Ravens at Pats.
Keys to the Game
Both teams have sentimental reasons for relishing a trip to the hosting city of the Colts for the Super Bowl. Three big profiles will determine the Raven's success on Sunday: Reed, Rice, and Flacco.
X Factor: Reed
Statistically, the Ravens will be the toughest defense the offense has faced this year. While their pass rush has slowed compared to years previous, they may be able to get pressure by rushing only four, allowing linebackers to drop back and an extra CB to press.
Against empty sets, the Ravens may show amoeba-like looks that force Brady to commit to a play call before he gets a read on which receivers are getting the best release. We can assume Ray Lewis will spy while Suggs rushes on many of those snaps, making it more difficult for targets over the middle (Brady's strongest region this season) to hold onto balls or get down the field reliably.
At the end of the equation is Reed. His coverage over the top has been reliably outstanding this year. No opposing quarterback has thrown more than one touchdown against the Ravens all season. Especially in the red zone, Reed makes many conventional patterns risky affairs. Look for the Patriots to score over the ground, perhaps making more use of Hernandez out of the backfield, but also likely throwing to Woodhead at the line.
Y Factor: Rice
It was impressive how well the Patriots ends and Linebackers stayed square in their containment of the Broncos running game. That was essential when defending Tebow, who seemed to get more capable outside the pocket. With Rice the challenge is different: he's smaller, and elusive not through power but by stealth. His ability to pick through the tackles for big gains has carried the Ravens in more than a few wins this season.
I don't expect the Patriots to go all-out to stop Rice out of the backfield. Of course we can assume the Pats will studiously prevent a repeat of the opening play of the last playoff loss to the Ravens, but I expect the Patriots will be more concerned with long plays through the air. Some of those plays may be to Rice, who was their number three target over the air with three receiving touchdowns. Only inside their own 30 will there be a need to clamp down and gamble against play-action to stop Rice though the gaps.
Z Factor: Flacco
If we allow that the Patriots can neutralize Reed and don't overreact to Rice, the fulcrum of their fortunes is Flacco. His strength tends to be game management, with a capable play action and habit of deep passing.
Look for the Patriots to bring selective pressure and keep the Ravens in long-yardage passing situations where Spikes, Chung, and McCourty can cut off patterns. The Ravens may be forced to ask Flacco to gamble and score points in a hurry.
One big spike
Brady should be able to keep the Raven's pass rush at bay by getting the ball out more quickly than we've seen this season, likely making use of unusual TE patterns from the flats to the middle and to Welker outside the hashmarks. Those outside patterns won't be deep, as Brady will studiously avoid Reed's neighborhood.
Both defenses are rightly proud of their quality red-zone defense. Brady will be successful throttling the clock with their signature slow-down no-huddle look. As a result, we shouldn't discount the likelihood of field goals determining the game. Of course one big spike from Gronkowksi would be a nice way to seal off the game.
Posted January 21, 2012.