ReFo: Ravens @ Patriots, AFC Championship
Coming into this game the New England Patriots were overwhelming favorites, just as they seem to have been for every postseason game of the past decade. Whether Vegas is just working on a legacy they built up in the early years of the new millennium, or whether the Patriots have simply found creative ways of blowing games they should have won, the team’s record in the postseason is now slipping and it has been almost a decade since the last New England Super Bowl victory.
The Ravens on the other hand, now hold the best postseason winning percentage of any team in the NFL, and, whether they stumbled into the postseason or not, they found ways to win on the back of Ray Lewis’ retirement announcement. In this game the Ravens simply executed better than the Patriots, making fewer mistakes and creating a couple of big plays when they mattered to swing the pendulum in their favor.
In conditions that were troubling to a timing offense used to delicate passing, the Ravens were perhaps better set up to run the football and pass sparingly than the Patriots, who could never really seem to get their offense in rhythm.
The Ravens became the first team to topple Tom Brady in Foxboro in any game where he held the lead at the half, emerging with a 28-13 win as the Patriots failed to score after the break.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
The last time these two sides met in the AFC Championship game Matt Birk was victimized by Vince Wilfork on the biggest stage for all to see. Earlier in the season when the two sides met he had a pretty strong game, keeping a clean sheet in pass protection and run blocking reasonably well, but that was before Wilfork had the bit between his teeth and was firing on all cylinders.
Wilfork certainly looked like he had come to play early in this game, making a couple of nice plays against Marshal Yanda (+1.0) in particular, but Birk (+3.3) held firm. He kept a clean sheet in pass protection once again. The Ravens center was impressive with his run blocking, in particular getting to the second level to cut off the ability of Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo to make plays on the ball. Birk’s performance was one of the reasons Flacco had all the time he wanted most of the time. He also enabled the Ravens to pick up hard yards inside when they needed to, grinding critical first downs on multiple occasions in the game.
Big Plays at Big Times
The interesting thing about this game is that it wasn’t taken over by any one player, but rather the Ravens just found people to stand up and be counted when it mattered most. Anquan Boldin (+2.3) made a couple of great catches for touchdowns on balls that were simply thrown up for grabs against a shorter defensive back, while on defense the Ravens were able to fashion some crucial stops.
Bernard Pollard (+1.3) made a couple of nice plays, including a batted pass, but his knockout blow (literally) to Stevan Ridley to force a fumble was one of the pivotal points in the game. The Ravens had just taken an 8 point lead but New England had the ball back with a chance to answer. The turnover resulting from that hit gave the Ravens a short field and they were able to capitalize four plays later to extend the lead to 15, putting the Patriots in a pretty deep hole a third of the way through the final period.
Lastly, Pernell McPhee (+1.7) stepped up with a pair of batted passes late in the game to kill any chance of a Patriot comeback, one of which resulted in the interception by Dannell Ellerbe.
The big story surrounding the Ravens is obviously the retirement of Ray Lewis (-2.9) and the play of the team to try and get him another ring as a parting gift. If they are to get it done in the Super Bowl, however, they need their linebackers to step up and improve their play. Despite a couple of splash plays in the game, none of the four graded positively with Lewis, Ellerbe (-1.4), Terrell Suggs (-2.7) and Paul Kruger (-4.1) in particular having poor games. Kruger and Suggs combined for six pressures as the primary rush threat, but knocked Tom Brady down only once and didn’t sack him. Ellerbe and Lewis weren’t able to handle the Patriots’ linemen coming at them at the second level and were consistently shunted out of the way for the running backs coming through behind them.
Lewis may have topped double-digit tackles once again, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he had a great game, because only two of those tackles were defensive stops, the rest were made some way down field.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Two Rare Drops
If you listen to the commentary on TV you could be forgiven for thinking that Wes Welker has hands of glue that never drop passes. Every time he drops one they act so surprised and usually remark how this is a very rare occurrence. Unfortunately, it just isn’t so, and Welker finished his season with another pair of drops in this game for 19 on the season, a league-leading mark. Obviously Welker is a high-volume catcher who is targeted far more than most, so this doesn’t put him down with the paddle-handed brigade at the bottom end of the scale. However, those 19 drops are 12.4% of his catchable targets, a percentage that ranks 68th in the NFL this season.
Welker may have caught eight passes for 117 yards in this game, but he also had two ‘rare’ drops, both of which came on third downs for the Patriots, ending drives, and one of which was at a critical juncture in the game. With 10:15 left in the third quarter the Patriots held the lead and had the ball in Baltimore territory. Welker found himself matched up against Paul Kruger, running an out-pattern and it was akin to stealing candy from a baby.
Brady delivered the ball but it hit Welker in his hands and then dropped to the floor. New England elected to punt on fourth down and got nothing from a drive that should have led to points. Welker is a great player, at times impossible to cover, and usually does far more good than bad. Yet he does not have fantastic hands, and the last two Patriots postseason losses feature at least one of those ‘rare drops’.
One of the more underrated parts of the Brady and Patriot legacy has been how good the offensive line has always been, as it’s rarely an issue and usually protecting their man extremely well. Brady felt pressure on 17 snaps, but only 10 of those came from the O-line, and the pressure was almost always a long time in coming. On one occasion late in the game Haloti Ngata badly beat Logan Mankins (+3.8) to the inside to notch a hit but that was about as bad as it got. Sadly for Patriots fans though the excellent work from the line went unrewarded. The starting five combined for a PFF grade of +15.4 and only Dan Connolly let the side down with a -0.3 grade from some disastrous run blocking, but he had a perfect day in pass protection.
There was much discussion when the Patriots acquired Aqib Talib (+1.6) earlier in the season whether he could fit in New England and make an impact. He was clearly their best cover corner when McCourty was moved to safety, and when he went down in this game the difference was marked. Ironically enough Talib injured his hamstring making a good play to bat away a ball intended for Boldin on a crossing pattern. From that point the Patriots were forced to go deeper into the bench, and Marquice Cole in particular became the victim, struggling to deal with the size and physicality of Boldin. Cole was thrown at five times, allowing all five balls to be caught for 62 yards and a touchdown.
– Tom Brady, one of the league’s most clutch players at one point, had a passer rating of 13.5 when pressured in this game.
– When the Patriots blitzed Joe Flacco, his passer rating as 119.7 and he threw for a pair of touchdowns.
– The Ravens missed just five tackles on defense compared to the eight of the Patriots.
PFF Game Ball
For catching a pair of touch touchdowns to put the Ravens out in front, Anquan Boldin gets the PFF Game Ball.