The AFC Championship game is going to be a classic that goes down to the wire.
Could the Patriots just run the Ravens off the field by using their turbo no-huddle? Sure, but considering the opponent and the lack of Rob Gronkowski — one of the most dangerous weapons in the league — it doesn’t feel that way.
I do know this: The Patriots can’t be satisfied with just killing the Ravens if they get on top early. New England must drive a stake through their heart because they’ll keep coming and coming.
The Ravens are a very difficult matchup for the Patriots. They might as well be divisional rivals, they’ve seen each other so much. So throw out the stats and records. The teams know each other. There is little room for surprise — which, outside of turnovers, is the biggest reason for blowouts in the NFL.
Patriots’ players knew last week they’d have no trouble with the Texans. You could feel it around the team. It was similar to the attitude before last year’s playoff game against the Broncos. And just like last year, before that AFC title game, the Patriots deep down inside know they are in for a heavyweight title bout.
It may be comforting to know that the Giants are out of this year’s playoffs (the Patriots have never won a Super Bowl when the Giants have been in the postseason), but these Ravens look a lot like those teams — right down to an ugly duckling quarterback who plays his best late in games — looking for respect.
The Giants and Ravens are very similar offensively: solid offensive lines, a preference to run, weapons in all three areas of the field, and a quarterback who will at times (especially early in games) look awkward, but will take any licks you can dish out, and make big-time throws at the end of games.
Defensively, last year’s Giants were slow and injured at linebacker and injury ravaged in the secondary. Just like these Ravens.
There’s one huge difference, and I think this is where the Patriots will find their edge to emerge with a victory: the Ravens aren’t the equal of the Giants in terms of four-man rush, though Terrell Suggs (upper arm) has improved, and Paul Kruger has been outstanding in the playoffs.
But this one should be a grind.
Brady always has a tough time against defenses that are capable of disguising their pre- and post-snap reads. The Ravens have done this, and will do this. The Texans tried to do the same thing, but it’s just not who they are.
I expect the Ravens, who did a terrific job limiting Gronkowski to just two catches (three targets) in the first matchup, to dedicate all their resources to Wes Welker. Do the Patriots have enough in an 85 percent healthy Aaron Hernandez (last week was a good sign), an inconsistent Brandon Lloyd, and young backs? Expect the Ravens to dare the Patriots to beat them deep. This is exactly why they got Lloyd.
The loss of Gronkowski can’t be overstated. The loss is minimized against teams that aren’t even close to the Patriots in terms of talent. Against a team like the Ravens, the elite players matter more. Gronkowski is a huge “blue-chip” player. Not only can you see it in Brady’s stats (66 percent completions with Gronkowski, 58 percent without; 23-3 touchdowns to interceptions with; 11-5 without), but it will show up against better teams in the run game. The Patriots absolutely have a huge advantage in terms of speed and endurance if they can get to the edge of the Ravens’ defense. But without Gronkowski, they’ve almost abandoned the outside zone runs because his backups are inferior at winning battles on the edge — where Gronkowski is perhaps the best in the league.
The Ravens could exploit their size mismatches down the field. Patriots secondary height: Aqib Talib (6 feet 1 inch), Devin McCourty (5-11), Steve Gregory (5-11), Kyle Arrington (5-10), Alfonzo Dennard (5-10). Ravens weapons: Dennis Pitta (6-4), Jacoby Jones (6-3), Tandon Doss (6-2), Torrey Smith (6-1), Anquan Boldin (6-1). The Ravens might look to exploit Jones vs. Dennard, who has a terrific vertical jump. If there’s a big problem, the Patriots could move McCourty to corner and insert Patrick Chung at safety.
Don’t expect the Patriots to match up Talib against any one player, like he did against Houston’s one downfield weapon, Andre Johnson. The Ravens are more like the 49ers, when the Patriots played left (Talib) and right (Dennard) corners. Plus, Flacco is better throwing to his right. I’d want Talib (and free safety McCourty) on that side all game. Make Flacco throw away from his strength.
