Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week, it's Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 6:30 p.m. ET).
Mike: Put the Patriots and Ravens on the football field, and things that come to mind are big, physical players, hard-hitting football, some of the NFL's biggest stars of the past decade and games that often come down to one possession.
Tedy: Based on the way the Ravens have played the Patriots in recent years, most recently beating them in the regular season this year, I can see them having a lot of confidence coming into Gillette Stadium. Let's be clear here -- what happened this past week was a Houston Texans team that wasn't ready for the moment against the Patriots. That won't happen to the Ravens.
Mike: The game from earlier this season was a 31-30 Ravens win, back on Sept. 23 in Baltimore. It was a game worked by replacement officials, and the Patriots couldn't hold a 30-21 fourth-quarter lead. What do you take away from that game?
Tedy: When players and coaches say, "We're a different team now" and "The game doesn't mean that much," you have to take that with a grain of salt. You still look at individual matchups and who was able to have success. You look at the overall plan -- offense, defense and special teams -- and say, "This is how the team tried attack us." So you do take some concepts out of it, some individual matchups out of it, and players remember what worked and didn't work. One performance that stood out to me from that game was Ravens receiver Torrey Smith (6 catches, 127 yards, 2 TDs). I think we all remember the emotions with him playing with a heavy heart after his brother passed away in a motorcycle accident less than 24 hours before kickoff. On the Patriots' side, there was a lot of success with the passing game outside the numbers. Brandon Lloyd had one of his best games. So you look at that and ask, "Does that transfer over to this game?"
Mike: One of the things I like to do is highlight some of the big personnel changes for both teams from that game to now. For the Patriots, they didn't have tight end Aaron Hernandez on Sept. 23, and he'll be out there Sunday. But they won't have tight end Rob Gronkowski. And on defense, the big change is in the secondary, where three of the four spots have different personnel, with the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib making a big impact. For the Ravens, they won't have top cornerback Lardarius Webb or starting linebacker Jameel McClain, but linebacker Terrell Suggs is back. Those are some of the big ones.
Tedy: Thinking back to that game, you remember the difficulty the Patriots' corners were having. It wasn't only against Torrey Smith but also Jacoby Jones. Devin McCourty, who was playing corner at the time, had a costly pass interference penalty against Jones on the Ravens' final scoring drive, and that was a day that highlighted some of McCourty's struggles at cornerback. Kyle Arrington had some, too. But trading for Talib is big because it moves McCourty to more of a free safety role. With McCourty back there, to have that type of athlete who is really starting to become a quality safety in terms of getting his reads and showing his range and the speed he has -- coupled with Talib at cornerback -- it's a totally different secondary. McCourty has settled nicely into that role. With McCourty at safety and Talib at corner, the Patriots are a better unit against those deep balls the Ravens like to throw.
Mike: Let's address the loss of Gronkowski and how it affects the Patriots. Third-year tight end Michael Hoomanawanui stepped in for Gronkowski against the Texans and was commended by coach Bill Belichick, but, as Hernandez said, Gronkowski is a "freak of nature." Naturally, there's a drop-off.
Tedy: He's that good, and, when he's healthy out there, that's when the Patriots are most dangerous. It hurts Super Bowl championship chances because, with all due respect to Wes Welker, I believe he is the second-best offensive player on that unit. So if you're a defensive coordinator looking at the Patriots, you ask this question, "How many times do you realistically think Hoomanawanui is going to be targeted?" Not very much. Maybe there is a surprise one time down the field, but you don't have to put the same type of attention on him as you would on Gronkowski. He can be singled up, and if you're dropping back in zone and he makes the catch, just tackle him. This allows you to focus on adjustments to the other side of the formation. It gives you a little more freedom defensively, and that's good news if you're the Ravens. Gronkowski had only three targets in that Sept. 23 game, and that's because of what Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was doing -- taking away Gronkowski and forcing quarterback Tom Brady to look other places, and that's when Lloyd came up big on the outside. This time around, look for Pees to try to take away Welker and those option routes. You could see double-teams and defensive ends rerouting Welker. Remember, Pees was a former Patriots defensive coordinator, and his knowledge of the New England offense helps.
