The New England Patriots welcomed the Baltimore Ravens to Gillette Stadium on a cold New England Saturday afternoon for the AFC Divisional Round playoff game. The hosts let the Ravens get a bit too comfortable as Baltimore quickly drove down the field on their first two drives of the game to leap to a 14-0 lead. With the thoughts of New England fans turning to January 2010 in the Wild Card round when the Ravens jumped out to a 24-0 first quarter lead in blowing out the Patriots, quarterback Tom Brady instead put the offense on his shoulders and carried the Patriots on two scoring drives before halftime to even things up at 14.
While New England may have been rusty on both sides of the ball after most starters did not play much in week seventeen against Buffalo and then had their bye week, it was more of a case of what Baltimore did and New England did not do. The Ravens came out with no fear going after the Patriots’ strong secondary from play one as quarterback Joe Flacco had completions of 19, 9, 22, and 19 yards as the Ravens went 71 yards in five plays. After the Ravens defense forced a punt, their offense went back to work mixing their strong running game with an accurate passing attack to build their two touchdown lead.
New England came into the game determined not to waste time running the ball against Baltimore’s stout defensive line of Haloti Ngata, Brandon Williams, and Chris Canty. The Patriots turned the big guys into tired pass rushers by dropping Brady back to pass over 50 times. In the second half, the only rushing attempts were a Brady keeper to pick-up a first down and the three kneel-downs at the end of the game.
Credit to New England’s offensive line in keeping the Ravens pass rushers away from Brady. Baltimore had two sacks–both on the same drive. While Baltimore occasionally forced Brady to throw the ball away (four times by my count), Brady had no throws disrupted by being hit as he threw or any passes tipped or knocked down by the defensive line. Per ProFootballFocus.com — subscription required, Brady had just 15 drop-backs under pressure form the Ravens pass rush. He had the two sacks and was only 5 of 13 passing for 63 yards on those plays.
Unfortunately for the Ravens on the 38 drop-backs with no pressure Brady was 28 of 37 carving up the Ravens for 304 yards, 3 touchdowns and a 115.1 QB rating. Blitzing did not help the Ravens either, as Brady seemed to welcome the fewer defenders in the secondary as he was able to complete 7 of 10 passes when blitzed for 57 yards and a touchdown with a 117.5 QB rating.
On defense, the Patriots did not get much pass rush from their front four, but linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower started to bring pressure with timely blitzes in the second half. Both linebackers also helped out in coverage dropping back to fill the middle of the zone and taking on tight ends and backs in man coverage. The versatile linebackers got caught up overrunning some gaps and getting caught inside in the running game, but overall they were part of the solution when the Patriots needed a stop.
Safety Patrick Chung had a quiet game but it was backup safety Duron Harmon playing one of the two-deep safeties in the dime defense who made the play of the game. Inside of two minutes to play and on the tenth play of the drive which had gone 53 yards with a patient short passing attack, quarterback Joe Flacco was under pressure and took a shot deep down the left sideline for speedster Torrey Smith in the end zone. Unfortunately, while Smith had a step on cornerback Logan Ryan, Flacco did not account for Ryan’s college teammate Harmon reading the play perfectly and stepping in front of Smith for a key interception to seal the 35-31 victory.
With the dangerous Indianapolis Colts coming off their road win in Denver on Sunday, New England should expect a different game than their week eleven win 42-20 where they thrashed the Colts putting up 28 points in the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium. New England rushed for 246 yards that game and put up over 500 yards of offense. Since then, the Colts have thrived with rookie wide receiver Donte Moncrief becoming a vital cog in the offense and running back Dan Herron solidifying the running back position.
On defense, the return to health of penetraing defensive end Arthur Jones has been a shot in the arm to the Indianapolis defense. Veteran cornerback Greg Toler has elevated his play while fellow starting cornerback Vontae Davis has played at an All-Pro level all season. Rookie linebacker Jonathan Newsome has given the defense a shot of energy and athleticism in recent weeks and having LeRon Landry healthy and at strong safety is another subtle improvement on defense for Indianapolis in the past month.
New England will need another big game from Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell, and Julian Edelman on offense to advance to the Super Bowl. Look for big backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray to get more work against Indianapolis as the Patriots will make the Colts prove they can stop the running game.
On defense, the Patriots will have to figure out how to cover T.Y. Hilton and the bevy of tight ends on the roster for the Colts. Indianapolis has had success with all three tight ends on the field at times with Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and Jack Doyle. Fleener lit up New England with 144 yards receiving in week eleven.
The Patriots also have to find a pass rush to disrupt quarterback Andrew Luck’s rhythm and make him uncomfortable to create turnovers. Despite Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware crashing off the edge repeatedly, the Broncos never sacked Luck and the Colts offensive line was stout throughout the game.
New England cannot get caught up in thinking this Colts team is going to be an easy win. The Colts have improved and the Patriots need to perform better than they did against Baltimore to move on and face the best of the NFC in the Super Bowl.