Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Saturday's divisional-round playoff game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens (NBC, 4:35 p.m. ET):
Mike: This will be the eighth meeting between the teams since 2009, which is why Bill Belichick and some players said it almost feels like a division game.
Tedy: It was interesting to me how both teams approached the past week. For the Patriots, they talked about how it doesn't matter as much. In the Ravens' locker room, the past was acknowledged a bit more with coach John Harbaugh talking about a comfort level the team has had playing in Gillette Stadium. The Ravens are obviously different personnel-wise than in past playoff games, but the mentality they have is very similar to teams that have come into Foxborough in the past, and I'm sure the Patriots respect that.
Mike: Let's start with the growth we've seen from quarterback Joe Flacco. He entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 2008 and has already 10 postseason wins and a Super Bowl championship on his résumé.
Tedy: You think back to the wild-card round game following the 2009 season, and he's much more confident now, obviously better as a player. He was 4-of-10 for 34 yards and one interception in that game, so it's a much different challenge now for the Patriots; he's a bigger threat. You see him more as an athlete now, too. He's rolling out, on the move, and this is part of transitioning to a new offense under first-year coordinator Gary Kubiak. And when you think about that offense, it's the same thing we've seen from Mike Shanahan and the Broncos (1995-2008) and Kubiak and the Texans (2006-2013): zone-running game, quarterback movement out of the pocket, bootlegs and play-action passes. You have to have an athlete to execute those types of plays, and it was somewhat surprising to me to watch Flacco scramble like he did for a first down last week against the Steelers. This isn't Philip Rivers back there, but at the same time, it's still not Russell Wilson.
Mike: One thing Patriots defensive backs have talked about this week is defending the vertical shots down the field. The Ravens might not always complete them, but they have drawn plenty of defensive pass interference penalties on those vertical plays.
Tedy: Flacco has a powerful arm, and you figure they'll have a couple of game-plan shots off play-action passes, because Flacco has the arm and accuracy to get the ball down the field. Kubiak knows how to play against the Patriots, but when you look back to his Houston teams, he just didn't have the personnel to execute it. Matt Schaub was a quarterback who looked as if he found the Patriots' mystique too much to rise up against at times. With Flacco, it's different, and then you want to look at the receivers he's throwing to. Torrey Smith has been with the Ravens since 2011 and played in a lot of games. He knows this rivalry and won't be intimidated coming into Gillette Stadium. They used to have the big X-factor in Anquan Boldin, and now I look to Steve Smith in that area. The mentality those two receivers have is similar. The way they get open, fight every down and block is similar, too. So you can draw some parallels to those two when looking at how past matchups between the teams might translate to this game.
Mike: In your weekly chat, you included Steve Smith in the category of "players you have to respect," along with the likes of Boldin, Hines Ward and Golden Tate, among others.
Tedy: Let me tell you why. You watch the Ravens play, like their Week 13 game against the Chargers, and there's Steve Smith (second quarter, 11:54) delivering a crack block on safety Marcus Gilchrist to forcefully knock him to the ground on a Justin Forsett run in the red zone. That's just big-boy ballin', and you see Smith getting a little fired up after the block, with Gilchrist barking back at him. How can you not respect that?
Mike: He's one of the game's top competitors, no doubt. As for Forsett, he has been one of the more surprising players in the NFL this season (1,266 rushing yards in the regular season), as not many saw his emergence coming. He entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft choice of the Seahawks in 2008 out of Cal and has been with Indianapolis (2008), Seattle (2008-2011), Houston (2012) and Jacksonville (2013).
Tedy: Given the way he came up through the league, spending time initially on the practice squad, you know this is a player with a chip on his shoulder. This is a nice combination between Forsett and the offensive line in front of him with the zone-blocking scheme. The O-line does a very nice job getting pushed up at the line of scrimmage to get Forsett into the hole, which is reflected in how they were one of the NFL's leading teams in rushing yards gained before contact. At the same time, you see how they were one of the lower-ranking teams in rushing yards after contact, which is a result of Forsett being a smaller guy (5-foot-8, 197 pounds) who doesn't break a lot of tackles. I see that combination potentially giving the Patriots some problems.
