Commentary

New England has matchup edge

Must respect Ravens' mental toughness, intangibles, but X's & O's go to Patriots

Updated: January 15, 2013, 12:24 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag set a record for most questions submitted, which highlights the excitement that surrounds the team. Outside of some special-teams breakdowns, Sunday's victory over the Texans was a solid effort and sets up a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Many of us thought that it would be a "Brady versus Manning" week, but the Ravens -- with some help from Peyton Manning, John Fox and Rahim Moore -- flipped the script.

How will the Patriots overcome the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski? In a matchup of two big, hard-hitting, physical teams, who wins the battle at the line of scrimmage? Will linebacker Ray Lewis' final game be at Gillette Stadium? Can the Ravens avenge last year's heartbreaking loss in the AFC title game? Those are a few of the questions that came to mind when thinking about Sunday's matchup. The Patriots lost to the Ravens 31-30 on Sept. 23, and while the teams are different now, a lot of the personnel is the same.

Let's get into the questions.

Q. Can we stop the vertical passing attack of the Ravens? I think we have a chance to stop Ray Rice, but not sure we can get any pressure on Joe Flacco or cover the Ravens receivers. Can Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, and Co. get the job done? -- Andy (The Berkshires, Mass.)

A. Andy, I think they are much more equipped to limit the vertical passing game than they were in Week 3. The key is Talib, and how his acquisition had a trickle-down effect to move McCourty to safety. I think those two moves, coupled with rookie Alfonzo Dennard's emergence, has solidified the secondary. Consider these numbers from ESPN's Stats & Information: In the first nine games of the season before the Talib trade, the Patriots gave up 47 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and 15 pass plays of 30 yards or more. In the eight games after the Talib trade (the final two of which he only played eight snaps total), the Patriots gave up 32 pass plays of 20 yards or more and eight pass plays of 30 yards or more.

Q. Mike, have to start off with the punch in the gut about Gronk -- feel so bad for him -- and also with big time kudos for Shane Vereen. Been waiting for this type of performance for so long, he's been patient and a team player, so it's awesome he is now a contributor. OK, so about them Ravens … please tell me I am mistaken, but how are the Patriots going to stop their offense? If they send Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep, the middle is open for Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin. If we go nickel, Ray Rice will run wild. If we go base, we'll see a lot of the 49ers trickery confusing the safeties. I say we just have to outscore them in a high scoring affair. What say you? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)

A. Grand, Vereen's emergence on Sunday was impressive to me because it reflected his professionalism, as he wasn't expected to be such a big part of the plan but was called upon after Danny Woodhead hurt his thumb on the first snap. It's sort of like the backup quarterback -- you prepare each week just in case but you often don't have any tangible on-field reward for that approach. It can be mentally challenging. Anyone that has watched Vereen in practice knew he had it in him, but he was also in a logjam behind some other good backs. So to me, the praise he's receiving is well-deserved. As for the Ravens' offense, I think the two areas I'd target are Ray Rice and protecting against the big play in the vertical passing game. In terms of defensive groupings, it was almost an even split for the Patriots on Sept. 23 between base and sub. That will be dictated by what personnel the Ravens put out on the field. In the end, the Ravens will make some plays, but as it often happens, a turnover could be a big deciding factor.

Q. Hi Mike, I see the Ravens matchup as more worrisome than other teams despite the shared knowledge/experience of these two teams. The Ravens are playing at a high level, they are strong, tough, level-headed and mentally and emotionally empowered by performance, confidence, Joe Flacco's success and Ray Lewis' imminent departure. Your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A. Jake, I don't think anyone can question the Ravens' mental and physical toughness. They have a lot of experienced players and know what it's like to play in these big games. They won't be overwhelmed by the moment. But on the pure football side, I like the Patriots in terms of having more matchup advantages. It should be a hard-hitting game in which every possession counts.

Q. Hey Mike, as I was watching the end of the Ravens win on Saturday, I made the comparison that they are a lot like the 2006 Patriots. That team went into San Diego and escaped with a tough, physical playoff win that they arguably didn't deserve. They went into Indy the next week riding the emotion, but seemed to run out of gas in the second half and blew a big lead. Baltimore went into Denver and escaped with a tough, extended physical win. Do you see the same similarities I do, and do you think they could run out of gas on Sunday? -- Hal (Providence, R.I.)

A. Hal, I hadn't thought of that comparison, but I can see it. The one thing I'd say is that from a Patriots perspective you can't count on them to run out of gas. They are the type of team that has the toughness, so that even when the needle on the fuel gauge is closer to "E," you still have to knock them out. That's one of their most admirable traits from this view. Much like the Patriots.

