When the Patriots and Ravens face off Sunday night in the AFC Championship, it shouldn’t be considered a rematch of their regular-season game, let alone last year’s title tilt at Gillette Stadium.
Both teams are vastly different.
Not only don’t the Patriots have tight end Rob Gronkowski — whom the Ravens expended most of their energy covering since Aaron Hernandez was out with an ankle injury in the Sept. 23 matchup won by host Baltimore, 31-30 — it was the third-worst game played by the New England defense this season, behind only the abominations that were the first Jets game and the second matchup with the Bills.
It wasn’t just one group, it was all three levels. The normally reliable linemen got shoved out of their gaps. The linebackers had big trouble with their run fits. And the secondary was a horror show reminiscent of 2011 with blown coverages, missed tackles, and penalties.
And there wasn’t much of a pass rush. Not only was it the team’s only game without a sack of the season, the 19.1 pressure percentage was tied with the Broncos game for fourth-worst this season. The Patriots blitzed only twice, or 4.3 percent — the lowest rate since the start of the 2010 season.
While the pass rush is a bit of a concern now for the Patriots, they’ve done a 180 in every other area of the defense. That’s good, because the Ravens have changed — mostly for the better. A look at the Ravens:
Jim Caldwell has replaced Cam Cameron (fired) as offensive coordinator and, after some early struggles, he has the Ravens going in the right direction. They’ve averaged 31.6 points and 483 yards in their last three victories (in the season-ending loss to the Bengals, the starters hardly played): over the Giants and playoff wins over the Colts and Broncos. The Ravens have done it by refocusing their offense through running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Baltimore has 116 rushes (549 yards) during its three recent victories, to 93 pass attempts (922 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions). A big key has been a revamped offensive line. The Ravens have moved rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher went to the right side, and veteran Bryant McKinnie has played well at left tackle. The Colts and Broncos got no pass rush against them. The Ravens never will have the most efficient passing game, but Joe Flacco’s 9.9 yards per attempt in the three victories is out of this world. Tom Brady has reached that mark once this season. Flacco is using all of his weapons: Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep, and Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, and Ed Dickson in the middle of the field. Flacco is much better throwing to his right, so expect the Patriots to address that.
This game could come down to how the Ravens combat the Patriots’ no-huddle offense, which New England used the first time around with great efficiency. The older and slower Ravens have played 188 snaps defensively the past two games. Will Baltimore — especially linebacker Ray Lewis, tackle Haloti Ngata, end Terrell Suggs, and safety Ed Reed — have the legs to last? Can the linebackers cover the running backs split out? Against the pass, it looked like the season-ending injury to standout cornerback Lardarius Webb would be a huge blow, but the emergence of Corey Graham — especially against slot receivers — has been big. Chykie Brown comes on as the nickel cornerback on the left side. He and right cornerback Cary Williams have improved as the season has gone along.