Mike: One theme I heard consistently coming out of the Patriots' locker room the last few days was the importance of stopping the running game because of how it sets up their play-action passing game.
Tedy: That is smart, because this team will challenge you on the ground more than most of the other teams the Patriots have seen this year, maybe outside of the Jets. They are committed to the zone-blocking scheme, with the one cut and getting downhill, which I didn't like playing against during my career. A big reason I didn't like it is because of what happens on the back side of plays -- you're getting chopped down with cut blocks and barrel rolls. They'll bite your ankles and you have to jump over them. That style was evident against the Steelers in the wild-card round; it was almost like Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison was playing leapfrog or something. So Patriots defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Sealver Siliga have to be ready for that -- on the backside, protect your legs.
Mike: Speaking of things to be ready for, you've highlighted tight end Owen Daniels as a threat in the passing game, using the flattering words "con man" to describe him. Let's get into that a bit more.
Tedy: The first thing is that Daniels used to play for the Texans under Kubiak, so he knows this system well and you can tell by the way they use him, whether it's in the YY wing or split out wide against a coverage-based linebacker. He's a very skilled tight end, even though you might look at him and not think he's someone who could challenge you athletically. But this is a player who knows the tricks of the trade, he's very savvy, and they have a lot of misdirection schemes in the passing game with him. So the idea is that you see a zone run, another zone run, another zone run and boom! They then hit you with play-action, like last Saturday against the Steelers (first quarter, 1:16) when Daniels lined up in the YY wing to the left side and ran an over route to complement the bootleg action by Flacco. That was a good example of how they attack the middle of the field with both tight ends -- Daniels and rookie Crockett Gillmore (third round, Colorado State) -- which they did again later in the game on Gillmore's touchdown (fourth quarter, 8:03).
Mike: You see the Steelers' linebackers overcommitting on those plays. It highlights the importance of discipline at the linebacker level, with players such as Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins being a key for the Patriots in that area Saturday. So that's a pretty good summation of the challenges the Patriots will see from the Ravens' offense, and now let's look at what they'll see from the Ravens' defense.
Tedy: I heard Tom Brady's comments this week about past Patriots-Ravens games and not being able to bring players out of retirement. I understand what he's saying, how the past won't have a major impact on the game, but I do think we can draw a link to past games in terms of the way it will be played and the mentality of the players involved. To be frank, linebacker Ray Lewis obviously wasn't playing at the same level in 2012 as he was earlier in his career, but what was special about him at the end was his fire, leadership, the way he rallied the team to get that Super Bowl championship before he walked off into the sunset. That torch has now been passed to Terrell Suggs. The brashness and trash-talking is still there, as is his skill of being able to rush the passer. When he's teamed with Elvis Dumervil, that's a good combination on the edges and obviously a huge matchup for offensive tackles Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right). Inside, you have Haloti Ngata back from suspension, along with Chris Canty and others. Canty was part of the second Giants team that beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and that team had success against New England getting pressure up front. So I see plenty of common links between the past and this game.
Mike: The Ravens' success against Tom Brady in the playoffs has been due, in part, to the ability to get pressure with the standard four rushers. That has usually been the formula that has hurt the Patriots in past playoff setbacks.
Tedy: You can find several examples of the Ravens once again doing this throughout the season. One of them came in Week 7 against Atlanta when they pressured Matt Ryan into an incompletion on one play -- it's Suggs off the right edge, Dumervil off the left edge, with tackle Haloti Ngata pushing the pocket inside with Pernell McPhee -- and then sacked him for a safety on the next play on an effective tackle-end game with Ngata pressing and Suggs coming in behind him (3:44, fourth quarter). That's very well done.
Mike: It seems like everyone has zeroed in on the Patriots' offensive line as a key, and this is why. They should have their top starting five available and ready to go -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Tedy: The Ravens are tough up front and also at linebacker. We mentioned Ray Lewis no longer being there, but now you have a rookie in C.J. Mosley who has gotten better over the course of the year and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. He teams up with Daryl Smith, the veteran and longtime Jacksonville Jaguar in his second year in Baltimore. How do you think he feels to have this type of success after coming from a team like Jacksonville? You figure he's looking at this as his last chance. So when you put the linebacker group together -- Mosley, Smith, Dumervil and Suggs -- this is one of the better groups the Patriots have seen this year. They're at full strength, which is different from what the Patriots faced against Denver (without Danny Trevathan), Lions (without Stephen Tulloch) and Bills (without Kiko Alonso), and that's such a crucial position when playing the Patriots because of the run play-action and adjustments that need to be made.