Q. Mike, what's your take on Gronkowski playing and re-injuring his arm in the Texans game? We all saw him blocking with one arm a couple of weeks ago, and this week he re-broke it with ridiculous ease. Clearly his arm was not ready for contact and he should not have been cleared to play? -- Dave (Birmingham, England)

A. Dave, Gronkowski never looked comfortable. My feeling entering the game was that it was more of a mental thing for him than a physical thing for him because I don't believe the team doctors would put him at risk. One explanation is that it took a perfect storm for this to happen and it's just an unfortunate break. Another explanation is that he shouldn't have been medically cleared in the first place and was put at risk. It's natural to question it. I just don't have enough information to say one way or the other, and don't feel comfortable going there.

Q. Mike, do you think the Gronkowski injury will ultimately cost this team a Super Bowl? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, it's a blow, there's no question about it. As Aaron Hernandez said, Gronkowski is a "freak of nature." But they were 4-1 without him in the regular season and I think they can win two games without him. I wouldn't call this a deal-breaker.

Q. Hey Mike, looking forward to a great AFC Championship sequel. I'm flying in from California for the game this weekend; any tips on what to expect/can't miss Pats festivities? -- Daniel (Monterey, Calif.)

A. Daniel, it's early in the week, but when I learn of anything I'll be sure to post it on our Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com. Safe travels.

Q. Hey Mike, a bit premature, I know, and this goes completely against the Patriot philosophy of taking games one at a time, but is there a Super Bowl matchup that would be better for the Pats if they make it that far? I'm thinking we'd fare better against Atlanta, but I'd like another shot at San Fran. Thoughts or reasons as to why one might be better? -- Mike (Providence, R.I.)

A. Mike, I view the 49ers as the tougher matchup for the Patriots. But I do think the experience of having played them Dec. 16 would really help them because of San Francisco's somewhat unique style of play. I think the 49ers' approach is something that you almost have to see once to understand what it's like to face it, almost like the Wildcat was in 2008 for New England.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley and Shane Vereen
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaMike Reiss expects to see a lot of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Q. Why was Woodhead going to be one of the main pieces of the game plan vs. the Texans? It sends alarm bells ringing in my head to hear that -- isn't that an example of Josh McDaniels overthinking things akin to getting too fancy earlier this year? Seeing Woody get stuffed on the 1st drive and then not seeing Stevan Ridley until the third drive makes me wonder what on earth were they thinking? I love Woody but scattered here and there. I was expecting Ridley to be heavily featured and sure enough he was a spark on their first TD drive? Do you think Ridley and Vereen will be bigger pieces vs. Ravens? -- Mark (Tempe, Ariz.)

A. Mark, I think the idea was that the Patriots wanted to start fast and planned to throw it early, and thus they wanted their best pass-protecting and pass-catching back on the field. That's Woodhead. We saw something similar in the Sept. 23 game against the Ravens when Woodhead played 51 of 82 snaps. With Woodhead's availability/effectiveness in question this week with a thumb injury, I think it sets up a scenario in which we could see more of Ridley and Vereen on Sunday against the Ravens.

Q. Watching Sunday's game you got the feeling that the New England's up-tempo offense was too much for Houston especially in the red zone. Specifically on Vereen's touchdown reception in the second quarter and Brandon Lloyd's TD in the third it seemed like Houston was either not set or lost. Whether that game plan will have the same effect on the Baltimore Ravens remains to be seen. As inspired as the Baltimore Ravens' defense has been as of late, they are coming into Foxborough having played 174 snaps this postseason, including 87 in Denver. You have to wonder when fatigue will catch up with them. I would like to see the Patriots constantly keep up tempo on offense. In addition, it wouldn't be a terrible idea to add on to the wrinkles from last week like splitting Vereen out wide to keep them off balance. Thoughts? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I agree all with that. The up-tempo offense was a big part of the Patriots' success, and I thought it was interesting to listen to Tom Brady on sports radio WEEI talking about the suddenness with which the Patriots spring it on opponents. The key, Brady said, is just getting into drives and settling into a rhythm and then turning to the up-tempo approach. There were times when the Texans weren't even set on Sunday when the ball was snapped, and when we spin it forward to how that could work against the Ravens, Baltimore has some age in key spots on defense and could struggle to keep up in a track meet. That's also how the Patriots approached the Sept. 23 game against them.