Mike: Would you take the same type of approach if you were Pees?
Tedy: I think the first thing I'd say to my defensive front is that there will be times when they'll have only six men in the box to stop the run because we have to worry about this passing game. I'd put some more emphasis on that with the linemen and linebackers. Then I'd concentrate on taking away that inside passing game, which is similar to what others have tried to do with rerouting slot receivers and receiving tight ends. I'd arm my linebackers and slot defenders with various calls -- also using defensive ends at times -- to disrupt the passing game inside and between the numbers. Make them beat me outside. I'd also be concerned with running backs offset in the passing game. We saw Patriots running backs have success in the passing game Sunday against the Texans, exploiting one-on-one matchups against linebackers. There was also a checkdown to Stevan Ridley. The Ravens' defense was hurt by this against the Broncos, with Dannell Ellerbe matched up outside on Knowshon Moreno and Moreno catching a touchdown pass.
Mike: With that in mind, we'll have to watch the effectiveness of running back Danny Woodhead with the thumb injury that limited him to one snap against the Texans. If he isn't effective, it could be another big day for Shane Vereen. Meanwhile, the "retirement tour" of linebacker Ray Lewis is a big storyline on the Ravens' side. From one linebacker to another linebacker, what are your thoughts on Lewis and how he has handled this retirement?
Tedy: I don't have any problem with how he did it, coming back from injury and telling his teammates, "This is my last ride." For it to turn into the "Ray Lewis Retirement Tour," I think it's fine. This is one of the best linebackers in the history of the NFL. To know this is his last go-around, it gave them an emotional lift and helped propel them to the AFC Championship Game. It's just been a pleasure to watch him. We came into the NFL in the same year, 1996, and he always had infectious energy and enthusiasm. Guys would gather around him. He's been that type of leader for the Ravens since day one, and it's rare for a player to have that.
Mike: The Ravens seem to be a team that feeds off that type of emotion.
Tedy: Yes, and I know everyone has talked about Ray Lewis and his retirement, but I think you can also look beyond that when it comes to emotion. Players such as Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ray Rice and Ed Reed, they haven't been able to put a ring on their fingers. As long as Lewis is there, people associate him with that 2000 Ravens Super Bowl championship, but their other great players haven't been able to experience that. Likewise, for the Patriots, players such as Logan Mankins, Welker there are so many players who wear that uniform who get associated with championship teams, and it's time for those players -- on both teams -- to realize they're running out of chances. This could be their best chance.
Mike: When you look deeper into some X's and O's on the matchup, the Ravens' ability to attack the deep third of the field has to be a concern for the Patriots. Cornerback Talib said the Ravens take as many shots down the field as anyone he has played against.
Tedy: Joe Flacco throws a tremendous deep ball, and he favors shots to his right, so, for the Patriots, the challenge is on the outside against receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Flacco's deep ball has such a trajectory that, as the defender, you really have to be behind it. When a deep pass comes and there is a lower trajectory on it, you can still reach up and get your hand on it. But if it's like dropping it into a bucket, like a low-post lob pass, that's when you have to be behind him to knock it down. To me, one of the interesting parts about this is that Talib (fifth season) has never played against Smith (second season). I wanted to go back and watch some tape of the two matching up, but this will be the first time it has happened. So if Talib is matched up against Smith, that's a different world for both players. Talib has played one game against Anquan Boldin, back in 2010, and Boldin was targeted four times and had three catches for 27 yards. So going into this game, there isn't any type of overwhelming evidence of how Talib might fare against either receiver. That's going to be a huge key to this game.
