The New England Patriots, 12-4 and top seed in the American Football Conference, enjoyed their bye week, but now their playoff opener turns out to be more troublesome than they may have expected.
The Baltimore Ravens, 10-6, just two years removed from a Super Bowl championship, are peaking again, led by the most vigorous pass rush of any postseason team.
Saturday afternoon in Foxborough could be a painful one for Tom Brady and the Patriots, even though they’re 7-point favorites. The Ravens have won two of their past three postseason games against the Patriots, and all were in Foxborough. The Ravens are confident of winning there, and they’re built for bad weather, as the Patriots are.
The Super Bowl champs of the 2012 season are playing now much like they did then: Joe Flacco calmly quarterbacking a low-turnover, ball-control offense that also strikes deep to Torrey Smith, who has 11 touchdowns this season.
On defense, Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs does not have quite as much sizzle at 32 as he did two years ago. But he’s still one of the more persistent pass rushers in the NFL. He had 12 sacks this season, while Elvis Dumervil, outside linebacker on the other side, had 17.
One of the most reliable Patriots analysts is their former linebacker and captain Tedy Bruschi, who now works for ESPN (“Bruschi on Tap”) in Boston. “The pressure will be one of the main concerns of the Patriots offense,” he said. “It’s an attack from the outside with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, with Haloti Ngata pushing the pocket.”
Ngata, one of the NFL’s biggest (6-4, 330 lbs.), most destructive nose tackles, missed the final four games of the regular season with a PED suspension, but he’s back for the playoffs, rested and at peak performance. He had a sack and a pass knockdown in Baltimore’s 30-17 Wild Card upset of Pittsburgh. The Ravens in that game sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times.
Bruschi noted that the “Patriots OTs have struggled at times protecting, while we’re well aware of the interior problems they’ve had. This will be a very tough game for New England.”
The key to stopping most quarterbacks, including even the best ones such as Brady, is to pressure them constantly, forcing them to throw off balance or sooner than they want. Brady rivals Peyton Manning for his ability to analyze the defense quickly and release his pass before the defenders can tackle him, but they still can alter his throws.
Even though tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have been average pass protectors and guard Ryan Wendell is less than average, Brady has been sacked only 21 times in 582 attempts.
But while he’s rarely sacked, Brady for the past several years has ranked below the league norm at passing efficiency when pressured. If the Ravens can apply steady heat, they can force interceptions or some three-and-outs.
Flacco could have his own protection issues, as both his starting tackles, Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner, are injured. Flacco was sharp against Pittsburgh, which has a subpar pass rush. New England’s rush is stronger than Pittsburgh’s, but it’s not equal to Baltimore’s. The Patriots’ defense had 40 sacks this season, to 49 for the Ravens.
Both teams run the ball well and defend the run, so the quarterback who throws best is likely to win. If he gets the time he needs, Brady should be able to dissect a Baltimore secondary that lost its best corner, Jimmy Smith.
But if the Ravens harass Brady, get him frustrated and angry with his offensive line, the visitors could pull the upset, or at least keep the game very close, because that’s how they match up.