Q. Mike, I am excited to see Brian Daboll back to help with the team. I thought he was a rising star in Cleveland and Miami. I was also very surprised by the move as I thought there was a reason or story behind him leaving. I also recall that the way he left didn't sit well with Bill? Do you think this opens the door for others like Scott Pioli, Romeo Crennel or even Eric Mangini? -- Dan (Westerly, R.I.)

A. Dan, when Daboll left the Patriots, it was for a position that offered more upward mobility in his career. That was a position the Patriots couldn't offer him, or didn't want to offer him. In most cases, I don't think the team holds a grudge against someone when they leave for a higher position elsewhere that isn't available for them in New England. Obviously, there was some disappointment with the whole Mangini/Jets angle at the time, and one can understand if Belichick didn't like the idea that Mangini was recruiting members of his staff to go to a rival, especially if there was a feeling that the recruitment was happening while the Patriots were still playing (not confirmed, but my sense of the situation). In the end, that's more on Mangini than Daboll, who has maintained a close friendship with McDaniels through it all. Maybe it's helped, too, that some time has passed. My feeling on others returning has been that it's highly unlikely for Mangini, while everything else would be in play if the right things fell into place.

Q. Mike, I find it very interesting that Daboll is coming to the Patriots coaching staff this late into the season. I know they added McDaniels late last year but that was because Bill O'Brien was leaving to go to Penn State. What specific coaching position do you feel Daboll will perform next year? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeDaboll
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliMike Reiss isn't buying the conspiracy theories as to why the Patriots hired Brian Daboll. He thinks it's as simple as bringing in a guy who was available and familiar with the Patriots system that could help out.
A. David, I don't know the contract status of the Patriots' assistant coaches, but the areas I'd focus on based on Daboll's history are receivers (Chad O'Shea) and tight ends (George Godsey). It's a lot of speculation, but we know Godsey came here through the O'Brien connection, and O'Brien is now at Penn State. We also know O'Shea was hired in 2009 when McDaniels was in Denver as head coach. I know some have speculated that Daboll's arrival could be tied to McDaniels insurance and the idea that perhaps McDaniels lands a head-coaching job in the future. Perhaps there is something to that, but I don't think that's the main reason Daboll is back. I think he's a close friend of McDaniels and a good, high-energy, passionate coach. It's that simple.

Q. Hey Mike, with the Patriots bringing back Daboll, do you think this may be a setup for when Belichick retires? Obviously McDaniels is the front runner to succeed BB, so giving Daboll a year or two to work with McDaniels would give McDaniels his next offensive coordinator and an easier transition for. -- Ed

A. I don't see it, Ed. To me, this is just like a player acquisition. Daboll's knowledge of the system and how things work here provides value, and he's a close friend of McDaniels. He's available now and you're probably factoring in some changes at the position-coaching level in 2013, so why not make the move? Maybe I'm naive, and I'll be the first to hold myself accountable if I'm wrong, but I'm just not reading anything into this.

Q. Mike, how many teams can change their game plan on the fly after losing two key offensive players at the beginning of the game? It was the preparation of Belichick and the outstanding game management of Brady. Locally, they get deserved credit but nationally, it seems begrudgingly accepted. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, I haven't measured how much credit has been handed out, but I agree with your thoughts that the Patriots' ability to adjust like they did after losing Woodhead (first snap) and Gronkowski (seventh snap) was impressive. I take it one step further: It's not just preparation during the week, it's about the entire program and how it's built over the course of the year. Belichick believes in the complete team, from players 1-53 on the roster, and because of that this roster is layered with some solid depth in areas like tight end and running back. On other teams, when injuries like that strike, there would be a greater drop-off.

Q. Mike, I watched about a dozen replays of Vereen's long TD catch on Sunday. It looks like he is well-covered until the last possible instant -- well after the ball was thrown his way. Is this just a matchup that Brady noticed pre-snap and decided to exploit no matter what, or did he see something as Vereen exploded off the line? Is it possible that this was a bad decision that turned into gold? -- Chris

A. Chris, I heard Brady talking about the play on sports radio WEEI on Monday, and Vereen against a linebacker is something he liked. It was similar to the interception he threw in Jacksonville on Dec. 23 -- Ridley with a linebacker covering him, and it all highlights how the Patriots have their backs as an integral part of the passing game. That was a beautiful throw by Brady. Just textbook. We're watching one of the all-time greats.

