Rob Gronkowski is healthy and ready to take the playoffs by storm as the Patriots begin their playoff journey Saturday evening. (USA TODAY Images)
The New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium Saturday as 4:35 EST.
The Patriots begin their playoff journey, after a strong 2014 campaign and locking up the top seed in the AFC along the way. This is the first meeting between these two teams this season.
After defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday night, Baltimore will travel with a ton of confidence and a been-there-done-that attitude. On the flip side, New England has prepared and rested over the past two weeks, gearing up for this contest.¬†
Here are a few thoughts on the upcoming game.
First Impressions:¬†The¬†Ravens have a top ten offense and defense.¬†With a strong front seven, the Ravens defense can be formidable. That being said, their secondary has been banged up and they lost two of their top three cornerbacks (Aaron Ross and Jimmy Smith) during the year. The team’s pass rushing ability — racking up 49 sacks throughout the year — helped cover up a 23rd ranked pass defense.
Joe Flacco has been terrific in the playoffs. In his last five post-season games, Flacco has put up 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. With Flacco as the signal-caller, he loves to push the ball downfield and throws one of the best deep balls in the league. Playmaking wide receivers, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, will be a tough match-up for the Pats secondary.
Protecting Brady is Biggest Key to Victory:¬†The Ravens¬†have an¬†attacking front seven on defense, making it hard for opposing quarterbacks.¬†Baltimore’s front seven is dangerous with players like¬†Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. There’s no question will give New England‚Äôs shaky offensive line all they can handle.¬†
This is the key match-up for the contest. A big benefit for New England is the starting offensive line had the opportunity to get healthy the past few weeks. If the offensive line can give Tom Brady time in the pocket, Baltimore’s suspect secondary will likely be picked apart. If not, there’s a good chance this will be a dogfight that puts the game in jeopardy.
Pats May Shy Away from Balance, Pass to Win:¬†Even though Baltimore’s pass rush and interior pressure is the biggest concern for the Patriots Sunday, New England should pass to win this week. In part because the Ravens¬†have allowed 88.3 rushing yards-per-game to opposing offenses, fourth-best in the NFL.
With pressure from the Ravens defense inevitable, expect Brady and the offense to do a lot of quick passes, screen plays and up-tempo play calling¬†to slow down the pass rush.
In that same vein, New England may use a spread offensive in this contest. Brady in shotgun, Shane Vereen in the backfield, with the passing options away from the pocket. With the Ravens secondary already depleted by injury, this could put the pressure on Baltimore on the backend of their defense.
Ravens Deep Passing Threats: As aforementioned, Flacco is one of the better downfield passers in the league. Torrey Smith is their biggest threat down the field. Even if he isn’t catching passes, he had more defensive pass interference calls against him than any other player in the NFL.
New England has to eliminate big plays and make the Ravens offense work for everything in Saturday’s contest. So how do the Patriots corner backs align against Baltimore’s receivers? This will be one of the most intriguing and important elements of the game.
At first glance, Darrelle Revis might be the better option for Steve Smith, because he could play on the outside or inside and led his team in receptions throughout the season. Although that would put Brandon Browner on Torrey Smith, which could put some penalties against the Pats and give the Ravens cheap yardage.
Revis should shadow Torrey Smith, who’s¬†the more dangerous weapon at this stage of he (and Steve Smith’s) careers at this juncture. When Steve Smith goes inside, put Kyle Arrington on him in the slot and let Browner stick to the sidelines when he can put his hands on his opponent more effectively.
You can make arguments for both sides, but however Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia decide to defend these receivers Saturday will be a big discussion point next week.
Final Thoughts: This will be an exciting game. These two teams have a history and there’s some bad blood between a few of the players…cough…Suggs and Brady… cough. While some New England fans fear Baltimore, which is understandable, the Patriots have no excuses and seem ready for post-season play.
The Pats are the better overall team, are playing at home and had time off to get healthy. While Baltimore won’t go easy, expect the Patriots to hold off the Ravens front seven long enough for Brady to march down the field and put pressure on the Ravens early. New England’s defense took a step forward this season and this could be the week they make a statement to the rest of the league.
Prediction:¬†Patriots 27, Ravens¬†20
Do¬†you have a Twitter account?¬†Be sure to follow me:¬†@PatriotsHaven!
Listen to our ‚ÄúPatriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast‚ÄĚ on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†PatsFans.com¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.