Commentary

AFC playoff Q&A: Patriots sitting pretty

Tom Brady & Co. face Ravens team that didn't look the part in divisional-round victory

Originally Published: January 15, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- The late Al Davis used to say that, in some years, a team can steal a Super Bowl.

Well, the New England Patriots are in great shape to steal a trip to the Super Bowl. After snapping their three-game playoff losing streak, the Patriots sit in the perfect spot when they host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in Foxborough. The Ravens are coming off an unimpressive 20-13 win over the Houston Texans.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco struggled to complete 50 percent of his passes and was sacked five times. Run-blockers couldn't open holes for Ray Rice and the Ravens' running game, which gained only 87 yards on 31 carries. The defense struggled to contain Texans running back Arian Foster (132 yards on 27 carries) and wide receiver Andre Johnson (111 yards on eight catches). Were it not for four Texans turnovers, Houston might be the team playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

"With Mario Williams and Matt Schaub, it would have been a totally different ballgame," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. That's right. Even though Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates played well at times, he still threw three interceptions that helped pave the way for Baltimore's victory.

"The bottom line is you win or you go home," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said of the title game matchup. "You'll see a totally different team. We're not the Denver Broncos. We're the Baltimore Ravens."

For the Ravens to win, they must clean up several things. If not, the Patriots will be heading to their fifth Super Bowl with Tom Brady at quarterback.

Here are the 10 questions looking ahead to the AFC title game.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
James Lang/US PresswireRavens QB Joe Flacco is under pressure to boost his postseason production.

1. Which player will be under the most scrutiny this week? Flacco, no doubt. As much as I have said for years that Flacco is an elite quarterback, he hasn't been elite in 2011. That was very evident in the victory over the Texans. He completed 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards, but he was trapped in the pocket for five sacks. The play calling was also suspect. The Texans seem to have anticipated the run calls and most of the passing plays didn't fool Houston's defense.

Reacting to his critics, Flacco said this week that he probably wouldn't get credit if the Ravens win the Super Bowl. Such talk brings back the memory of the Ravens winning a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. After Sunday's game, Lewis acknowledged that the Dilfer topic came up in conversations with Flacco this week.

"I told Joe you are not winning or losing games by yourself," Lewis said, reviving words he said to Dilfer during a Super Bowl run in the 2000 season. "Everyone on the outside doesn't matter."

Despite being 5-3 as a playoff quarterback, Flacco is getting the same respect given to Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Most people believe the team wins despite him. Patriots coach Bill Belichick will probably try to rattle Flacco's confidence early.

2. Does home field give a big edge to the Patriots? Possibly. From 1983 to 1993, it was almost automatic in the AFC for the No. 1 seed to make it to the championship game and win. It happened eight times during that 11-year span. Since then, it's been harder for No. 1 teams to survive in the AFC. From 1994 to 2010, the No. 1 seed has made it to the championship round in the AFC only nine times. The record of No. 1 seeds in championship games is 5-4 during that period.

The top-seeded Steelers lost to the Patriots in the 2004 season, with Brady beating Ben Roethlisberger. From 1983-2010, AFC top seeds are 12-5 in championship games. Brady won home championship games in the 2003 and 2007 seasons, beating Indianapolis and San Diego. The confidence of winning Saturday night over the Broncos should exorcise the demons of the Patriots' three previous playoff losses and swing the edge to them.

3. Is there a rivalry between these teams? Lewis says there is. The Patriots have controlled this series. They are 6-0 against the Ravens in the regular season, but 0-1 against them in the playoffs, losing in Foxborough 33-14 in the 2009 wild-card round.

"We've played the Patriots several times and the games always come down to being classic," Lewis said. "Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and there is no better mind in football than Bill Belichick. So with all that's being said, here is our opportunity."

The past three regular-season matchups have been close. In 2007, the Patriots won in Baltimore 27-24. In 2009, the Ravens lost in Foxborough 27-21, and lost in overtime last year 23-20.

"It seems like every time we play them, it's up there [Foxborough]," Lewis said. That's true. Five of their seven meetings, including the playoffs, have been in New England, with the playoff game being the Ravens' lone victory.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIREStopping Rob Gronkowski is a major challenge -- even for a defense as good as the Ravens'.

4. What's the biggest matchup problem of the game? The Ravens must figure out how to cover tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As expected, the Broncos couldn't do it Saturday night. The Patriots' tight end tandem combined for 14 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, Gronkowski and Hernandez were going up against inexperienced safeties David Bruton, who has six NFL starts, and rookie Quinton Carter. At least the Ravens can counter with veteran safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, who have 16 years of combined NFL experience.

"The big thing is making sure you know where they are because they move them around so much," said Pollard, who watched Saturday night's game and noticed how the Patriots used Hernandez in the backfield as a running back in a two-tight end, three-receiver formation.