Mike: One point that I've heard from Belichick and Patriots players is how the Ravens have one of the bigger offensive lines in the NFL. That sometimes can make it hard to find running back Rice, who, at 5-foot-8 and 212 pounds, is a bit smaller than the traditional back. That line, which is anchored by Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, also has protected Flacco well in recent weeks.
Tedy: The thing about Flacco is that you know where he's going to be every single time. The key is trying to get him off the spot, which is the area about 6 yards behind the center, and focusing your rush and getting him to move from there. When Flacco has to move, his accuracy goes down. So getting him off the spot, and getting him moving, is a priority. If you give him time to throw and let him be a statue, he can do damage.
Mike: We saw Vince Wilfork dominate center Matt Birk last year, so we'll keep a close eye on that again as it relates to inside pressure and getting Flacco off the spot. Brandon Deaderick also has played well for the Patriots inside. One other factor to consider: Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, one of the Patriots' better pass-rushers, is questionable (ankle), and his availability is in question. That could thrust rookie free agent Justin Francis, a top sub rusher who didn't play in the Sept. 23 meeting between the teams, into a more prominent role.
Tedy: That guy, Francis, is a hustle bunny -- that's what we call guys like that in the locker room. You don't know about him; he might not have the pedigree of other guys, but he just hustles, plays and never stops. He talks a little trash after the whistle. You like those types of guys, those hustle bunnies, on your squad.
Mike: Although Francis is a player who has emerged of late for the Patriots, I know you've identified a player on the Ravens' defense who also has emerged of late.
Tedy: Paul Kruger has really been a factor for them as a pass-rusher, producing some pressure when he's in the game. He's a fourth-year player out of Utah, and he's had a big impact on their defense. He wasn't a player we were talking about much leading into the Sept. 23 matchup between the teams, but he has really come on since then.
Mike: Finally, let's not overlook special teams in this breakdown, as the Patriots struggled in kickoff coverage against the Texans. The Ravens are strong in this area.
Tedy: With Jacoby Jones (30.7-yard average, 2 TDs), the Ravens led the league in kickoff return average. We'll see whether the Patriots even kick it off to him, given the struggles they had last game. When things like this happen, it's almost like catching a cold. You never know when it's going to come, and then it's like, "We have a problem," and it takes some medication, some time, to get it right. Those opposing special-teams coaches will see those problems, copycat those returns, put a few of their own tweaks to it and try to attack that potential weakness. The most important player for the Patriots in this area could be kicker Stephen Gostkowski if he can kick it through the end zone.
Mike: Belichick did make the point that kickoff coverage had been a strong point for the Patriots up to this point, so maybe it's just a one-week "illness" for the Patriots there. The other point to bring up is that the Ravens have some age in key spots, and some in New England are wondering whether perhaps they'll wear down in this game, maybe similar to the Patriots in 2006 after their big divisional-round win in San Diego before fading down the stretch against the Colts.
Tedy: It's something to keep an eye on, but at this point, with the emotion and adrenaline going through all these players -- and the weather not being in the upper 80s -- you wouldn't think fatigue will be a factor. And let's never bring that game up again, Reiss!
Mike: My bad, Tedy. So let's get to our predictions. I think the Patriots have more matchup advantages than the Ravens -- particularly when it comes to their offense. A key is going to be getting the running game going better than they did back on Sept. 23. When Brady knows he has that running game going, and they can turn to the up-tempo approach, it makes the attack that much more potent. Patriots 27, Ravens 24.
Tedy: Here we are again. The Patriots and Ravens for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. This Ravens team has shown so much resiliency up to this point. One thing you don't question is their heart. This will be a classic that will need more than the standard four quarters to come to a conclusion. I've come to recognize this new and improved Patriots defense as a unit that needs only a ring to complete its journey. That D will get one step closer by returning a Flacco interception for a touchdown in overtime to send the Patriots to New Orleans. Patriots 30, Ravens 24.