Tom Brady has the uncanny ability to stay calm and focused even when chaos is erupting all around him. The battle-tested veteran — and winningest QB in playoff history — is rarely rattled, and that will come in handy Sunday against one of the league’s most intimidating and mouthiest defenses. Brady will be nonplussed. He has outstanding mechanics and a picture-perfect release. He also breaks down defenses in a flash and consistently finds and exploits mismatches. Brady is one of the best audiblers of all time, and if he’s getting everybody involved, just sit back and enjoy. Baltimore’s Joe “Cool” Flacco is a big dude with a big arm. He zips textbook spirals into tiny spaces and throws a great deep ball. If Flacco finds a rhythm early he can be extremely efficient. However, he’s easily rattled and one mistake usually leads to another.
Stevan Ridley will need all the energy and exuberance he can muster against the Ravens’ stout run defense. Ridley (13 carries, 37 yards) struggled in the early-season matchup. He steadily improved throughout the season, using excellent vision and explosiveness to attack opponents. Ridley runs at good pad level and has a nice burst on the second level. He seems to break into the secondary at least once a game. Shane “The Machine” Vereen is quick, powerful, and versatile. He needs to build on his breakout performance against the Texans. Danny Woodhead is instinctive and speedy. The Ravens’ Ray Rice is a compact, powerfully built beast. He runs low and runs hard, and runs through people. Rice has exceptional vision and is particularly adept at changing directions without decelerating. If there’s a cutback lane, he’ll find it. Fullback Vonta Leach delivers bone-crushing blocks.
Tom Brady may not play favorites but there’s no question he has a soft spot for Wes Welker — who has a knack for finding soft spots. The diminutive demon works the slot to perfection. He gets off the line quick, gets open, catches nearly everything, and takes a beating. Brandon Lloyd (nine catches, 108 yards) had a great first matchup with the Ravens. Lloyd has great speed and body control but consistency is a problem. Both Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead have the hands and versatility to be effective receivers. Aaron Hernandez’s athleticism and versatility make him a real threat. Anquan Boldin is Baltimore’s best. He’s a powerful receiver with deceptive speed. Torrey Smith has game-breaking speed and improved concentration. Jacoby Jones has a flair for the dramatic but disappears a lot. Tight end Dennis Pitta has strong hands and makes tough catches.
Center Ryan Wendell has been a quiet and steady force for the Patriots. You don’t hear his name much, and that’s a good thing. Left guard Logan Mankins will hit everything in sight and does a great job stunning his initial block and picking off linebackers. As for right guard Dan Connolly, see Wendell, Ryan. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have great size and good footwork. Both are smooth backpedalers and work hard to keep edge rushers from penetrating. Baltimore center Matt Birk is smart and strong. Guards Marshal Yanda (solid and steady) and Kelechi Osemele (he has the strength to drive defenders back) are above average. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is massive and mobile. He has quick feet and long, strong arms. He is a human roadblock who can swallow up pass rushers. Right tackle Michael Oher (ironically, he doesn’t play the blindside) can be beat.
Rob Ninkovich’s intelligence, versatility, and magical ability to come up with big plays at big moments (a little Bruschi-esque, no?) make him one of the most indispensible players on the Patriots’ defense. You can’t have enough players like him. With Chandler Jones ailing, Jermaine Cunningham (he can be explosive), Trevor Scott (he’s enjoying a late-season surge), and Justin Francis (he has surprising closing speed) could get increased snaps. Vince Wilfork’s quickness, size, and power are hard to neutralize. The man is a disruptive force. Brandon Deaderick has quietly developed into a big bopper. Haloti Ngata is the first line of defense for the Ravens. He has the size and strength to anchor against the run (in the ancient riddle, he plays the role of the immovable object) and quickness to collapse the pocket. Fellow tackle Terrence Cody is a load. He can stuff the run but lacks speed and quickness.
Thick and muscular Jerod Mayo is extraordinarily intelligent and well-prepared and uses those attributes, as well as instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed, to blast opponents all game long. He’s a true quarterback on defense. Running mates Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower will deliver jarring hits but will get lost at times. Reverend Ray Lewis is the leader in Baltimore. A highly instinctual, intelligent, and inspirational force, Lewis always is in the thick of things. Fellow inside guy Dannell Ellerbe is active. Ellerbe can stack and shed blockers and pop running backs at the line. The outside guys are pretty special, too. Terrell Suggs loves to talk — but he loves to hit, too. He’s dangerous. Paul Kruger is underrated. Always solid against the run, he now specializes in shooting gaps and disrupting the quarterback’s timing. Rookie Courtney Upshaw has power and passion.