I don’t think either team will pressure the quarterback well. The Patriots are not going to allow themselves to get beat deep, so they’ll play a lot of two-deep safeties, and pick their spots to blitz and drop Gregory down as a robber to read Flacco’s eyes in the middle when he throws to Boldin and Pitta. The Patriots’ best chances at a pass rush are working off the attention the Ravens are sure to give Vince Wilfork, and Rob Ninkovich against right tackle Michael Oher. The Ravens need Suggs and Kruger to play the game of their lives.
So that’s why, outside of turnovers, the key to victory will be which team runs the best. It’s a very even matchup without Gronkowski sealing the edge, but I think Josh McDaniels will scheme up some deception, and the Patriots will make a few plays with the no-huddle to gain the slim edge.
Sticking with my preseason pick in a toss-up game: Patriots 23, Ravens 20.
CHANGE OF HEART
Kelly ‘all in’ as Eagles coach
We’ll all get to watch the show, after all.
Just a few weeks after it looked like he would stay at the University of Oregon, Manchester, N.H., native Chip Kelly decided to make the jump to the NFL as coach of the Eagles.
While the feeling here is Kelly will either be a terrific coach or a spectacular failure — there’s no in between — at least we know his heart is in this move. As opposed to Nick Saban’s jump to the Dolphins in 2005 — during which he told them no but eventually was persuaded by money, the determination of then-owner Wayne Huizenga, and the promise that he could leave when he wanted — Kelly did it the right way.
Tired after a long season and several long interviews right after the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly wasn’t ready to commit to the NFL. But after a few weeks and some time to reflect, he decided it was time to go.
“I’m all in,” Kelly said. “I’m not going back . . . I’m an NFL coach, and this is where I want to be. If there was any indecision . . . I wouldn’t have made the jump. I made the jump, and I’m here, and I’m excited to be here.”
Kelly, who just six years ago was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, his alma mater, talked about the Patriots and the spread offense.
“The one thing is that people want to paint a brush and label an offense with one word,” Kelly said. “What Bill [Belichick] does in New England with Tom Brady is not a spread-option offense. If someone tried to make Tommy run the zone read, I think he’d get fired to be honest with you. You need him to sit back in the pocket and throw the ball because he’s one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks ever. For us, it’s about what tools do we have in our toolbox and what tools can we use based on the players that we have. Any great coach identifies what their personnel is and puts them in positions to be successful.”
Browns could get Patriotic
After a long and meandering road, the Browns set their new course last week with coach Rob Chudzinski and Michael Lombardi as vice president of player personnel.
The hiring of Lombardi is a nod back to their Bill Belichick days, when Lombardi was running the personnel department from 1991-95.
“We talk quite a bit, and we talk quite a bit about this place, this building,” Lombardi said Friday of Belichick. “There’s been numerous opportunities to have conversations with him in terms of where would it fit for me [to work for him again] and where would it fit for him, but it hadn’t come to that. I was in a different job at one time, but our relationship is still ongoing.’’
That relationship could become very professional if Lombardi decides to inquire about Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Lombardi, according to league sources, was extremely high on Mallett during the 2011 draft process and helped to persuade Belichick to draft the Arkansas standout with one of their third-round selections.
If the Browns had been able to persuade Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to become coach (he declined all interview requests), sources said Lombardi would have at least called about Mallett.
What’s unknown is whether the Patriots would think about dealing Mallett. Like Tom Brady, the second-year player is signed through 2014. He would be only 27 going into the 2015 season, so the Patriots could sit on him to take over for Brady when his contract expires.
But if the Patriots have an idea for extending Brady for a couple of seasons, it would make sense to dangle Mallett out there now, to see if a team would overpay, like the Chiefs and Scott Pioli did with Matt Cassel in 2009.
The Browns don’t have a second-round pick this year (used in the supplemental draft for receiver Josh Gordon). Not only does Lombardi have insider’s knowledge on Mallett’s development from Belichick, whom Lombardi consulted with often, but from son, Mick, who has been promoted from scouting to coaching assistant with the Patriots this season.