Mike: So the strength of the Ravens' defense is the front seven, and we often talk about the Patriots being a game-plan offense, so does that mean they attack the secondary?
Tedy: Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said it himself: He's started seven different corners and four different safeties this year. They have tightened up this weakness a little bit, and that speaks to the job that Pees has done. I think Pees, whom I played for in New England, deserves a lot of credit. We've been talking about all these head coaching candidates around the NFL and I don't see how Pees isn't even mentioned for what he's done in Baltimore. Specific to this game, he knows Tom Brady and this offensive system very well. He also knows the tempo, and will have that group ready with one-word communication, like we talked about earlier this week in the weekly ESPNBoston.com Patriots chat.
Mike: Let's touch on the Rob Gronkowski factor. The Patriots had rested him in the season finale to ensure he'd be ready to go.
Tedy: That is a huge problem for the Ravens. I know safety Will Hill has done some good things, matching against Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates, but I still see that as a situation where he needs the pressure defense in front of him. I've been thinking about all the ways defenses have tried to cover Gronkowski this season, and the Chargers' Eric Weddle maybe had the best formula. In the Week 14 game between the teams, the Patriots lined up Gronkowski as the No. 1 outside to the right (3:24, third quarter), and Weddle does not try to be physical with him, establishes inside leverage, lets Gronkowski run the route and as Gronkowski tried to get by him with his meat hook, Weddle gets his eyes back to the quarterback and is in good position to force an incompletion. On that play right there, I think that's the way to guard Gronkowski, especially if you're a safety when the one advantage you might have on him is quickness and speed.
Mike: On special teams, the Ravens ranked first in the NFL in kickoff return average during the regular season, with speedy Jacoby Jones a threat any time he touches the ball. Bill Belichick said this week that if it's anything less than nine and a half yards deep in the end zone, the expectation is that he's bringing it out. They also have a pressure-hardened kicker in Justin Tucker who doesn't lack for confidence.
Tedy: This is a solid football team, and I do see similarities to the past games. I look at it from a Ravens point of view. I'd imagine Steve Smith is still pissed off from losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots following the 2003 season when he was with the Panthers, and this is a chance to get some revenge. I see a veteran player in tight end Owen Daniels who has never really had a chance like this; he's hungry. Same with linebacker Daryl Smith, and then a running back in Forsett that came up through the ranks the hard way who has that chip on his shoulder; so you talk about that Ravens hunger that has been evident in years past and it's still there all across the roster.
Mike: So what is the key for the Patriots?
Tedy: Players like Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount are going to have to be big. Setting the tone on offense and getting the run game going will be huge. The offensive line, that's the big test because it comes from the inside and the outside. There aren't many teams the Patriots have gone up against this year where they were this strong inside, outside and at the linebacker level. The weakness is the secondary, but for the Patriots to attack that, they have to establish the run game. You don't want Tom Brady in five-step drops, in the shotgun forced to pass. So they'll have to keep the rush off balance with good play-calling from Josh McDaniels.
Mike: I see it being close early, before the Patriots pull away late. Protection for Tom Brady is the key, and if the Patriots can keep him clean, there should be favorable matchups to exploit in the passing game. It's a matchup of strength vs. strength in the red zone, where the Patriots scored a league-high 338 points this season (39 touchdowns, 22 field goals in 67 trips) and the Ravens were second best in terms of opponents' scoring percentage (54 trips, 23 touchdowns, 19 field goals). Gronkowski, as he's been all season, is ultimately the difference for New England. Patriots 27, Ravens, 17
Tedy: After talking about the Ravens' toughness all week, I would now like to re-emphasize how tough this Patriot team is. The constant injuries and lineup changes on both sides of the ball have made this Patriots team mentally and physically tough. One of the toughest in the NFL. They will lean on this toughness to beat the Baltimore Ravens. These Patriots punch back. This defense will once again show its worth and make a play in the end to stop a potential game-winning drive by Flacco and the offense. Patriots 23, Ravens 17