Shipping Up To Boston
I literally had to watch the highlights of last week’s Baltimore Ravens-Denver Broncos playoff game about 100 times before it sunk in.
Did we really win that game?
Did we really just slay the Peyton Manning albatross?
Did that 70-yard Joe Flacco bomb to Jacoby Jones with 31-seconds left really happen?
I not only had to rewatch the highlights to make sure that game happened, but I also needed to rewatch the game on my DVR to verify it happened.
It’s been nearly a week now, and yeah, it really happened.
I said last week we were finally due for one of Manning’s patented playoff gaff jobs, and we got it when he threw a Favre-ian INT across his body in overtime to set up the Ravens winning FG. Until that point, Manning was as terrifying as he’d always been, especially in the first half. In the second half, Dean Pees dared Manning to throw deep on him, something he couldn’t do. Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger were able to get some heat on him, and a pressured Manning is a Manning that can throw bad interceptions (Kruger’s pressure led to Corey Graham’s OT INT).
It was truly an amazing football game to watch, and I’m glad the Ravens won it.
And now, we come to another nemesis, this time the loathsome New England Patriots. Unlike the Broncos, who we needed a douchey Mark Kliszla Denver Post column to work up a healthy disdain for, we need no such motivation for the Patriots. New England has become 1B on every Ravens fans’ hate list, right after Pittsburgh.
People asked me after the Denver game – which was on a Saturday before Houston-New England played on Sunday – who I’d rather face, the Texans or Patriots? I was fairly diplomatic, saying it didn’t really matter, we owed New England for last year’s AFC title game and we owed Houston for pasting us earlier this season. In the back of my mind though, I wanted New England. I want the Ravens to beat those guys to get to the Show. I want to shut up their arrogant and entitled fan base. It’s like Ric Flair said, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
I can’t tell you how much Ravens fans have come to despise the Patriots. Unlike Manning, who most Ravens fans (my mother excepted) respect, we have no respect for Tom Brady, mainly because he spends half the game being the Hall-of-Fame quarterback he is, and the other half being a referee. Brady whines for calls like no other. Just watch if Brady throws more than two incompletions in a row, he’ll start whining for pass interference. Just watch if anyone breathes on him late, he’ll turn to the ref and whine for a roughing the passer call.
The origin of Ravens fans utter disdain for Brady started in the 2009 regular season, when Suggs brushed his knee and Brady turned to the ref, complained by pointing at Suggs like a playground kid yelling "He did it! He did it!" and, of course, got the call. It was a complete bush league move. Even former teammate Rodney Harrison told Brady to take his skirt off.
Then there’s also the matter of all the times New England has pulled games out against the Ravens by the skin of their teeth. There was the 2007 game where the Ravens almost ruined the Patriots’ perfect season. There was the 2009 regular season game where Mark Clayton dropped a fourth down pass to cost us the game. There was 2010 game where the Ravens blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and was highlighted by two Brandon Meriweather cheap shots on Todd Heap. And then there was last year’s AFC Championship Game, a defeat so scarring I still can’t watch the whole game.
And yeah, the Ravens won the regular season matchup earlier this year, but needless to say, we owe these guys. Big time.
Once again, the national media has lined up to kiss Brady’s Uggs, with the majority of the pundits taking the Patriots. With this Ravens team, I’m not sure they’d want it any other way. So how can the Ravens get even with New England and go to Festivus Maximus? Here’s my thoughts.
--- Get heat on Brady
As the Ravens found when they beat New England in a 2009 playoff game, if you get heat on Brady, he can be not necessarily rattled, but it can have his effectiveness limited. Like Manning, Brady relies on his smarts and quick release to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry. The Patriots run a lot of short screens, hitch routes, quick outs and wheel routes, and they run it at a fast tempo.
Because of the offense they run, it’s not always possible to sack Brady, but the Ravens do need to get consistent pressure on him, just like with Manning. The Patriots aren’t really a deep passing team, so if the Ravens can clog the sightlines and get in Brady’s face, they can limit the short stuff. Brady’s not a great scrambler, but like Manning though, he moves well in the pocket. The front four is going to have to do the job getting a rush because if Brady has time to stand there like a statue, he will pick you apart.
---Dannell Ellerbe, Chykie Brown and Corey Graham need to play the games of the lives
Why single out these guys? Because these three gentlemen are likely to draw the assignment against New England’s two best pass catchers, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez.
Ellerbe has made himself a lot of money late in the season and in the playoffs (he’s a free agent after this season) with his strong play. He’s the Ravens best coverage linebacker, so he’ll draw Hernandez on the inside and running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen out of the backfield. Vereen killed the Texans linebackers last week.
When Hernandez is lined up in the slot, he’ll probably draw Brown, who has really emerged late this year as a reliable nickel corner. The Ravens want to play the nickel a lot to flood the passing lanes and cover Brady’s receivers with DBs. Brown, who took the job from oft-injured former first round pick Jimmy Smith, will need to use his physicality against Hernandez, who’s big and fast.
Welker always presents a problem with his ability to move around in the slot. In their last two matchups, the Ravens used Lardarius Webb, their best corner, on Welker, but the Ravens will not have Webb this time.
Graham has gone from special teams guy/4th corner to the Ravens No.2, thanks to the season-ending injury to Webb and Smith’s frequent injuries. He’s taken the job and ran with it, pulling down two picks against Denver. With Cary Williams likely drawing Brandon Lloyd, Graham will see a lot of Welker in the slot. If he can at least slow down Welker, it will free up a lot more options against the New England offense.
--- Catch the ball
The last two years, the Ravens season has ended in part because a receiver dropped a catchable ball. In 2010, it was TJ Houshmandzadeh. Last year, it was Lee Evans. This year, it was almost Jacoby Jones, who dropped a third down pass with three minutes left that nearly cost the Ravens the game. When Jones dropped that pass and the Ravens came up short on fourth down, I walked away muttering, “When, when will we ever find someone to catch the damn ball in a big spot?”
Little did I know that Jones would redeem himself with that 70-yard bomb late. The recent history of the Ravens and Patriots indicates that this thing will be close and that someone will have to make a play. Catch the ball, fellas.
--- The Ravens interior O-line versus Vince Wilfork
The Ravens can make life a whole lot easier for themselves on offense by blocking Wilfork, who terrorized the Ravens in last year’s AFC title game. The massive Wilfork abused poor Matt Birk at times, pushing him into the backfield. Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs fared no better.
Because of Wilfork’s dominance, the Ravens had a tough time running Ray Rice, and a lot of the pressure fell on Joe Flacco. If the Ravens can run the ball effectively, they can open up tons of ways to attack the New England defense. The Ravens offensive line is completely different than the one that the Patriots saw in Week 3, with Bryant McKinnie in at left tackle, Michael Oher at right tackle and Kelechi Osemele at guard. In the playoffs, this group has allowed the Ravens to run the ball effectively enough and has kept Joe Flacco clean (only two sacks given up in the postseason). The Patriots pass rush isn’t as good as Denver and Indianapolis’, but if Wilfork is wreaking havoc, he could sabotage the whole game plan.
--- Torrey Smith versus the Patriots secondary
Smith will be big in this game with his down-the-field speed against a suspect Patriots secondary. Mourning the death of his brother, Smith had the game of his life against New England in Week 3 with six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Granted, the Ravens will be facing a completely different New England secondary this time around, with Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib at corner and Devin McCourty moved to safety. Still, Smith made future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey look bad last Saturday and none of New England’s guys is as good as Bailey. The Ravens need to feed Smith and feed him often.
--- Joe Flacco
Flacco outdueled Peyton Manning last week and outplayed Brady in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He’ll need to do the latter again to take the Ravens to the Big Show. I said last week, I’ll say it again, Joe Flacco you want that big contract? Win this game.
There’s something about the Patriots (and Steelers for that matter) that get me in the mood to cut a Scott Steiner promo, incoherently rambling about “getting even wit you, fracturing my face,” talking about the earth rotating on a 47 degree axis and dropping the catchphrase “Holla, if ya hear me!”
Bottom line, we owe these guys, and their arrogant fans, who have put up a billboard counting down the days until Ray Lewis’ retirement. One of my best friends from college happens to be a Patriots fan, and the lead up to this game has left me pondering unfriending him temporarily. That’s how much I hate the Patriots.
The only way I can describe last year’s AFC title game loss is this: it sucked. It completely and totally sucked. And yeah, I know, my wife is right when she tells me not to take these games too seriously and yes, I know they don’t mean much in the long run of life. Only they do matter, in some way. You do get emotionally wrapped up in these things, and when your heart gets ripped out, Mola Ram-style, like it did last year, it stings. The ghosts of the Colts and Peyton Manning have been avenged. Now it's time to slay the ghost of Billy Cundiff, Lee Evans, the Patriots and all the unpleasant memories of last year.
As ex-coach Brian Billick told the 2000 team before it went on its championship run, “Gentleman, the time is here. It’s time to go to a Super Bowl.”