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…
A couple of days ago I finally for the first time willingly watched some of Super Bowl XVI. It was the Sound EFX episode, and though I turned it off as soon as Welker didn’t make that catch and watched a lot of it on mute, I once and for all put the 2011 Pats to rest.
Going into the Super Bowl I really saw no way the Pats would lose. Up to that point every game seemed to have its own poetic justice (except that first Giants loss). Brady beat the Jets in New York for the first time since the Spygate, and ended the seasons of both the other teams that had ended his in 2005 and 2009.
Peyton as a Colt vs. Brady was over. And hey, we even let the Steelers finally win one! I knew you had it in you guys!
Add all that with Myra Kraft’s magical presence over the team and I just didn’t see how we would possibly lose that game. It was just too perfectly all lined up. The Pats would cap off the season by beating who else but the Giants, and avenge the biggest and worst defeat of the Belichick era.
Forget about the Perfect Season, that’s the Perfect Decade.
It’s taken two days but it’s finally sunk in that the 2011 Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl. There will be plenty of time to over-analyze the match up with the Giants over the next twelve days, so for now I just want to take a look back at how the Pats got here, and where I see them at right now.
We must start with the classic AFC Championship that felt in many ways similar to last year’s playoff game against the Jets. The difference this time? The Patriots defense.
It’s strange to hear the biggest storyline on all the sports networks being that the Patriots defense actually carried the Patriots on a day when Tom Brady was off. There’s no doubt the defense came up with big plays when they needed them most. From Vince Wilfork’s all-around unstoppable game, to Brandon Spikes’ interception that should’ve had a bigger impact if not for Brady’s next-play interception, to Sterling Moore’s clutch plays on the ball in the closing seconds to keep the Ravens from winning, the Patriots defense made the big plays in the clutch moments and the Ravens did not.
However, I didn’t see a suddenly dominant defense out there like some may have us believe. I don’t ride the media roller coaster, so on a day when one of the big talking points is the Pats D turning it around, I don’t think it’s quite a slam dunk that this defense can shut down an elite quarterback just yet.
They made the plays they had to against the Ravens, but we all know how close we were to spending an off-season recounting Joe Flacco’s 4th quarter touchdown drive that sent the Patriots home. We’ve said all year that living off turnovers and red zone stops can be a slippery slope, but this time around the breaks fell the Pats way. But don’t be fooled, win or lose in the Super Bowl there is still much work to be done with this defense.
If the biggest difference in this game was defense, the biggest difference from last year’s team is something that is not measurable in cold, hard statistics. The 2011 Patriots are a team with unparallelled team chemistry.
All season long Vince Wilfork has spoken highly of the character of the players on defense. We’ve written about it here on the blog as well, and I’d argue that a team where everyone gets along and works hard is be far more difficult to defeat than a team that set the world on fire statistically but is loaded with egos.
While you can point to all the missed draft picks the Patriots have made over the years, or all the talented players who were released, or all the undrafted free agents that always seem to be playing significant roles, credit must go to the Patriots for identifying the kind of players who have created this championship chemistry.
Offensively, the Patriots had a dominant year, but they sputtered in the AFC Championship, which had to be somewhat expected against a great defense like the Ravens. The most egregious example was Tom Brady missing a wide open Gronk for an early touchdown. That seemed like an ominous sign, but as always the Pats were able to put together one last scoring drive to give them the late lead.
It was a situation that we’ve seen so many times since 2006. In the ‘06 AFC championship and the ‘07 Super Bowl the Pats had late leads that their defense could not hold. This time they did hold, with a couple clutch plays, and a little luck.
Now with one game left the Patriots will be put to the ultimate test on both sides of the ball. Eli Manning and the Giants passing offense look like an extremely difficult match up considering what has plagued the Patriots defense all season long. And on the offensive side, Brady has struggled the last two times they’ve faced the Giants. Throw in a potentially less-than-100% Gronk and things could be even more dicey.
Add all the factors together and the Patriots should be underdogs in my book, and I think that’s just the way we want it to be from a preparation stand point. Let’s spend the next two weeks hearing how unstoppable the Giants passing attack is and how dominant their defensive front is, while the Patriots prepare under the shroud of underestimation, with constant reminders of how the Giants have had their number recently.
We’ve seen games like this play out many times over the last decade, and we know we can almost always count on them to put forth their best efforts when they are the team expected to lose.
The New England Patriots are quickly righting every wrong that’s happened since they last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and the Kill Bill-esque revenge tour now will conclude with a shot at the biggest offender of them all.
The Patriots already saw the Giants once this year, and the New England defense couldn’t stop a game-winning drive from Eli Manning that was eerily similar to Super Bowl 42. The Giants are a potent foe, and one who have had the Pats number since seeing 16-0 happen on their home field.
But my initial feeling is that the Patriots know what it takes to beat the Giants and they’ll look at this game feeling like true underdogs, despite whatever the point spread is.
Some quick hit thoughts as I slowly try to come to terms with the fact that we’re going back to the Super Bowl.
- With the Super Bowl Patriots it always felt like the bounces just seem to go our way at the right time, and this team has a similar feeling. Obviously the Myra-culous missed field goal was the biggest example.
- I can’t help but feel a tiny slight bit bad for Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. That is not an appropriate playoff fate for two warriors like them. But thems the breaks.
- I still don’t know what Brady was doing going deep to Slater on that interception. That play would’ve been the talk of the off-season had they lost.
- Thus, I think TFB will come out with something major to prove in the Super Bowl.
- Feel great for Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes. Two of the players I saw as most valuable to the defense are back and making plays.
- I wonder the repercussions of this game in the off-season for both teams. The Ravens might get one more shot with Reed and Lewis, maybe.
- Woodhead wasn’t as much of a factor as I thought he’d be.
- Green-Ellis was his usual reliable self. Ridley not dressing sent a message. There was no more screwing around in this one. The experiments were over. Only the most reliable were going to play. That goes for Ocho too.
- How about Matt Light and Nate Solder’s job on Terrell Suggs?
- Deaderick and Love were solid, but Wilfork was on another level. I don’t know if anyone knew he would be this capable and this diverse just a few years ago. What a beast, making plays in the biggest moments.
- I don’t know if Sterling Moore will even be on the Pats next year but he made two season-saving plays that deserve note and appreciation.
- If the Patriots beat the Giants in the Super Bowl I don’t know who there will be really left to hate. We swept the Jets. Colts are starting over. Dolphins/BIlls still MIA. We righted ‘05 Denver loss, ‘09 Ravens loss, and (potentially) ‘07 Giants loss. Who’s left?
What a couple of weeks it will be. Looking forward to going back and taking another look at the game without heart palpitations. Go Pats!
Wow, CelticsPatriotsMan over on YouTube is on FIRE!!!
If you are a Tom Brady fan I compel you to listen to this audio from Trevor Pryce talking about Tom. This. Is. Amazing.
"Tom Brady would eat his young for another Super Bowl right now".
"He has an intensity about him right now I’ve never seen a player have. Cold Blooded"