NFL

AFC Championship Game: Baltimore at New England

Baltimore comes in as a sizable touchdown underdog in New England, but don’t feel bad for the Ravens. The Patriots are coming off a dominant performance against Denver in all phases, but I have a feeling the Ravens are waiting in the weeds, with people underestimating how good Houston’s defense is.

This should be a fascinating matchup, as Baltimore won here two years ago in convincing fashion. In their last regular season game last season, had a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter and frustrated Tom Brady for most of the game, before New England came back and won in overtime. Wes Welker was injured just before that playoff matchup, and Rob Gronkowski hadn’t emerged as the weapon he has become over the last year and a half yet (1 catch in that game, 6 career catches and 2 touchdowns prior in 4 games).

When New England has the ball, the key, of course, is to move the ball without having the big turnover. Baltimore’s playoff success has been keyed on getting turnovers. It happened in that Wildcard round game two years ago, and for much of their playoff games over the last four years. I expect Aaron Hernandez to play a key role in this one, lining up in a variety of spots and moving around to identify coverages. If Brady has time and does not get tricked into a pick or caught on a blitz, then he can make plays to his tight ends.

The biggest key, though, is the other side of the ball, where Baltimore’s offense has an opportunity to make plays. Here’s an interesting thing, and I think it illustrates just how unpredictable this game is. Most quarterbacks see their success hinge on the quality of the defense, with better numbers against worse defenses. Not the case with Baltimore’s passing offense, though, as the correlation coefficient between Flacco’s net yards per pass in a particular defense, and the opponent’s season-long net yards per pass average is -0.10. Basically, no relationship (and a slightly inverse one). Further, the correlation between opponent sack rate and Flacco’s net yards per attempt is +0.51. Let’s put that in English. In 2011, the better the opponent has been over the course of the season at generating sacks, the better Flacco and the passing game has been at making big plays.

What do we make of this? I think we make of it the same conclusion Houston reached entering last week’s matchup–take away big plays to Torrey Smith, and make the offense execute. In the 6 games where Smith averaged over 19 yards per reception, the Ravens were 6-0 and averaged 28.5 points. In the others, they averaged 18 points and went 7-4. Houston put Joseph on Torrey Smith and limited him to one catch last game, opting to let Anquan Boldin, and dumpoffs to Rice, beat them. It was a good strategy, undone only by the turnovers by their own offense.

New England, though, doesn’t have a Johnathan Joseph, and will have to use a variety of looks to take away Smith’s big play potential. While Ray Rice is an excellent receiving back, Baltimore is only 4-8 when Rice has 7 or more catches in a game for his career. Some of that is throwing more in general when behind, but I think some of it is also a reflection of taking away bigger plays in the passing game and making Flacco uncomfortable. I think preventing big plays, particularly to Smith, is the key for the Patriots, moreso than generating early pressure. This game may depend on whether Torrey Smith has highlights.

The Line: New England by 7.5

My Pick: New England is the favorite for a reason, but that pass defense concerns me. We saw the Packers pass defense let them down in a big way last week at home, and despite last week’s performance against a bad passing offense, I’m not ready to anoint them yet. Flacco and the Ravens passing game is the wildcard, but Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and company are “on scholarship” too, and I think they will keep it close if not help win it outright. Baltimore +7.5

[photo via Getty]

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