The 2012 NFL Divisional weekend was one of the most exciting weekends in as long as I can remember. The New England Patriots halted the Denver Broncos' "Cinderella" season-in-progress, while the Baltimore Ravens weathered the fury that was brought by the Houston Texans setting the stage for one helluva AFC Championship showdown this weekend.
But just like the AFC, the NFC contests proved to have their own flair, and for more on that (and a full preview of this weekend's showdown) check out our NFC Championship Game Analysis.
One side note that comes from a person who is old enough to remember both "The Catch", and "The Catch 2", congratulations to 49ers TE Vernon Davis and QB Alex Smith for their accomplishment— "The Catch 3"—each 'catch' is equipped with a clickable video link!
Now let's turn our attention to the Patriots and Ravens.
The Quick Read:
The Patriots and Ravens squared off in Week 6 of the regular season with the Patriots earning a very hard overtime victory by a score of 23-20, and much of the same could be expected here in the Championship game as well.
The key to the Patriots winning this contest will be shutting down Ravens running back Ray Rice who has utterly torched the Patriots in just three career outings, rushing for 437 total yards from scrimmage, and conversely, the key to the Ravens beating the Patriots is to get Rice going early and often in order to hold the Patriots high powered aerial attack hostage.
Many would jump the gun and say all Ravens QB Joe Flacco has to do is take advantage of the league's 31st ranked passing defense (yards allowed), but keep in mind the Patriots are just as stingy as the Ravens when it comes to points allowed (ranked 15th in the league) so it only seems easy on paper.
The New England Patriots boast a quick attack tailored around the best TE duo in the NFL (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), and that element of their passing attack is complimented by the ever so elusive slot receiver Wes Welker, and while the Ravens can move the ball through the air themselves, they aren't exactly on-par with New England—passing edge here goes to the Patriots.
The Baltimore Ravens boast one of the league's best ground assault led by RB Ray Rice who is slowly earning the title of a "Patriot killer" with his 437 yards from scrimmage in just three contests which is mentioned above—the Pats primarily use the ground assault as a situational element of their attack, not a primary weapon—rushing edge here clearly goes to the Ravens.
Defensively, there are some interesting considerations
The Ravens boast the league's 3rd ranked defense who also ranks 3rd in total sacks.
The Ravens didn't seem to struggle much against the Patriots' stout offensive line in Week six, and they were able to wreak havoc for four full quarters, despite losing a close contest.
In the end, the defensive edge sways ever so slightly to the Ravens.
On the special teams front, both teams played a full 16 admirably, but nothing too explosive to speak of. The Patriots do feature the speed tandem of Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead, while the Ravens primarily run with Lardarius Webb for both punt and kick returns, and both teams feature adequate blocking—edge is a Draw.
The Final Analysis:
Despite the in-season value, statistical comparisons are mostly useless at this point in the 2012 playoffs.
Yes we can talk about the Pats high-powered offense and their ability to dismantle just about any team in any given situation—even if they're down by 21 after a quarter of play—and yes, we could also talk all-day about Baltimore's ironfisted defense that systematically constricts the opposition as each daunting quarter passes by, but the the fact of the matter is, it doesn't mean squat anymore.
The Saints were supposed to dispose of the upstart 49ers—I was one of those believers—but it didn't happen. The Packers were expected...expected, to halt the Giants' advance towards a potential Championship berth, but it didn't happen.
No, at this point it comes down to two things: Heart, and Strategy.
As a writer, there is no way I can speak of an individual team's heart: I don't play for them, and I am not in their locker room, so I have to assume they both come into this contest ramped up.
What I can speak of (or theorize anyway) is the strategy and personal observations.
The Patriots will try and jump on the Ravens early if they want to remove Ravens RB Ray Rice from the equation. If they can do this, I don't think Ravens QB Joe Flacco can beat the Patriots through the air exclusively, or in comeback mode.
Conversely, the Ravens found more in-season success this year by limiting Joe Flacco's pass attempts and going run first with the lead, so either way, one dictates the other.
In the end, I also have to take into account consistency and the Patriots do have the edge here. At this level in post-season play, consistency is the one factor that cannot be strategized against.
Both teams boast formidable aspects that will keep this game close, but in the end, I believe it will be the intangibles that help catapult this week's AFC Championship winner—The New England Patroits to a 27-24 victory