This is not the same secondary that gave up 382 passing yards to the Ravens in September. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (good size and speed), Alfonzo Dennard (muscular and confident), and Kyle Arrington (instinctive and athletic) are not All-Pros, but they have become solid and dependable. Yes, they’ll give up some plays (every corner does) but they’ll make a lot, too. Starting safeties Steve Gregory (he’s active and tough) and Devin McCourty (he’s quick and stronger than he looks) are playing well. Safeties Ed Reed (he’s exceptional) and Bernard Pollard (he plays with an edge and Patriots fans despise him) are the leaders of Baltimore’s secondary. The ballhawking Reed is rarely out of position, has better hands than most receivers, and will deliver knockout blows over the middle. Starting corners Corey Graham (he’s competitive) and Cary Williams (he’s strong) are adequate.
New England’s kickoff coverage was atrocious last week, but there’s no need to panic. The special teams have been good all year and last week’s troubles will be forgotten with a good performance Sunday. Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are normally exceptional at getting downfield and cutting off lanes. It would help if Stephen Gostkowski can continue his booming ways on kickoffs. Devin McCourty (kickoffs) and Wes Welker (punts) are solid return men. Zoltan Mesko will take a few more bounces like last week, when he averaged 49.4 yards on five punts. Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones is one of the league’s most consistent returners — he averaged 30.7 with two TDs on kickoffs and 9.2 yards with 1 TD on punts. Rookie Justin Tucker has been great (4 for 4 on 50-plus-yard field goal attempts). Last week’s winning kick in Denver was especially impressive for its length and for the conditions.
Ravens LB Paul Kruger vs. Patriots RB Danny Woodhead
On a defense full of big players and bigger names, Kruger has emerged as the Ravens’ most consistent pass rusher. Kruger has the power to crash in off the edge but also the speed and quickness to loop around and create havoc up the middle. The 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pounder was a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in college. He had nine sacks this season but also collected 38 quarterback hurries and 15 quarterback hits. He came up huge against the Broncos last week, flushing Peyton Manning from the pocket and forcing a costly interception in overtime. If he can get Tom Brady off his mark and prevent him from stepping up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush, it bodes well for Baltimore. Woodhead, despite his lack of physical stature, is New England’s best blocking back and will be the last line of protection for Brady. Woodhead (all 5-7, 200 pounds of him) has to get in Kruger’s way and help his larger, nastier friends keep Kruger from crushing the franchise — and any hopes of returning to Bourbon Street.
Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez vs. Ravens S Ed Reed
A healthy Hernandez is a monster matchup for most. Though he’s improved his in-line blocking skills, the 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pound Hernandez is a tight end in name only. He does have the versatility and athleticism to line up anywhere, and he has strong hands. He’s quicker and faster than he looks and is exceptional after the catch. He has the moves to avoid some defenders and the power to run over others. He will fight for every yard but that’s not always the wisest decision because defenders will beat on him while others will try to pry the ball loose. Reed is one the best safeties in history. He is highly intelligent and instinctual. The 5-11, 205-pounder has the size and athleticism to match up with Hernandez (and anybody else, for that matter). Reed is a gambling ballhawk (61 career interceptions, 11 forced fumbles) and more often than not, his bets pay off. His open-field hits are the stuff of legend and he is regularly writing checks to the NFL for his borderline head shots. He must be accounted for on every snap.
RAVENS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Steady hand: There may not be a streakier player in the land than Joe Flacco. If the QB gets hot early, this offense rolls. If not, this offense gets rocked. He must play like Joe Montana and not Joe Bag O’Doughnuts.
2. Screen shots: Ray Rice does have the muscle to bang between the tackles but he’s much more effective in space. It’s important to hit him on some screens and let him weave his way through the second and third levels.
3. Press coverage: Well, everybody tries to stop Wes Welker, but nobody really can. But you can’t stop trying. Disrupting Welker’s timing at the snap prevents him getting into his route quickly and moving the chains consistently.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. High octane: Nobody runs the hurry-up better than Tom Brady. The Patriots need to establish the tempo early and try to wear out the Ravens’ defense — which has a lot of stars, but a good many of whom are a little long in the tooth.
2. Even Stevan: The running backs struggled against Baltimore in September but you can’t beat this team by being one-dimensional. There are four capable backs on the roster, so spread the wealth and let them dent the defense.
3. New wrinkles: These teams have played each other a lot recently and there aren’t a lot of secrets. Or are there? If there’s anything new (or rarely used) in the playbook, it’s time to drag it out and see if you can’t catch the Ravens off guard.
Patriots 31, Ravens 28