Things are much different for the Ravens and the Patriots than they were in last year’s Championship game. The Patriots have incorporated a deadly no huddle rushing and passing attack and the Ravens have developed a vertical passing game capable of closing out opponents.
Both are also battle tested.
The Patriots have endured life without star tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and the Ravens fired Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron because he lacked the true originality that often frustrated quarterback Joe Flacco. Their no huddle passing attack emerged after Cameron’s departure.
But the greatest transformation might be from New England. After appearing to unravel, the Patriot’s defense has again come together late in the season. They finally feel --wait for it-- championship worthy.
The addition of troubled, but star cornerback Aqib Talib and the emergence of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard helped restructure a struggling backfield. Without Talib to start the year, the Patriots surrendered 47 plays of 20 yards or more and 15 plays of 30 yards or more in the regular season. With his addition, those numbers dropped to 32 and 8 respectively. In other words, teams are not throwing back yard Hailmarys any more for the fun of it.
The Ravens, however, are still likely to test the Patriot’s secondary in ways other teams eventually shied away from. Receiver Torrey Smith torched the Patriots in their week 3 match up with 2 touchdowns and 100+ receiving yards. Anquan Boldin adds another dimension, which the Ravens used last week when Denver focused on Smith.
If the above does not put nerves into your bones, this might. Flacco has an average 2-3 career record (nothing earth-shattering), but has completed 108 of 167 passes and 9 touchdowns vs. the Patriots in those 5 games. (Courtesty of ESPN Stats & Information). In other words, he often outplays Brady.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots will likely adjust just fine without Gronkowski. The tight end is Brady's best tool when in the lineup, but he has been out for around two months and New England has still posted a winning record
Many expect this to be a close game, but if I were the Patriots, I would want to stray far from this concept. New England’s no huddle stampede can ring up points quickly and running back Steven Ridley, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is at his best when the Patriots are in front. In the second half of the season, Ridley ranks 1st in NFL with 142 rushes, 671 yards, and 6 rushing touchdowns when the Patriots are leading.
Yet, worrying aside, the Ravens might lack the tools to even stop their offense.
Writer Chris Brown of Grantland posted an enlightening story titled, “Speak My Language,” which broke down the Patriot’s world-beating, innovative offense. In short, he explains that opponent's offenses struggle to replicate the Patriot’s no-huddle attack because their play calls are too long and complicated. The same is true for defenses that face New England. Because those defense are slow to call out their assignments, they are often out of place when the Patriots snap the ball.
The Ravens are old—gritty—but, still old, and the Patriots have been able to refine their defense and offense as the season progressed. New England will have the upper hand if they can storm out to a strong lead, control the clock with Ridley and put more pressure on Flacco than they did in their week 3 match up.
If New England accomplishes this, the wheels on Ray Lewis' "Retirement Tour" may come tumbling off and the Patriots, instead of the Ravens, will be rolling on to the New Orleans.