Q. Hey Mike. Just wanted to touch upon the running backs and their blitz pickups. Thought they looked very decisive and strong, reminded me of reliable No. 33 (Kevin Faulk). Great to see, especially with their pass-catching abilities. Thoughts? -- Tyler (Boston)

A. Tyler, my thoughts are that if you go to the scouting manual in New England and flip the page to running backs, the ability to pass protect is one of the first items on the list. I think the Patriots probably value that out of their backs as much as any team in the NFL. That brings us back to Vereen, whom some viewed as a little bit of a reach in the second round of the 2011 draft. But he wasn't viewed as a reach by the Patriots because his ability to protect in Cal's pro-style offense, coupled with his pass-catching and running skills, made him one of the draft's most complete backs in the eyes of the Patriots.

Q. On the Rob Ninkovich interception, do you think the coaching staff took advantage of a tendency of Matt Schaub's or was that a fortunate play? I don't recall the Patriots dropping rushers into coverage very often; it is a staple for other teams like Pittsburgh but not New England. -- Sean (Milton, Mass.)

A. I thought colleague Field Yates had a nice breakdown of the play, Sean, and I'm going to include his analysis here. My thought is that it was a nice, creative call by the coaching staff, and my interpretation is that it did fool Schaub. That was too tight a window to force that throw if he did indeed see Ninkovich.

"There's a term called "fire-zone" that is used to describe a blitz that features zone coverage behind it, rather than the more common man-to-man coverage. The blitz is a disguised one, with a defense sending unidentifiable rushers at the snap. That's what the Patriots had called on Rob Ninkovich's third-quarter interception, as at the snap it looked like he was part of a five-man pressure that also included Jerod Mayo. When the ball was snapped, however, Ninkovich dropped into the middle of the field, with safety Tavon Wilson coming from the defense's left (he was the unidentified rusher). Before the snap, Schaub likely saw that two receivers to his right, James Casey and Owen Daniels, were being covered by just one person, which is why he looked that way on the play. Ninkovich made an athletic play to go up and snag the football, forcing the lone turnover of the game."

Q. Mike, I'm pretty pumped about how our defense is looking. If it weren't for playing "prevent defense" for 25 percent of each game, this group would get a lot more recognition! I'm wondering what your thoughts are on Dennard's play this weekend. We're talking a lot about Talib and his matchup against Johnson, but I can't remember hearing Kevin Walter's name called all day. That must mean that Dennard did a pretty good job against their No. 2. What do you think about the matchup against Boldin this week? -- David (Phoenix, Ariz.)

A. David, I thought the cornerback play was solid. My biggest takeaway is that the Patriots had their best defensive backfield configuration -- Talib/Dennard at cornerback and Devin McCourty/Steve Gregory at safety. If we look back at the Sept. 23 game between the Patriots and Ravens, three of the four spots had different players -- McCourty/Kyle Arrington at cornerback and Patrick Chung/Gregory at safety. There are some challenges with the matchup against Boldin this week, but I think this is the secondary you want intact to defend it.

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Which would have been the tougher matchup for the Pats in the AFC title game?

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Q. Mike, the Pats will have played the Texans and the Ravens, teams that finished the season a combined 3-7. Not exactly peaking for the playoffs. The Texans lose and we get home field Week 1 and the Broncos lose and we get home field Week 2. I am predicting a Falcons upset and we get the hat trick. I think you need luck to win a Super Bowl and there is no denying this team has gotten some phenomenal breaks this postseason. Agreed? -- Joel (South Burlington, Vt.)

A. Joel, I think it's tough when you have to rely on others to help, but the Patriots have been the beneficiary of some breaks this postseason to be able to play at home throughout and get that bye. My only quibble is that I'm not sure how much the 3-7 record has to do with anything. These are the top teams in the conference and you have to ultimately beat them to get where you want to go. Based on what we saw from the Broncos, some might argue the Patriots at home against the Ravens is a tougher matchup than going on the road to Denver.

Q. How impressive is what the Patriots have accomplished this year when considering they didn't get anything out of their top free-agent signing, Jonathan Fanene? They are getting a lot out of 2010 seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick and former rookie free agent Kyle Love. -- Matt (Clarksburg, Md.)

A. Matt, this is an area in which the Patriots are probably a bit thinner than desired. They have Vince Wilfork, then Deaderick and Love. If there was an injury there, the drop-off looks like it would be significant and that's where not hitting on Fanene could have hurt them. But Deaderick, in particular, has had a solid season.

Q. Mike: Simple question: Where did Brandon Bolden go on Sunday? I don't recall hearing his name called once. -- Justin (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A. Justin, Bolden solely played on special teams. He wasn't on offense. To me, there is a simple message here: Don't get suspended. Just as we've seen with defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, these players had carved out a niche for themselves but the late-season suspensions opened the door for others to assume those roles. And that's essentially what has happened.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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