People are going to be analyzing this rematch to death this week, so I might as well get my voice heard too! Every time the Patriots and Ravens play, its a battle fought hard to the very last second. There are a few major differences to consider between the last time these two teams played each other back in September.
Patriots now have CB Aqib Talib
The addition of Talib cannot be overstated. He is a big presence that can take on opponent’s best receivers and keep them in check. He also allows Devon McCourty to play safety, where he’s found his true position. While playing safety, he holds opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 10.2 when they throw towards him. That number is absolutely astounding and shows he should be considered elite (see our own Joe Soriano argue in his favor, here). As for Talib, his tackling skills are invaluable and his presence makes the whole defense play better as a cohesive unit. When the Patriots lost to the Ravens in week 3 Talib was still playing for the Buccaneers. Look for Talib to keep Torrey Smith in check this Sunday. When the Patriots lost in week 3, their defense allowed over 500 yards and the Ravens averaged 7.7 yards per play.
Patriots Improved Running Game
The Patriots have shown this year that they can run the ball as well as almost any team out there. Their advantage is they don’t just have one RB that will give defenses headaches, they have 4. Stevan Ridley was the main back most of the season but Danny Woodhead plays a key roll on 3rd down, Shane Vereen had a monster game against the Texans scoring 3 TDs, and even Brandon Bolden was an impact runner before his suspension. He hasn’t seen much of a roll yet, but there is plenty of depth at the position, and the ability to run the football effectively gives the Patriots offense more control of games. They can manage the clock more effectively and take some of the pressure off of Tom Brady. When these two teams met in week 3, the Patriots run game was nowhere close to being where it is today. They were only able to account for 77 yards on the ground between Ridley and Woodhead, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. If the Patriots want to win this game the running backs will need to play much better, a task made more difficult by the return of Ray Lewis.
Ravens lost CB Lardarius Webb
Widely underrated, Lardarius Webb should be considered one of the top CBs in the league. Webb is definitely the best CB on the Ravens and even picked off Brady in last year’s AFC championship game. He was moved to IR after tearing his ACL during the week 6 game against the Cowboys. While Webb was still on the field in week 3, Brady avoided throwing to him as much as possible and instead picked on CB Cary Williams. The Ravens still have plenty of defenders to make Brady hesitate, mainly Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but the loss of Webb will allow Brady more throwing options.
Patriots lost TE Rob Gronkowski
Every Patriots fan already knows that Gronk re-broke his left forearm early in the divisional game this weekend and will miss the rest of the post-season. When the Patriots played the Ravens on week 3, Gronk was still in the lineup but Hernandez was out. Despite being in the game, Gronk only had 2 receptions for 21 yards, so was basically a non-factor. The loss of him for the playoffs is big, but the Patriots already played without him for a large part of the season, and are fully equipped to win without him.
No More Replacement Refs!
As someone that was at the game, nothing compares to hearing 71k fans chanting “BULLS**T!” at the top of their voices over the blunders of the replacement refs. Fans of both New England and Baltimore were frustrated as every play seemed to end with a penalty. No one cared who the penalty was against, we all just wanted the game to continue. During this game, New England had 10 penalties costing them 83 yards, Baltimore had 14 for 135. A total of 218 yards in penalties in only one game is insane. Needless to say, both teams will benefit from having the real referees back even though they aren’t perfect. One final thing to note: the controversial field goal at the last second of the game was not a blunder by the replacement refs. They called it as the rules state, if it goes over the post, its in and not review-able. Now, from a Patriots fan’s standpoint that was literally sitting two rows behind that very upright and saw the ball sail over my head, the field goal was not good. Even the Ravens fans around me were silent while the rest of the stadium erupted. People looked around in shock and wonder, asking their neighbor “…was it good?” Regardless of the answer, the refs were not at fault.