Expect Lombardi to at least go after former Patriots backup Brian Hoyer, who is a free agent. Lombardi said he would have traded for Hoyer if he had been hired by the 49ers as general manager last year.
Old buddies now enemies
Could two former Boston buddies now be enemies? Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and former team president Joe Banner, childhood friends from this area who teamed together to push the organization into one of the most respected in the NFL, seem to be at odds now that Banner is running the Browns. According to media reports out of Philadelphia, Lurie pointed a finger at Banner about a recent cbssports.com story that indicated Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was having a negative effect on the team’s coaching search. “I’m very supportive of Howie, and if there’s any criticism coming from afar about Howie, it’s just off-base, and so I will support Howie completely, because that’s not right,” Lurie said according to csnphilly.com. “And, you know, if there are league sources that are really based in Cleveland, that’s not right. We see through it all.” Banner fired back in a statement. “Any implication that I had anything to do with [the] story is completely false, outrageous and borders on being libelous,” Banner said. The two met through a mutual friend in the 1960s, and seemed to part amicably when Banner went to Cleveland.
1. Like just about everyone else, I don’t like the Falcons, despite their homefield advantage, in the NFC Championship game against the 49ers, who I think are the most talented and complete team left. The biggest reason: the Falcons’ weak tackling in the secondary. Nobody needs to tell Patriots’ fans about cornerback Asante Samuel’s complete lack of desire to get mixed up in contact.
2. The NFL, rightfully embarrassed because not one minority candidate landed one of the eight head coach openings, sent out an unprecedented statement on Friday: “While there has been full compliance with the interview requirements of the Rooney Rule [have to interview a minority candidate] and we wish the new head coaches and general managers much success, the hiring results this year have been unexpected and reflect a disappointing lack of diversity,” said NFL executive vice president of human resources Robert Gulliver. “We have already started the process of developing a plan for additional steps that will better ensure more diversity and inclusion on a regular basis in our hiring results.” Encouraging more minority in ownership/executive positions would certainly help.
3. Bill Belichick was effusive about cornerback Aqib Talib this week. “He’s a good football player, good teammate [and] he’s very well-respected because of his professionalism,” Belichick said. “He studies hard and prepares well. He’s tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him; the team likes him.” That quote prompted this text from a league source, who knew Talib with the Buccaneers: “Belichick is such a master manipulator of personalities [in a good way]. Knowing Talib very well, that’s EXACTLY what he needs to hear.”
4. The Ravens haven’t been a very good team offensively on third down this season (37.3 percent, 19th in the league; Patriots are first at 48.5), but they have been of late. Take out the season finale vs. the Bengals, when the starters barely played, the Ravens have converted 48.9 percent. That’s better than the Patriots in their last three (48.5).
5. My gut tells me that the Patriots will get a surprise score from an unexpected source. Best bet: tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, or Nate Solder on a tackle-eligible play.
Aaron Schatz, the Sharon native who founded FootballOutsiders.com, left us a couple AFC Championship-game nuggets. In weeks 1-10, the Patriots allowed 46 percent of passes over 20 yards to be completed, and there was an average of 15.5 yards per pass (including pass interference penalties). In weeks 11-19, the Patriots allowed 32 percent, and 10.3 yards per pass. And in the regular season, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (including defensive pass interference) completed 69 percent of his passes down the middle for 9.7 yards per pass, and 63 percent for 7.8 on the right side. Throwing to his left, Flacco completed just 49 percent for 5.1 yards . . . The Bears made some inspiring hires in general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman. Emery is an outside-the-box thinker who has openly spoken of his desire to use analytics from such places as STATS, LLC and ProFootballFocus.com in his analyses. That’s blasphemy in some reaches of the NFL. And plucking Trestman from the CFL certainly hasn’t been popular with fans. But Trestman has extensive NFL experience, and the smarter teams in the league, including the Patriots, have been looking more and more at the CFL because those wide-open offenses are where the NFL is headed.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.