These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out.
One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air. They’ll follow that with an ultra-hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes.
What will it be in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Ravens in a rematch of last year’s nail-biter? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan.
Share your thoughts on how the Pats should attack or defend the Ravens in the comments section.
Mike Reiss: Pats should commit to the run early
A final stat line of 34 rushing attempts for 77 yards (2.3 average) isn’t going to cut it.
That’s what the Patriots had against the Ravens on Sept. 23, which had coaches and players disappointed. As the Ravens showed later in the season, they have a defense that can be run on. And as the Patriots showed the next two weeks, when they rang up 200-plus yards on the ground in back-to-back games, they can run the ball.
That’s where this week’s game plan figures to start -- attempting to establish the run against a defense that gave them some trouble in Week 3 when the Patriots had their top offensive line intact. In a game that promises to be physical and hard-hitting, an early focus on the running game will give the Patriots a good chance to gain early control of the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Furthermore, when quarterback Tom Brady knows he can rely on the running game, it opens up several other avenues for the offense -- including play-action and the up-tempo no-huddle attack that usually features plenty of running. The Patriots appear to have some matchup advantages in the passing game, and their best chance to exploit them is to force the Ravens to defend a balanced offense from the outset. That’s why committing to the run game early will be important.
Mike Rodak: Pats can wear down the Ravens' defense
At this point in the season, the Patriots aren't going to change what they do offensively, even after the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But they can take some cues from the Denver Broncos, which allowed Saturday's divisional playoff game to slip away. The Ravens' defense is heavy on veterans, a passionate group that can let the momentum of the game carry it in one direction or another.
On their go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown drive, the Broncos passed on 7 of 10 plays, and while Denver wasn't in the no-huddle, it was clear that the Ravens' defense was gassed. One of the most penalized teams in the NFL, the Ravens cracked under pressure, committing two defensive penalties on the drive.
The key for the Patriots will be to put the Ravens' defense in that state. This may be a game in which the Patriots turn to the hurry-up offense to a larger extent, not as much trying to catch the Ravens off-guard -- doing that to Ray Lewis is tough -- but rather to wear down the defense.
The Patriots should be aware of the ability of Terrell Suggs and other Baltimore playmakers, but the reality is that the Ravens aren't quite at the same level as they were when they shocked the Patriots in the playoffs three seasons ago.
Field Yates: Keep calm and get to Flacco
Much like the Week 14 matchup with the Houston Texans didn’t predetermine the rematch with the Patriots on Sunday, the AFC Championship Game is not tied into the Week 3 game between the Patriots and Ravens.
But the Patriots can learn from that game, and one area that they must be better in than they were in September is controlling their emotions.
No team in the NFL is charged by emotion the way that the Ravens are, which has been evident in the two weeks since their emotional leader, Ray Lewis, returned to the lineup.
His pregame dance routines and motivational speech before games put his team in a mindset to win. It’s part of what makes the Ravens successful. I recall witnessing Lewis' powers of persuasion on two occasions during my time with the Chiefs, as it was his emotional uplift that seemingly turned the tides when both contests were close.
The Patriots got caught up in the heat of the moment in Week 3, and a number of scrums ensued. They weren’t flagged for penalties, but it fed into the Ravens' momentum.
The focus must remain on the task at hand, not about what may be said or done between plays.
Finally, the Patriots must find a way to manufacture pressure against Baltimore. With or without Chandler Jones (ankle injury), Joe Flacco cannot be allowed to stand tall in the pocket and throw the football down the field, as he has proved to be at his best under those circumstances.
Whether it’s derived from blitz schemes or edge pressure, the Patriots must find a way to get to Flacco early and often.