than they did on their title squad. The Patriots have 32 different players. ... With that said, Tom Brady is 12-3 at home in the postseason. Two of those losses are to Baltimore. ... Since 2005, No. 6 seeds like the Ravens are amazingly 5-4 against No. 1 seeds. ... Only the Seahawks have outscored opponents by more than Baltimore after halftime this season. ... Justin Forsett was held under 50 yards only two times in his first 13 games. It's happened in three of the four games since.
The Patriots earned a bye for the fifth straight season, the most in NFL history. ... New England didn't lose once when scoring more than 23 points. Their offense was among the most efficient in the league, scoring on 45.3 percent of their drives. Only the Packers had a higher percentage. New England wasn't necessarily explosive. They specialized in scoring drives over ten plays, leading the league in that category. Brady had the third-lowest completion percentage in the NFL of throws that traveled 20 yards in the air.
At this point of their careers, anything short of a championship will be a deep disappointment for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Buoyed by a healthy Rob Gronkowski and a playmaking defense led by Darrelle Revis, this feels like their best, last chance. That's why we don't buy the "Ravens are the worst possible matchup" thinking for New England. If they can't take care of Baltimore at home, there's no way they are capable of beating Green Bay or Seattle at a neutral site.
After relative walkovers in the Divisional Round the last few years, perhaps a strong test is the best litmus test for this team's championship aspirations. Their last two title runs, now a decade old, started against very challenging opponents. (A 3-point win over Tennessee after '03, a win over the favored Colts in '04.) This is the best Patriots defense since 2004, which should be enough to carry them through in a close game. Look for Belichick to sell out to stop the run, and trust his secondary to make plays. The Ravens have the talent to win, but their 2014 resume indicates they are the inferior team, especially on the road.