FOXBOROUGH – Finally, the game is almost here. Can’t wait. Think it will be a great matchup pitting two tough and physical teams.
Here are my five keys for the Patriots to emerge with a victory and go to their sixth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick:
- Stop the run in nickel: The Ravens have been doing a good job of running the ball out of one-back sets, instead of using the fullbacks. That’s big because, depending on how the Patriots match personnel groupings, the Patriots could be using their nickel package. The Ravens will want to run against that. If the Patriots can do a good job against the run with just the four linemen and two linebackers, that means that don’t have to send a safety screaming into the box on run plays; they can just sit back with two deep safeties, which would limit the big-play ability of the Ravens. That’s a win. If the Patriots can defend the run with five defensive backs on the field and with two deep safeties, they stand a really good chance of winning this game. If the Ravens can run out of that set, and the Patriots have to commit a safety to the run, the Ravens will control the game.
- Hold the edge on offense: One of the biggest areas where the Patriots have and will miss tight end Rob Gronkowski is his ability to hold the edge and not allow contain in the run game. Because of that, the Patriots have basically abandoned their outside running while he’s been out, outside of “stealing” a few plays when the opponent doesn’t get lined up against the speed offense. The Patriots’ greatest advantage offensively against the Ravens is running sideline to sideline. The Ravens are slower, and can be exposed that way. But only if the Patriots, through the tackles and tight ends, can pin Ravens ends Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger – who are very good against the run. If the Patriots can control them and make some plays on the outside, that’s really going to soften up the Ravens’ defense.
- Zone exchange: The Ravens’ revamped offensive line has been very good the previous two weeks. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been well protected. With a beat-up Chandler Jones (ankle), the Patriots will need big pass rush games from DT Vince Wilfork (probably against rookie LG Kelechi Osemele) and LE Rob Ninkovich (vs. inconsistent RT Michael Oher). But look for the Patriots to also catch the Ravens with some zone exchanges – a lineman drops into coverage while someone else takes his place rushing the passer. Patriots have dabbled in this, but not much of late. It’s another way to apply pressure without committing more people to the rush.
- Time for Lloyd: Look for the Ravens to commit to stopping Wes Welker and to compress the field by getting physical with Aaron Hernandez and the running backs. Baltimore will dare Tom Brady to beat them deep, so it’s time for Brandon Lloyd to deliver. This game is exactly why they signed Lloyd. If he can’t produce a few big plays, the Patriots are going to look a lot like the team that lost to the Jets in the 2010 playoffs.
- Target Lewis: Ray Lewis is still a very good between-the-tackles linebacker, but he can’t cover a lick anymore. Spread the Ravens out, figure out who he’s covering and go right at him.
I talked more about this game in Sunday notes, and I expect a battle. Fans should throw the Texans’ game out. I don’t care what the stats say, that was an overmatched team in every respect. The Ravens are not. And if you’re a team that just “does what they do” on offense and defense, the Patriots are going to throttle you if you’re not as talented. That’s what happened against Houston. These Ravens are an entirely different animal. Not only do they know they can beat the Patriots, they’re nearly as talented. This one will come down to turnovers, and who can swing a handful of key plays. It’s a toss up to me.
Patriots 23, Ravens 20