By Zach Finkelstein
There will be a collision course on the road to Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens take on the New England Patriots in the AFC title game. To be played in Foxboro, Mass., the matchup will feature the conference’s finest, as the top-seeded Pats will welcome the second-seeded Ravens into the unfriendly confines of Gillette Stadium. For the second straight week, a postseason game will pit not just two teams, but two philosophies, against one another. Offensive juggernaut vs. stifling defense. Unstoppable force vs. impenetrable object. The NFL as we know it has changed a great deal in recent years, with points and yards being tallied at unprecedented clips. New England, as we know, has helped lead that charge. But if the Ravens have demonstrated anything, it’s that defense still matters.
Which strength is more likely to crumble with the conference championship on the line? Let’s try to find out by taking a look at the tale of the tape.
Quarterback: Why start with a tempered statement? Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the history of the National Football League. I don’t like this one bit, but you can’t help but gasp at his legendary résumé. After posting his first 5,000-yard season (5,235 with 39 touchdowns, to be precise) and embarrassing the Broncos in AFC divisional round last week, Brady is two triumphs away from joining Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only signal callers to win four Super Bowls. I wouldn’t want to get in his way right now.
The Ravens, by contrast, keep winning in spite of quarterback Joe Flacco. That’s the story, right? Baltimore has been victorious in its last three games – including Sunday’s playoff triumph – with Flacco failing to throw for over 200 yards in any of the contests.
Edge: Patriots. Mediocre passing may have been enough to earn a spot in the AFC title game, but Baltimore is toast if it falls behind the Patriots’ superior passing machine.
Running backs: The Patriots were prolific on offense because of their passing attack, not their running ability. Still, New England’s rushing unit has some weapons. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who led the team with 667 yards and 11 rushing scores, has never fumbled in his four-year career. Talented rookie Stevan Ridley, an explosive back that coughed up the ball during each of the past two games, is also worth mentioning. Neither man is expected to receive many carries against Baltimore, however. After all, tight end Aaron Hernandez (61 yards on five carries) led the ground game in New England’s rout of Denver, while Green-Ellis paced all Pats with 13 carries in the win.
Please note: The Ravens’ prospects of prevailing will be extremely contingent on their ability to run the ball exceptionally well against New England. Baltimore’s offensive bread and butter dropped the proverbial ball against Houston last week, averaging a putrid 2.8 yards per carry for a team that scored three measly points over the final 46 minutes of play. Improvement is certainly possible for the AFC North champs, who employ one of the best running backs in the league in 24-year-old Ray Rice. The Ravens’ fourth-year pro led the NFL with 2,068 total yards in 2011, including 1,364 gained on the ground. In other words, Rice was to thank for 38 percent of Baltimore’s 5,419 yards from scrimmage.
Rushing edge: Ravens. Rice is a 5-foot-8 bowling ball of a back most of the time, and Baltimore won’t be up against the stingiest of run defenses.
Wide receivers and tight ends: Never has the National Football League seen the likes of the two-headed tight end monster that is Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265 lbs.) and Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245). The NFL sophomores are physical specimens and mismatch nightmares. They’re too big to be covered by a safety, and too fast to assign to a linebacker. Gronkowski demolished opponents during the 2011 regular season, compiling 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns – a new record for tight ends. Hernandez was ridiculous, as well, catching 79 balls for 910 yards and seven scores. If this doesn’t have Ravens fans shaking in their purple boots, the thought of Wes Welker will send them into full-blown fear mode. The Patriots’ top wideout led the NFL with 122 receptions for an AFC-best 1,569 yards en route to being named a first team All-Pro. And don’t forget Deion Branch. The Broncos did last week, and it resulted in a 61-yard touchdown reception.
And now for Baltimore’s receiving targets… The aforementioned Rice led the Ravens with 76 receptions for 704 yards and three scores. Anquan Boldin, Baltimore’s top wideout, led the team with 887 receiving yards despite missing the regular season’s final two games because of surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The speedy Torrey Smith recorded seven touchdowns (including five on catches for at least 25 yards) in 2011 to tie the Bengals’ A.J. Green for the most among NFL rookie receivers.
Receiving edge: Patriots. Did you really need me to tell you that?
Defense: By throwing out certain statistics, one could argue that the Patriots’ defense was among the worst in NFL history. The unit, after all, ranked 31st in total yards allowed per game (411.1), surrendering 4,703 through the air (the second-highest total all-time). Ten quarterbacks tallied 300-yard performances (see: Chad Henne, 416 passing yards, Week 1; Dan Orlovsky, 353, Week 13) against the Patriots, who suffered through their fair share of porous performances. When push came to shove, however, the Pats were not as putrid as the above numbers suggest. One must consider that New England’s opponents were often trailing and thus forced to throw the ball in an attempt to play catch up. Additionally, the unit led the AFC with 34 takeaways and ranked in the middle of the pack with a 21.4 points-allowed-per-game average. Injuries were a major pain during the 2011 campaign, as only two defensive players started all 16 regular-season games. Of recent note, New England’s defense stifled Denver in the divisional round and will look to take that momentum into the AFC title game.
The Ravens defense was exceptional during the regular season, allowing the third-fewest points (16.6) and yards (266) per week. Led by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed – among the best to ever play at their respective positions – Baltimore’s D also sports pass rushing savants in linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Reed injured his ankle in the final minutes of the Ravens’ division-round triumph over the Texans, but he is expected to be on the field when the conference crown is on the line.
As good as it has been, Baltimore’s defense did display signs of weakness against the Texans, allowing Arian Foster (132 rushing yards) to become the first player to ever hit the Ravens for triple-digit gains during the playoffs.
Defensive edge: Ravens. But even they will have trouble containing Tom Brady and all of his toys.
Special teams: Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski converted 28 of 33 (84.8 percent) of his field goal attempts during the regular season, and Zoltan Mesko averaged 46.5 yards (41.5 net) per punt (he was only asked to boot the ball 57 times, however). New England’s kickoff returners are Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman, who averaged 10.6 yards in handling punt return responsibilities as well.
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff struggled this season while battling an injured calf, converting 28 of his 37 (75.7 percent) field goal attempts. Sam Koch punted 73 times for an average boot of 46.5 yards (38.6 net). Tom Zbikowski, who boxed during the NFL’s labor lockout, has been one of Baltimore’s kick returners. He is nothing special. Lardarius Webb runs back the punts.
Special teams edge: Even. Neither team was that good in this regard. The Patriots didn’t really have to be, however, seeing that their offense scored at such a prolific clip.