Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ravens Report-AFC Championship 2013

How do I explain this one? Last week, the Ravens capped off the most memorable football game I've ever seen. In a double-overtime thriller, the Ravens outlasted the Broncos and won 38-35. The game didn't start out going their way however. On Sam Koch's punt following a failed first series, Broncos return man Trindon Holliday returned the ball 90 yards to the end zone to put the Broncos on top to begin the game. But the Ravens then showed the resiliency that would define them throughout the rest of the game. Following a pass interference call that kept the drive alive, Joe Flacco shot off a bomb that Torrey Smith caught for a 59-yard touchdown, tying the game. Just moments later, on a third-and-six for the Broncos, a tipped Peyton Manning pass ended up in the arms of Corey Graham, who returned it to the house to give the Ravens their first lead of the afternoon. But Peyton Manning threw touchdowns on his next two drives to give the Broncos the lead back midway through the second quarter. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense were determined to knot it up heading into the half. In the final minute, Flacco threw up a soft pass along the sideline, yards short of the end zone. An incredible adjustment to the ball by Torrey Smith ended up with a Ravens touchdown and a tied game.

On Justin Tucker's opening kickoff, Holliday struck again. This time from 104 yards out, the Broncos once again had a seven-point lead. Again, an example of Ravens resiliency. The stout Ravens defense held Peyton Manning in check as Flacco worked on tying up the game again. A Flacco fumble proved a slight setback, but it didn't finish the purple birds off. On their next drive, coming off a Manning fumble, Ray Rice ran himself  37 yards down the field, including a 1-yard touchdown run to finish it off. The teams once again exchanged punts, but with seven minutes remaining in regulation, a Manning pass to Demaryius Thomas coupled with two broken tackles ended up in another Broncos score. On the Ravens' next drive, Flacco was unable to complete a fourth-down pass in Broncos territory, and the Broncos were given a chance to seal the win. But once again the Ravens defense stepped up, giving Joe Flacco one minute to extend the season, without any timeouts. After two plays garnered little gain, Flacco snapped off the next play with 41 seconds remaining from his own 30 yard-line. Flacco stepped up in the pocket and launched the pass as far as he could. The ball just barely was out of the reach of Broncos safety Rahim Moore and landed magically into the hands of Jacoby Jones, who scored to tie the game. The miracle of all miracles had come true, and into overtime the two teams went. Throughout the first overtime period, we saw punt after punt after punt. The Broncos got the ball, with a field-goal to win and a minute remaining in the period, the ball at their own 38. On second down, Manning rolled out and looked towards Brandon Stokley. But once again, Corey Graham found the ball and picked it off. His second pick of the day put the Ravens just yards away from Justin Tucker's field goal range. To begin the second overtime period, Ray Rice ran into field goal range, and Tucker took the field. Perfect snap, perfect hold, perfect kick. The Ravens had won it.

Player of the Game: Joe Flacco-18/34 for 331 yards, 3 touchdowns

Unsung Heroes: The offensive line-It seems the magic touch has been found when it comes to who plays what position on the offensive line. Moving Bryant McKinnie to left tackle did it. Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, two of the best at their job in the league, were non-factors, only sacking Flacco one time.

Key to the Win: Resiliency. Plain and simple. Playing in single-digit temperatures with high altitude and being 9-point underdogs, this win was pure resiliency.

Well, here we are again. For the second consecutive year, the Ravens will have a chance to play in the Super Bowl. But first, they'll have to go through Tom Brady and those pesky Patriots. Again. I won't even go back to what happened last year. When these two teams met in Baltimore back in Week 3, a game-winning kick at the buzzer by Justin Tucker gave the Ravens a 31-30 victory. But these are two different teams now. Unlike in the past, the Patriots now have a legitimate running game. Stevan Ridley ran for over 1,000 yards and twelve touchdowns on the year. RB Shane Vereen is a huge threat in the passing game, as he showed by catching three touchdowns last week in the Patriots win over the Texans. Receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd combined for over 2,000 receiving yards and ten touchdowns this regular season, and could be lethal if the Ravens secondary is unable to contain them. One of the best tight ends in the game, Rob Gronkowski, re-injured his arm last week and will miss the rest of the post-season. But don't read into the loss of Gronk loss too much. If Tom Brady and the Pats offense showed anything in last week's rout of the Texans, it was that he has other options he can find to make a difference. In Gronk's place, Aaron Hernandez will start at tight end tomorrow for the Pats. During the regular season, Hernandez caught five touchdowns for nearly 500 yards.

On defense, the Pats are not nearly as intimidating. They rank in the bottom ten in two of the four major offensive categories; yards and passing yards per game. The most daunting member of their defensive front is undoubtedly DT Vince Wilfork, whose size alone makes him a dominating presence in the run game. Wilfork, during the regular season, had two sacks and forced two fumbles. He will be a huge difference-maker when the Ravens have the ball. In the secondary, the impact of CB Aqib Talib, who was acquired mid-season by the Patriots, has been largely over-stated. He has been a good corner, with 19 tackles and a pick-six since joining the Pats D, but he isn't nearly as good as many have made him out to be. Also, be sure to watch out for Patriots LB Brandon Spikes. He isn't dominating, but in his career against the Ravens, Spikes has twelve tackles, and an interception of Flacco in last year's AFC title game. All in all, this isn't even close to the toughest defense Flacco has had to deal with. Unlike the Broncos, they have no major pass rushing threats. Like the offensive line did against the Broncos, the Patriots pass rushers should be bottled up pretty nicely.

Prediction: After last week's win, this sure does seem like the team of destiny. Plus, this game should serve the Patriots up as a  healthy dish of revenge. This game, like last year, will come down to the final minutes. I can't see a blowout either way. I have Ray Lewis living for just one more game after tomorrow, and the Ravens winning 27-23.

Key Matchups for Ravens at Patriots

Ravens S Ed Reed vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady  Edge: Brady
Analysis: This is a close one. The game could end up coming down to the Ravens' ability in the secondary to interfere with that impeccable timing Brady has with his receivers. If the Ravens can do that consistently, this one's in the bag. Easier said than done, though.

Ravens LB Ray Lewis vs. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez  Edge: Lewis
Analysis: Hernandez might burn Ray a few times, but in the end, this one will belong to #52. Hernandez is a finesse, elusive receiver, the kind that can beat a slower Ray. But Lewis wants New Orleans way too bad to lose this matchup.

Ravens WR Torrey Smith vs. Patriots CB Aqib Talib  Edge: Smith
Analysis: As I noted earlier, all I've heard this week is Aqib Talib this, Aqib Talib that. He's a good corner, but remember who Torrey Smith repeatedly burned last week in Denver? That would be future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey.

Ravens C Matt Birk vs. Patriots DT Vince Wilfork  Edge: Wilfork
Analysis: Wilfork's mere size gives him the advantage here, but it's not a large one. Then again, just one big play for him can swing the game one way or the other.

Injury Report
CB Asa Jackson-Thigh-OUT
LB Dannell Ellerbe-Ankle/Back-QST
FB Vonta Leach-Knee/Ankle-QST
RB Bernard Pierce-Knee-QST
WR/RS David Reed-Thigh-QST

None listed as worse than probable

Playoff Scenario: The Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers play the Falcons in Atlanta at 3:00 PM Sunday on FOX. That game should finish right around kickoff of the Ravens game at 6:30. The winners of those two games will meet in the Super Bowl in New Orleans two weeks from Sunday.

That's it for this week's version of my Ravens Report, see you next week and go Ravens!

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