January 19, 2013
Football's Best Grudge Match For AFC Title
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
When the AFL and NFL merged, Oakland and Kansas City games were wars. Paul Brown hated Art Modell so much that he founded a second team and turned the Ohio games into personal battles. The Bears and Packers have battled each other since 1920.
But New England and Baltimore tops them all.
Say what you want about Bill Belichick versus Peyton Manning. Reminisce about the good old days when former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had to mediate one Patriots-Jets squabble after another. You have the phantom roughing the passer call, Darryl Stingley and the Snow Bowl that define the Patriots and the Raiders.
Patriots-Ravens? Oooh. That's as good as it gets in pro football.
The Patriots have a bit more bling than the Ravens. The Ravens used to have rabid fans in Cleveland. Both teams used to play in dilapidated stadiums and have called two municipalities home in their history. Patriot fans think the 1985 Bears had the best one-season defense in league history. Giant fans think the same of the 2000 Ravens.
All that stuff is for the romantics. What really matters is what's on the field, and on the field it is simply the best the sport has to offer.
You have the game's best quarterback and slot receiver matching wits with the game's best middle linebacker and safety. You have head coaches who boast other family members with prominent roles in both college and pro football. Belichick had a two-part documentary made about him, and Michael Holley and David Halberstam wrote books about him, but they made a movie about Michael Oher. The Patriots lead the all-time series, which make the Ravens hate the Patriots with a passion worse than any of their division rivals.
The games are closely contested. Wipe out that blowout Ravens win in the 2009 playoffs and you have two literally evenly matched teams over the last decade. Tom Brady makes a lot of teams look like a JV squad, but not the Ravens. John Harbaugh is one of the few NFL head coaches that can come close to Belichick in game preparation and management. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed should go straight to Canton once they call it a career.
For Lewis, that proverbial trip to Canton will be this Sunday night, if Patriot fans have their way.
The Ravens finished the season poorly, losing four of their last five regular season games. But they have bounced back, putting the clamps on the Indianapolis Colts at home in the Wild Card round, then turned this impending AFC Championship Game into a home date for the Patriots by knocking off top seed Denver last weekend. Now the Ravens seem to be back in a good groove, and now here they come back to Foxborough to avenge last year's title game loss. It's the same two teams from last year, the first time since 1987 that this has happened, and the prospect of another classic tilt awaits.
If raw emotion is left out of the equation, the nine-point spread favoring the Patriots is justified. The Ravens will come into Gillette Stadium on Sunday and be hell bent on putting a good sticking on the Patriots, a team they deeply despise and a team that has received more laud and praise over the years when they believe that they should have been that heralded team. Just the pure hatred the Ravens have for the Patriots will make this a close game, a bitter battle between two teams who have seen a lot of each other over the years, a rugged and brutal war for the right to represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
So, how can the Patriots overcome the Ravens this time? Do the Ravens have enough material to overcome the matchup deficits on raw emotion alone? Or are the Ravens, especially on defense, simply too old to rely on heart more than pure talent?
If the Patriots are to win and advance to their NFL record-tying eighth Super Bowl, here is how they have to do it.
Lewis wants two more games in his career. He alone will try to get his dogs in the house barking, but ironically, he may be the focal point of the Patriot offensive attack. Going back to last week, it was real intriguing to see Shane Vereen beat Houston linebacker Barrett Ruud on a left sideline go route for a touchdown. The trick is for the Patriots to see if they can get Lewis isolated on a running back in coverage, and exploit that matchup. Lewis would be hard pressed to keep up with Vereen, Stevan Ridley or Danny Woodhead. It may be that Harbaugh might design his defense so that Lewis stays home, plays the run tough, and stays in zone coverage on pass plays. But if Lewis can be made to cover the pass, it makes for a nice attack strategy for the Patriots.
Aqib Talib has to have the game of his life, presumably in covering Torrey Smith and preventing the deep passes he caught against Champ Bailey in Denver last week. Now, if Talib is successful in putting the clamps on Smith, the attention then shifts to Anquan Boldin versus presumably Alfonzo Dennard. Joe Flacco might look for this guy underneath, and Dennard might be harder pressed than Talib to come up big. Boldin is much more physical than Smith, and Dennard might have to play him tight and try to match him physically to win those battles. This right here could be the matchup that decides the game, or rather gives Baltimore the best chance to win.
Another Raven to not overlook is tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco loves this guy, and he can be overshadowed when compared to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. But Pitta can get open and make tough catches, just not as well as the Patriot counterparts, but enough to make the game tough on the Patriot defense. The Patriot linebackers are more proficient at run stoppage, and might be able to limit the effect of Ray Rice. This may put the onus on Steve Gregory to contain Pitta if Belichick and Matt Patricia aren't married to strict Cover Two. Rob Ninkovich had an interception last week against Houston, so he may be needed to put pressure on Flacco. Other than that, perhaps Donta Hightower might be the next best option to contain Pitta.
Kickoff coverage has to be airtight and not susceptible to long gains. Jacoby Jones has big play potential. But what has not been brought up much is that Jones had two damaging fumbles last year in the Divisional Playoffs, for the Texans against the Ravens. Jones can cough the ball up just as well as he can take one to the house. Patriot bombardiers have to maintain their lanes, play smartly as well as physically, and if Jones has the ball, for goodness sakes, tackle that ball.
Finally, the one remaining x-factor for the Patriots is the franchise figurehead. Brady is susceptible to bad games against the Ravens. He has to take care of the ball and not make any bad throws or suffer any picks. All he has to do is manage the game, not try and take what isn't given to him, and keep the Patriot offense on the field. The Ravens can put pressure on Brady, and Reed can still be a leopard out there lurking in the tall grass, ready to pounce.
The Patriots might also want to try and not have the game come down to field goals. Justin Tucker beat the Patriots in September with a questionable field goal, while Stephen Gostkowski pulled a Billy Cundiff against the Cardinals a week prior. Tucker probably won't miss a 32-yarder with three seconds left. Will Gostkowski make his? Let's not find out.
It will be, to quote the soccer buffs, "beautiful football" on Sunday night at the Razor. Brutal, yes, but still beautiful.
A Patriot win, and the end of Lewis' career, will be beyond that.
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