The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens battled on a Sunday night in September earlier this season at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD. This Sunday night, they face off in a climate much cooler than the 67 degrees it was at game time last fall. In fact, the weather is not the only difference, as both teams, and especially the Patriots, have made significant changes as the season has progressed. With the Patriots at home in Foxboro, MA, they have a chance to do what they did last year against the same opponent in the same game: advance to the Super Bowl.
The headline move by the Baltimore Ravens late in the regular season was having former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell replace Cam Cameron at Offensive Coordinator. Whether that move is actually paying dividends due to a change in play calling philosophy (the offense seemed to throw deep and run a lot during the the early part of the regular season under Cameron) or if it was it mental, like a wake-up call for the offense is hard to determine after just four games, but the offense has certainly been racking up the yards and points for the Ravens. Most likely, it was timing and the dreaded “accountability”.
What has been most unlikely has been the results of the reshuffled offensive line in Baltimore. The Ravens currently have a lineup of left tackle Bryant McKinnie, right tackle Michael Oher, center Matt Birk, Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and left guard Kelechi Osemele. Before the playoffs began, they lost starting left guard Jah Reid to a toe injury against Cincinnati and were forced to reshuffle. McKinnie, who took a huge pay cut prior to the season and rode the pine most of the regular season, stepped in at left tackle and looked slow, out of shape, and was beaten non-stop versus Cincinnati in the regular season finale. Media darling Michael “the Blind Side” Oher moved to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard from right tackle. Birk and Yanda stayed as is.
The revamped line paid dividends immediately against Indianapolis, as they held the Colts to only one sack by defensive end Robert Mathis (which was surprising). Then, in what can only be considered shocking, they shut down the pair of pass rushers extraordinaire in linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil to one sack combined.
Other than on the offensive line, there were no big changes on the Baltimore squad on offense. On the defense, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had looked like he rushed back from injury too soon and had not been his usual dominant self on defense until last week, is the only defensive starter not on the field in September. In fact, he had been overshadowed by big #99: Paul Kruger, who had nine sacks in regular season and two and a half against Indianapolis to account for his total so far in playoffs. Meanwhile, linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had laid low all season and had only two sacks in eight regular season games, but matched that with two sacks against Denver last week and also forced a fumble.
Moving on to the Patriots, what stood out against the Ravens in September was that their rushing attack was stagnant. No, this was before the team had those injuries up and down the offensive line. They did have their five starters along the offensive line; however, they had running back Danny Woodhead lined up as their primary rusher most of the game. Running back Stevan Ridley only played 26 snaps against the Ravens in their regular season match-up, and running back Danny Woodhead lined up for almost twice as many plays. As a team, the Patriots had 34 carries for 77 yards in the game. In comparison, Denver running back Ronnie Hillman–who is back-up material in comparison to Patriots running back Stevan Ridley–rushed for 83 yards last week against Denver, more than the Patriots had in the first game against Baltimore.
After digging out the game notes from the match-up, here are some other scenarios that stood out, especially in relation the the rematch this week:
- The Patriots inactives players that week show that there are six players who did not play that week who are expected to play key roles for the Patriots in the rematch against the Ravens Sunday night: Inactive players included running back Shane Vereen (foot injury), starting tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle injury), third-down substitute pass rushing defensive end Justin Francis (ankle injury), starting defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick (ankle injury), and starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring injury. Offensive lineman Nick McDonald (shoulder injury) was inactive, but has not played recently nor is expected to play this week.
- TE Kellen Winslow Jr. was active for the Pats that game, as was TE Daniel Fells, who has not played often.
- Seriously, Kellen Winslow Jr. was playing in that game.
- The secondary in the first match-up was: Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington; Safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory;
- Cornerback Kyle Arrington started, yes, as horrible a thought as that is, it is accurate, and, as expected, Arrington was abused by Baltimore’s receivers all night long.
- Cornerback Sterling Moore (released) played at nickel corner for 30+ snaps and was beat on a big gain by Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith in 3rd quarter with safety Patrick Chung (hardly seen anymore) failing to get over and help.
- Remember that the Pats were up 13-0 at the end of the first quarter: Patriots safety Steve Gregory had picked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the first quarter.
- Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemingly spent the entire second quarter jawing at the replacement refs (remember them!). After the game, there was the big deal about Belichick grabbing the replacement referee to try to get an explanation about why they did not review the game winning field goal at the end of regulation.
- Thinking about those replacement referees brings to mind that there was a terrible call on Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo where the officials called a two yard pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter to extend a Ravens drive.
- Both teams had legitimate issues with the officiating that night. It was not favoring the Ravens or the Patriots over the other, but the officiating was consistently horrible.
- According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots and Ravens combined for 13 penalty first downs for that first match-up, which set a NFL record.
- At the end of the game, the Patriots had their chance to run out clock with a 2 point lead at end of game and did not convert the necessary first down and punted the ball back to Baltimore who drove down the field to score the winning field goal.
- Of course, the Ravens were able to get into field goal range on that final drive in the fourth quarter due to a questionable pass interference penalty on Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, and this is after a questionable holding call on the previous drive got the Ravens a cheap first down instead of being in third and 14 inside their own 20 yard line with under seven minutes to play. Replays appeared to show some contact on WR Torrey Smith within the legal 5 yard chuck area by McCourty on that play and no significant contact down field.
- Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd had a big night picking on Ravens cornerback Cary Williams (9 receptions for 108 yards). Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker had a big game as well (8 receptions for 142 yards), and he was covered by Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb most of the night.
- WR Julian Edelman (injured reserve now) and his playing time was big story as he had been splitting snaps with Welker.
- Patriots defensive tackles Marcus Fortson (remember him?) and Ron Brace combined to play 23 snaps on defense–no wonder the Patriots could not stop the running game and gave up 5.1 yards per carry to Ravens RB Ray Rice.
- Finally, the Patriots were in a three-receiver set on 60 of 82 snaps last September against the Ravens, often with Rob Gronkowski at tight end and Danny Woodhead at running back. After that game, the Patriots went away from that set and back to their usual set of two tight ends and two wide receivers.
What does this prove? Mainly that these teams have grown and changed over the course of the season, as one would expect over the course of a season. There may be different players in different positions, but both teams are well coached, play smart on both sides of the ball, and have improved immensely since September. These are two teams that have proven by their play over the course of the season and especially last week that they both belong in their conference’s championship game. Both squads will have analyzed the previous game, but know that executing on both sides of the ball is going to determine the winner on Sunday night.