After all the hype surrounding Sunday’s AFC championship rematch with the Patriots, it’s time to take a look at what the Ravens are up against.
As of Friday, New England remained an eight-point favorite. That seems fair considering the Pats averaged nearly 20 more yards and five more points than any other team in the league during the regular season and rolled up 41 points on the Texans, owners of one of the NFL’s top defenses, in a divisional playoff win.
New England ranked first in the NFL with 427.9 yards and 34.8 points per game - totals that might seem scary to any defense. Safety Bernard Pollard doesn’t think so.
“There’s no intimidation. You have two good teams going against each other,” he said. “One thing I say to any football player who is intimidated - you’re a coward and a punk. This is a man’s game. This is what it is. I am going to call it how I see it. You don’t fear no man or no team. We’re going to go in there with our heads high and ready to play.
“We understand what kind of team we are facing. This is a very experienced team that has been there before,” Pollard continued, citing that the Pats are 5-1 in conference title games under coach Bill Belichick. “I saw that this morning. But that does not scare us. We’re going to go out, and we want to outhit you and outplay you and we want to go to the Super Bowl.”
Perhaps quelling any intimidation is the fact that the Ravens have played the Patriots very close, especially recently. Baltimore beat New England 31-30 in Week 3 this season and fell 23-20 in last year’s memorable AFC championship.
But here’s some stats that should impress:
* The Patriots haven’t been held under 300 yards in 17 games this season, including the playoffs.
* New England has topped 400 yards in 10 of 17 games.
* The Patriots have scored at least 40 points six times, twice surpassing 50.
* Quarterback Tom Brady has been held under 200 passing yards once all year.
* New England has rushed for at least 100 yards in 13 of 17 contests.
Cornerback Corey Graham explained what he believes the Patriots do to confuse opposing defenses.
“They switch it up,” Graham said. “When they make plays, they hurry up to the line, and they speed the game up on guys. If you’re not ready, if you’re not prepared for it, it will catch you off-guard. They have been catching a lot of guys off-guard, a lot of guys not set up and prepared for the play. They have been making a lot of nice plays like that.
“You just have to make sure that you are set. You have to make sure that you are set up as soon as they are set up and make sure you are prepared for the play and don’t get caught off-guard.”
Brady is the catalyst. In another terrific Pro Bowl season, he ranked fourth in the league with 4,827 passing yards and 34 touchdown passes while his eight interceptions were the fewest among 16-game starters. It was Brady’s fifth career 4,000-yard season.
In the divisional round, he completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
The Ravens have had recent success against Brady, however. Over the three games against the Ravens before performing well in a Sept. 23 loss at Baltimore, Brady was held to 685 passing yards and three touchdowns while being intercepted seven times.
Pollard hopes to see more of the same.
“We have to go out there and play hard, and that’s with any quarterback that we play,” he said. “Tom is probably one of the best, with guys like Aaron Rodgers. They are all really good. With Tom, the guy is an elite quarterback. We have to be on our A game at all times and not slack at all. You can talk about the game last year or the game this regular season, but for all of us on defense, we just have to go play hard. We have to have great eyes. We can’t stare him down in the secondary. We have to be on our men. They have great receivers and running backs. We have to go out there and play our game.”
Brady has a bevy of weapons, led by wideouts Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Running back Stevan Ridley became the team’s first 1,200-yard rusher since 2004, adding a running game the Patriots have lacked.
New England will be without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will miss the rest of the postseason after re-breaking his arm. But former New England safety James Ihedigbo, in his first year with Baltimore, doesn’t believe it’ll make the Pats much different.
“Not different at all. They do a lot of the same things,” Ihedigbo said. “Gronk is a phenomenal player - he had a tough injury, so he won’t be playing - but besides that, in terms of that offense, they’ll do what they do. Their offense is explosive, they get the ball going downfield, they move at a high pace and they score touchdowns. Our job is to stop them.”
New England’s defense isn’t nearly as impressive, ranking 25th in yards allowed during the regular season.
But the Patriots don’t allow a lot of points, averaging 21.1 against through 17 games, and forcing tons of turnovers. They ranked second in the NFL with 41 takeaways during the regular season and added one more in the divisional playoffs.
Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson have combined for nine interceptions while All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is a disruptive force in the middle.
“Vince Wilfork is a beast. He is a flat-out beast,” running back Ray Rice said. “He handles double-teams. You block him single-handedly, he bull rushes. The thing that’s great about him is the speed. Some people think that because of his size, he isn’t going to be able to move as fast. He moves as quick as any defensive linemen in the league.
“Vince is not the tallest of guys. He knows that, but he is a force in that middle. I’ve always loved battling, going against a guy like that, because he is going to give it everything he has. He knows what it takes to win. I have tremendous respect for him. That’s no knock on that whole defense. I think their defense, sometimes because their offense gets so much credit, that their defense gets overlooked. I can go down list by list. Look how they were able to neutralize the Texans last week. They took the run game away from them.
“They get up for games like this because they know that we run the football. They know that we do different things, but that’s a prideful bunch over there. They are no walk-in-the-park defense. You have to go out there and execute at a high level.”
And the Ravens have been, averaging 408.5 yards and 31 points so far in the playoffs. To keep up with the Patriots’ prolific offense, they’ll need another game like the last two.
“We just know going into a game against New England, you’ve just got to play well,” wideout Anquan Boldin said. “They’re a team that can put up a lot of points. They’re a team that gives you a lot of different looks. So we know going into a game like that we have to play well.”
So although it’s a different year and the teams have changed, the Ravens and Patriots are back here once again, playing for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Last year’s devastating 23-20 loss at Gillette Stadium led many Ravens to want another shot at New England in this situation.
“I mean, if you write it up, there’s no better way to write it up,” linebacker Ray Lewis said as he looks to extend his career another week. “We all felt the same way leaving there last year, that we had an opportunity to win that game. What better way to go back? If you were going to go to the Super Bowl, then to go back and go back at New England again. We know each other very well. I heard coach (John Harbaugh) speak about it, and every game we play is always those classic games. It comes down to that last play, that last drive.
“I think they know what we are bringing, and we know what they bring. And for us, we have a lot to deal with. We’re probably talking about, arguably, probably the best offense in football, probably the best quarterback, give or take. Coming from Peyton (Manning) from last week to now Brady this week - so you’re talking about the top, and anytime you’re talking about the top, if you’re going to go win a ring, then why not go through the top?”
There’s probably no better way to explain the Ravens’ mindset heading into their fourth AFC championship than the following exchange with Boldin, who remembered exactly what last year’s loss felt like.
“Disappointed, heartbroken, all of the above. It’s the feeling we took into the offseason,” Boldin said.
So why is this season different?
“Because we’ll make it different,” he said.
“By winning,” Boldin replied.