Pollard knows great tight ends from his days in Kansas City, and knows what a challenge it will be to stop Gronkowski.

"Gronkowski is massive," Pollard said. "He uses his body like a basketball player in getting position. We just have to watch him closely."

5. What's the injury situation? Hernandez suffered a minor head injury Saturday, but he didn't suffer any concussion-like symptoms. He should be fine. The Patriots had 13 players on last week's injury report, but the only one who missed the game was tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has had back and foot problems. Safety Patrick Chung was added to the injury report Friday, but he ended up starting.

The Ravens' only injuries were at linebacker entering Sunday's game, but Jameel McClain (knee) and Brendon Ayanbadejo (thigh) were active and didn't suffer any setbacks, according to head coach John Harbaugh. Safety Ed Reed banged up either his neck or shoulder and came down awkwardly on his ankle toward the end of Sunday's game. He had to be helped off the field, but he is expected to play Sunday.

"I rolled my ankle, pinched it real bad or what not," Reed said. "I was able to walk off at the end. I'll be all right."

6. How will the Ravens' D play the Patriots? Because the Ravens were worried about the run against Houston, they kept their cornerbacks playing off the line of scrimmage and were in a lot of zone. Against the Patriots, they will need to play man-to-man. Because the Patriots lack speed at wide receiver, coverage cornerbacks have been able to slow down the Patriots' passing attack. The Steelers held the Patriots to fewer than 200 yards passing earlier this year by using man. The Ravens and Jets have had success in doing the same against the Pats.

The formula for trying to beat the Patriots is covering the pass-catchers in man and getting defenders around the feet of Brady to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. The Ravens' best cornerback is Cary Williams, but he's been beaten for 55 passes in 110 attempts for 773 yards and four touchdowns (regular season). Lardarius Webb is a developing young cornerback, but he's been beaten for 51 passes in 89 attempts for 638 yards -- but no touchdowns. He had two interceptions against the Texans. The rising star is first-round rookie Jimmy Smith, who has played sparingly and been beaten for 14 receptions and 303 yards and three touchdowns this year.

7. How good are the Patriots' corners? Not very good at all. The Patriots surrendered 293.9 yards a game through the air in the regular season. Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty start, and each has struggled. McCourty went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year, but he's been torched this year. He's been beaten for 66 completions in 110 attempts for 1,115 yards and six touchdowns. There have been times Belichick has even moved him to safety. Arrington has been beaten on 52 of 100 throws for 827 yards and five touchdowns. Antwaun Molden comes off the bench as the third corner, and he's been beaten on 65 percent of the throws against him.

As we saw Sunday, opponents are using their best corner on speedy Ravens rookie receiver Torrey Smith. Whomever Belichick considers to be the best corner will draw Smith, even though veteran Anquan Boldin is the Ravens' best receiver. Boldin didn't draw Texans Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph and instead had Kareem Jackson on him.

"They didn't match me up with Joseph because I was coming off knee surgery," Boldin said.

The question is how many yards Flacco can throw for against the Patriots, considering his struggles this year. In eight of his 17 games this season, including his 176-yard outing against the Texans, he threw for fewer than 200 yards.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
David Butler II/US PresswireTom Brady is playing a like a man determined to make up for previous playoff disappointments.

8. How big a platform is this for Brady? It's huge. He's still stinging from his divisional playoff loss to the Jets last year in Foxborough. He's still stinging from his first-round elimination by the Ravens in 2009. He's still stinging from losing a Super Bowl to Eli Manning and the Giants after the 2007 season. He wants that fourth Super Bowl ring and he can taste it. You can sense extra intensity in his preparation and demeanor on the field. He's now won 15 playoff games and won't settle for anything less than a victory against the Ravens.

9. What is the key to winning a championship game? Lewis said it the best: It's keeping composure in the fourth quarter. He watched the Saints fall apart on defense in the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss to the 49ers.

"In fourth quarters, your fundamentals go out the door," Lewis said. He said you start thinking about a mistake on a previous play or thinking too much about the next play. That's why it helps to have home-field advantage. The home crowd helps a home team recover from mistakes. Being on the road causes problems. Flacco remembers a fumbled snap caused by crowd noise last year because everyone couldn't hear the snap count.

"I've said this a million times," Lewis said. "The hardest thing to do in the NFL is to win on the road. When you make little mistakes, it's hard to fight back from those mistakes and those mistakes become turnovers. It's different, though, in an AFC Championship Game because it's for all the marbles. Everything is on the table."

10. So who wins? I'd give the edge to the Patriots, but I do this with one caveat. The Patriots still give up 411.1 yards a game, and as the Packers found out against the Giants, it's hard to overcome a defense that gives up big plays and scores. Home field should win this for the Patriots, but there are no guarantees.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer