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AFC Championship: Still Standing

The quarterback who spends the least amount of time on the ground will earn a trip to the Super Bowl

This one’s already settled. If you watched last week’s set of AFC playoff games, you saw the Patriots stomp out a Broncos team that left their hearts on the field … in Denver. You also saw the Ravens go up 17-3 while recovering five of the game’s six fumbles and still manage to struggle against the Texans and their rookie quarterback. Teams with a single-game turnover margin of plus-four were on a 42-game playoff win streak and had gone 118-3 since 2005 if we include the regular season, but the Ravens had to stop the Texans on two late drives to seal up a narrow victory. Blowout + narrow win = Super Bowl trip for the team that looked great in the divisional round.

As much as that would make this preview very easy to write, we can’t abide by that simple logic. It’s just not accurate. Since 1990, there have been five times where the Conference Championship game consisted of a team that won by three touchdowns or more playing one that was only able to win by seven points or less. You know what happened? The teams that looked dominant in the divisional round only went 3-2 in the Conference Championship. Take 1999, when the 14-2 Jaguars blew out the Dolphins by 55 points and ended Dan Marino’s career in the divisional round. They hosted a 13-3 Titans team that had traveled to Indianapolis and only managed to beat the Colts by three points. Despite having all the momentum in the world, the Jaguars — seven-point favorites at kickoff, as the Patriots are at the time of this writing — turned the ball over six times in a sloppy 10-turnover game and lost, 33-14.

Five games is an awful tiny sample, and it’s a good sign when you beat a team by a large margin, regardless of how good the opposition is, but there’s no evidence out there suggesting that the Patriots are guaranteed to win on Sunday because of what we saw last week. The Texans kept it close against Baltimore by physically dominating the Ravens on the line of scrimmage (on both sides of the ball); it’s unlikely that the Patriots will be able to do the same. Houston also turned Joe Flacco into a quivering mess; if the Patriots do that, they should be able to hold off the Ravens. Or will they?

Ravens on Offense

Remember the last time these two teams met in the playoffs? Joe Flacco set a record, you guys! That record, of course, was for fewest passing yards in a playoff game by a winning quarterback who threw 10 attempts or more. Flacco was 4-for-10 for 34 yards with an interception, but the Ravens still won by 19 because the Patriots essentially imploded. Ray Rice ran for an 83-yard score on the opening play, Tom Brady turned the ball over thrice inside his own territory during the first four possessions, and by the time the first quarter ended, the Ravens led 24-0. The Ravens ran the ball 52 times and Flacco was awful when they needed to throw the ball, but hey, someone out there is going to run a stat that says Joe Flacco is 5-3 in the playoffs, and this is one of those wins.

Flacco has struggled all season, posting his worst completion percentage and lowest yards per attempt as a pro, but he was really bad against the Texans. His 14-of-27 for 176 with two touchdowns and no picks looks okay, but he played worse than the numbers. The Texans accomplished this, mainly, by rushing the hell out of Flacco and taking advantage of his ability to diagnose blitzes and account for rushers in pass protection. They sacked Flacco five times and knocked him down on an additional six throws. That means Flacco was on his ass one out of every three times he dropped back to pass.

Baltimore was just 4-for-16 on third down against the Texans, and four of Houston’s five sacks on the day came on those third downs. One of the sacks took Baltimore out of field goal range, which serves as one of the wonderful riposte straw man statistical arguments. You always hear about the player or the type of play that “doesn’t show up in the box score,” the implication being that some hustle play or subtle performance isn’t being measured by the numbers. Well, Flacco’s play only shows up in the box score as a sack, but it was incredibly stupid and it cost his team a shot at three points.

Now, can the Patriots follow the Texans’ example? We’ve been inclined to think that the Patriots would struggle to rush the passer after Andre Carter saw his season end during the first Broncos game, but that just hasn’t been the case. In the three full games since Carter went down, the Patriots have sacked opposing passers 12 times in 117 dropbacks. That’s a sack rate of 10.3 percent, and while they had the benefit of sacking the seemingly magnetic Tim Tebow, they also had to rush Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was one of the hardest quarterbacks in football to take down this season. The sudden burst hasn’t come from one player stepping up in Carter’s absence; eight players, all of whom play in the front seven, have picked up sacks over the past three games. If there were a sudden burst of sacks from the secondary, it would scream that the Patriots were blitzing a lot more frequently, but it just appears that they’ve stepped up their game without Carter around.

Then again, this is also a team that ranked 28th against both the pass and the run this season, per DVOA.1 No team gave up more yards per drive than New England, and when teams avoided turnovers, they were able to score freely on them. Their sack rate might have bounced up these past few weeks, but they also trailed by 17 against the Dolphins and 21 against the Bills before launching comebacks. The Ravens were middle of the pack in giveaways, but they were erratic, with three games of three turnovers or more (in which they were 2-1), and four with no giveaways at all (in which they beat the Steelers, 49ers, Bengals, and Texans by a combined 53 points). If the team that protects Joe Flacco (and the football) shows up on Sunday, we’re not so sure that the Patriots will be able to stop them.

If their previous games are any indication, expect the Patriots to put a priority on stopping Ray Rice in the passing game. In the 2009 playoff game between these two, Bill Belichick actually went to the extreme of double-teaming Rice as a receiver out of the backfield, something we’ve rarely ever seen a defensive play caller do for another running back. He had eight catches in the following season’s matchup, but those catches were dumpoffs that only went for a total of 38 yards. That should create shots for Torrey Smith up the sideline and lots of opportunities for tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to exploit single coverage, but that all depends on whether Flacco stays upright.

Patriots on Offense

Dickson and Pitta, coincidentally, represent one of the few tight end sets in the league who can hold a candle to the combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — or as Bill Simmons calls them, Aarob Gronkandez. The Ravens have had success dealing with the Patriots in the past, but that was before Gronkowski and Hernandez were really in their pomp. When the Ravens last played the Patriots, it was Week 6 of the 2010 season, and Gronkowski was spending most of his time blocking. The two tight ends were four games into their rookie season, and while Hernandez already had 18 catches for 240 yards, Gronkowski only had six for 62, albeit with two touchdowns. In a narrow 23-20 comeback victory for the Patriots, Gronkowski only had a lone 24-yard reception, while Hernandez caught four balls for 61 yards and had an 18-yard run.

The big game instead came from Deion Branch, who marked his return to the Patriots with a nine-catch, 98-yard, one-touchdown performance. Wes Welker only mustered 53 yards on seven catches, which was partly because of his health at the time and partly because the Ravens made stopping him a priority. Since Welker emerged as a star with the Pats, the Ravens have basically treated him like New England’s top receiver and assigned him double coverage on most plays. In the past, that’s included cornerback Chris Carr in combination with a linebacker or safety, splitting up the coverage responsibilities depending upon the break of Welker’s route. Again, though, that knowledge may be for naught because of how important the tight ends have become for New England.

How can the Ravens neutralize Gronkowski and Hernandez? Well, if there’s any way to do so, it’s by getting a lot of pass pressure on Tom Brady and forcing Gronkowski to stay in and block. The worst game of the year for the two tight ends as a combination (when they both suited up) was probably the Week 5 game against the Jets, when the similarly schemed defense of Rex Ryan held the pair to a combined 87 yards on nine catches without scoring. Not coincidentally, the Jets sacked Tom Brady four times in 37 dropbacks that day. They also held Gronkowski and Hernandez to a combined five catches for 69 yards in the playoff victory over New England last year, a game where Brady was sacked five times in 50 tries.

Will the Ravens get a lot of pass pressure on Brady? Baltimore fans would undoubtedly like to think so, but they’re in quite the slump when it comes to taking down the opposing quarterback. In their last four games, including the playoff victory over T.J. Yates and the Texans, the Ravens have just three sacks on 138 dropbacks. That’s an anemic sack rate of 2.2 percent. Before that stretch, they had taken down quarterbacks on 9.3 percent of their dropbacks. Remember, this is a team that finished dead last in sack rate last season; it’s entirely possible that they’ve just gone through a fluky-bad four-game stretch, but it’s also entirely possible that their ridiculously high sack rate through 12 games was the fluke, too. Key among that group is Terrell Suggs, who has run hot and cold this year. After three sacks in the Week 1 blowout of the Steelers, Suggs had just three sacks in the subsequent nine games before breaking out with three more sacks in that Thanksgiving-night win over the 49ers. That began a stretch with seven sacks in three games, bringing him to 13 sacks in 13 games … and he has just one in the ensuing four games.

A lot of this also depends on whether Ed Reed is able to play; that is to say, not only whether Ed Reed is actually suited up and able to go, but whether Ed Reed can actually play like Ed Reed. Without Reed blurring the availability of the middle of the field, Brady will have a much easier time reading the coverage and finding his open receivers, especially those guys who traffic in the slot and up the seams. With the way cornerback Lardarius Webb is playing, it’s hard to imagine that Branch will really have a big game on the outside.

Special Teams

Baltimore got a lucky break last week when Jacoby Jones was suddenly overcome with the urge to field a bouncing punt inside his own 15, but remember that they also gave up a long kick return to start the game and set up the opening field goal. As we covered last week, the Ravens are below-average across the board on special teams, while the Patriots get great work from their specialists, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko. Mesko’s work pinning the Ravens deep could be a huge part of this game, because the Ravens are far more likely to turn over the ball when they need to travel 85 yards for a touchdown as opposed to 60. The more chances you give Joe Flacco to screw up, the more screwups you get. Right?

The Prediction

It’s never much fun to go chalk, but that’s the read here. The Patriots have such significant advantages at quarterback and on special teams that it’s hard to imagine the Ravens winning in a game where there’s any sort of serious point total being put up, and the Patriots have averaged nearly 33 points per game at home this year (against some relatively tough competition). Baltimore’s defense will make it tough at times, but the Ravens will have to get something totally unexpected from Flacco to actually pull this one out. New England Patriots 27, Baltimore Ravens 20.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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