Welcome to Season 3, Episode 17 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday afternoon. The Patriots, who finished the regular season 12-4 and earned the top seed in the AFC, begin the postseason portion of their quest for a fourth Super Bowl title Saturday night when they host the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are one of a minimal number of teams to have playoff success in multiple seasons against the Patriots. Conversely — and this point hasn’t been made enough this week — the Patriots are 6-3 against Baltimore in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, including a 41-7 victory in Week 16 last year that essentially ended the Ravens playoff hopes. Kick it off, Gostkowski — and maybe keep it away from Jacoby Jones — and let’s get this thing started already …
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I’LL BE WATCHING
Nate Solder: Make no mistake: The 2014 Patriots are the superior football team to the 2014 Ravens. But the Ravens are tough and confident and do have some matchups that tilt in their favor — and should they end up in their favor during the game, could tilt the outcome. The biggest concern in that regard? How the offensive line will fare against a tough and stout Ravens defensive line that includes explosive pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Brandon Williams. The Patriots’ line coalesced after a slow start, but it struggled more than expected as the regular season wound down, and Tom Brady took some lumps. Solder, the left tackle who is charged with preventing Suggs from spindling and mutilating Brady from the blind side, has been particularly erratic. He says he’s ready to go Saturday, and if the line finds that midseason form, the Patriots will win going away? If not? Well, it’s the only way the Ravens will actually have the chance they already think they have.
The Smiths: The common speculation on how the Patriots will deal with Ravens receivers Steve and Torrey Smith suggests that Darrelle Revis will deal with the feisty former while Brandon Browner, with safety help, will cover the latter. I don’t know. Torrey Smith is a deep threat with a knack for drawing penalty flags — exactly the kind of receiver with whom the hard-hitting Browner tends to have trouble. It would not surprise me at all to see Revis matched up with Torrey Smith — taking away the deep ball and Joe Flacco favorite broken play, the ol’ heave-it-up-and-hope-for-a-flag. Kyle Arrington, a skilled slot corner, could handle Steve Smith at times, with Browner also taking a turn or covering tight end Owen Daniels. Perhaps I’m wrong, but Torrey Smith seems a bigger threat at the moment — and thus someone who should be Revis’s responsibility.
Gronk: The Patriots’ all-world tight end and Friend of Goon has had seven games this season in which he was targeted in double figures, with a high of 12 in the Nov. 30 loss to the Packers. I hope — demand — that he surpasses that number Saturday night. Sure, the Patriots will require some semblance of balance in their offense. Optimistically, Josh McDaniels won’t treat this game, deliberately or subconsciously, as a look-how-big-my-playbook-is audition and will pay more than cursory attention to the running game. Shane Vereen seems a popular pick to click in the passing game this week, and Julian Edelman is essential. But Gronk is one of the most dynamic and dangerous offensive players in the league — right, like you needed to be told — and the Ravens apparently intend to cover him with someone named Will Hill. Get him the football, and move on.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Let’s make this clear, if I haven’t elsewhere this week. The Ravens are worthy of respect. John Harbaugh is a terrific coach, to the point that I wonder whether Belichick regrets giving him an unsolicited recommendation when he was up for the Ravens job in 2008. Flacco is hardly flashy or charismatic, but he has a great arm and he’s compiling quite a list of outstanding postseason performances. The front seven of the defense is tough. And the Ravens just dismantled a Steelers team that was presumably no pushover. There’s a lot to respect here. But good heavens, man, I have never dealt with an opposing fanbase that is more thin-skinned, delusional, and entitled than Ravens fans. (Here’s a sampling.) Back in September, I wrote that Ray Lewis is horrible on television. You know why? Because Ray Lewis is really, really horrible on television. Superb linebacker in his day. Rumored to be excellent at hiding suits. Horrible on television. And I’m still hearing from Ravens fans about this, all these weeks later. It’s incredible. I’d suggest the Patriots can’t lose to these guys Saturday because we’ll never hear the end of it. But the reality is they can cream them and Ravens fans will believe they got jobbed, cheated, or simply will revert back to the last time they beat the Patriots and ignore any disappointment that came after. We’re never hearing the end of it anyway, in other words. How bad are Ravens fans? They make me miss the good ol’ days of listening the smug bleatings from Yankees fans from, say, September 1978 until October 20, 2004.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD Despite the Aveion Cason-sized holes in the Ravens’ defensive backfield, there’s no truth to the rumor Starks is starting at cornerback for the Ravens today. If only there were no truth to the truth that he started six games for the 2005 Patriots.
PREDICTION, OR RAY LEWIS ISN’T WALKING THROUGH THAT DOOR, AND IF HE DID, HE’D BE OLD, DANCING LIKE A TAZED FOOL, AND MAKING ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE, LET THERE BE LIGHT:
Talk about how they’ll lose this game. Here’s how they win it. The line does its job … and if it springs a few leaks, Brady plays with the poise and, hell, defiance that he showed against the Bengals in Week 5 and right on through the supposed gauntlet in the middle of the schedule. He may need to take some hits to make big plays. I have no doubt he is up for the challenge, especially with the despicable Terrell Suggs yelling at him about Uggs all damn day. But if he is not up to the challenge … well, we’ve said it all year. The Patriots finally have a defense that can win a game when the offense isn’t putting up points at its usual clip. Maybe — maybe — that day is today. But no matter the method, the result will remain the same. The Patriots will host the AFC Championship Game next week — and call this two predictions for the price of one, but it will come against Andrew Luck and the Colts. Patriots 30, Ravens 13