We all had this game circled when the schedule first came out and now here it is, the AFC Championship rematch. Amazingly one of these teams will be sitting at 1-2 come Monday and facing a lot of questions. Here are my keys as I see it to what the Pats need to do to avoid that being them.
1. Make Haloti Ngata Problem (see what I did there?) - The Patriots offensive line generated little push against the Cardinals and the Ravens have a similarly stout front led by Haloti Ngata. What the Patriots cannot afford to do is become one dimensional and that starts with the offensive line opening up holes for Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead. Woodhead actually had an impressive day against the Ravens in 2010, putting up 63 yards on 11 carries. He could be a sleeper this weekend. But that’s dependent on the guys up front generating some push that they didn’t generate last weekend. Dan Connolly played well against Ngata as a center last year, the Pats will need him back and healthy at right guard to hopefully do the same thing this year. If the Pats can make him Ngata factor they should be able to control the ball.
2. Unleash the Gronk - Gronk was underutilized against the Cardinals, while Brent Celek was tearing up the Ravens for 157 yards. The Ravens still just don’t have an answer for tight ends, especially when it’s Dannell Ellerbe. Of course this would be far more exploitable with Hernandez playing, but Gronk is enough of a weapon in his own right. He should be the main focus of the Patriots attack, whether it’s Ellerbe, Ray Lewis, or the dreaded Bernard Pollard covering him.
3. Defending “Bombs Away” - There’s no secret about the Ravens style of offense. They’re going to line up in 21 personnel and throw/hand the ball to Ray Rice a bunch, and take at least a few shots down the field. Stopping Rice is of course the primary key, but that’s obvious and I expect the Patriots should be adept at doing so with Wilfork and Spikes leading the way. What is concerning to me is not getting shredded through the air. Yes Devin McCourty seems back on track this season, but this is the first legitimate test he’s faced. The key guy that could make a real impact is Steve Gregory. Patrick Chung was awful in coverage in the AFCCG, but now it should be Gregory who’s on the back end providing over the top help. An explosive play for the Ravens could really break this thing open for them. The Pats must prevent that and force Joe Flacco to take his check downs.
4. Patience - If there’s one negative defining characteristic that has carried over from the Billick regime to the Harbaugh regime it’s that the Ravens can and will implode if things don’t go their way. 2007’s game was a prime example when you had Bart Scott firing a ref’s flag into the stands. We even saw evidence of it last week with all the complaining the Ravens did about the refs. The lesson is to be patient and stick to the plan. The Ravens are good and will make their share of plays, but as soon as the Patriots start to gain momentum it’s time to put the peddle to the floor and not look back. The more things snowball on the Ravens the worse they’ll react to it.
5. Win - As always it’s the only thing that matters, and it seems like just about every pundit out there (except Mike Ditka) is picking against the Patriots. One thing about the BB reign is that whenever the tide seems to turn against the Pats, and everyone is picking against them they always seem to put together their best football. The 2010 Steelers game is a prime example. That’s no guarantee, and the Ravens have as much motivation and fire power as anyone to take us down, but it’s in games like these, against tough, physical opponents on the road that you find your true mettle. A first round bye could possibly hang in the balance Sunday night, and if the Pats want one of those for the third year in a row they’re going to have to go into Baltimore and take it.
One final key: Avoid Bernard Pollard at all costs…