NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (11-6) at New England (12-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It may not be a big divisional matchup, but Saturday's AFC playoff matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and hosting New England Patriots figures to be a good one.
After all, it appears you can't go wrong with Joe Flacco and Tom Brady in the postseason.
The Patriots and Ravens rank first and second in the NFL in victories since 2008, with New England amassing 88 in that span. Baltimore has 82, a number it increased with last weekend's 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Wild Card round clash.
The Ravens went into that game 0-3 in Pittsburgh in the postseason, but sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times to highlight a solid defensive effort and got a pair of passing touchdowns from Flacco.
Flacco threw for 259 yards and he teamed with head coach John Harbaugh for their seventh playoff victory together.
"That's playoff football. That's Joe Flacco," a jubilant Harbaugh beamed. "He's the best quarterback in football. We'll take him any day of the week, twice on Sunday...or Saturday night, if that be the case."
Baltimore is 10-4 in the playoffs under Harbaugh with a Super Bowl win and the Ravens have handed the Patriots two of their four all-time losses in 19 home playoff games.
Baltimore beat New England in a 2009 wild card matchup and again in the 2012 AFC Championship game prior to winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens shut Brady and the Pats out in the second half of that game to rally for a 28-13 and avenge a loss to New England in the previous AFC title game.
This is the fourth postseason battle between the clubs, with each taking place in Foxborough, though Brady doesn't factor home-field advantage that much into the matchup.
"It always goes to execution and how well you play because there's nothing that the crowd can do to help you make the plays that you're supposed to make," he said. "I think there are things that -- the communication and the ability to communicate late in the play clock is a strong advantage for the offense."
New England is making its sixth straight postseason appearance, but hasn't won the Super Bowl since 2004 or reached the championship matchup since 2011. A victory in this game, though, would make the Patriots only the fifth team to reach four straight conference championship games.
The Pats won the AFC East with their third straight 12-4 season, securing the top seed in the conference. They have advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the previous four seasons they have claimed the top seed.
New England head coach Bill Belichick comes in having won 19 postseason games, tied with Don Shula for second most all-time and one back of Tom Landry's NFL-leading 20.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Saturday could become a milestone day for Brady after he passed for over 4,000 yards with 33 touchdowns in the regular season.
Brady's 43 postseason touchdown passes rank third in NFL history and he comes in just behind second-place Brett Favre (44) and the all-time leader Joe Montana, who had 45.
Brady also is one of two quarterbacks with at least 6,000 passing yards in the playoffs and no other quarterback has recorded as many postseason wins as his 18.
While the Ravens had success last weekend in getting to Roethlisberger, Brady and his ability to move the ball quick present a different challenge.
"It's different because Ben scrambles a little more and he's a little stronger shrugging off tackles and things like that," noted Harbaugh. "Neither one of them really scramble to run; both of them scramble to throw. Tom does a great job of getting the ball out quick. They're both excellent before the snap."
New England did get 13 rushing touchdowns this season, but none of its players ran for more than Jonas Gray's 412. However, receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell combined along with tight end Rob Gronkowski for 248 receptions and 23 touchdowns.
Gronkowski, limited to seven games and none in the playoffs last season due to a knee injury, led the Pats with 12 touchdown catches and should provide an added offensive punch New England did not have when it lost to Denver in the AFC Championship Game.
"He's a real key to our offense," Brady said of his tight end. "He's a very talented player and we've got to find ways to get him the ball. He's got to be a big factor. We're all excited to be out there this week."
The Pats are likely to have Edelman back in action to. He led the team with 92 receptions to go along with 972 yards and four TDs, but missed the final two regular season games due to a concussion.
"Anytime you don't get to go out and play with your teammates it's very tough, especially at the end of the year where you are preparing for postseason, but all of that is in the past. I'm looking forward to today and preparing for the Ravens and getting ready for this game," Edelman said.
Brady will be going up against a Ravens team that ranked 24th against the pass, but was dominant in allowing only 88.3 rushing yards per game.
And though they give up yardage, the Ravens can also wreck havoc on a quarterback thanks to linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Dumervil set a single-season franchise record with 17 sacks and then picked up another two versus the Steelers. He was part of a pass rush that forced Roethlisberger into throwing a pair of interceptions.
Then there is Suggs, who has had many battles with Brady and the Pats offense. He made six tackles and had a pick versus the Steelers and comes in with 12 career playoff sacks, tied with Reggie White for third all-time.
"He's phenomenal. He's (in his) 12th year; it looks like it's his third year out there," said Brady of Suggs. "He's the leader of that defense, he makes great plays. I think there's the play that's called, and then what he actually does. So even though he has a certain responsibility, if he sniffs it out he takes a shot and goes for it."
New England also may have some respect for Flacco, who has faced the Pats five times in Foxborough and has averaged 225.8 yards per game while throwing nine touchdown passes. His 92.8 passer rating is the beat by an opposing quarterback at Gillette Stadium since 2008 with a minimum of three games and he completed a trio of TD passes with no interceptions in the 2012 AFC Championship game.
Flacco has thrown for 1,399 yards and 13 touchdowns with no picks over Baltimore's current five-game playoff winning streak.
"He's a good quarterback in all situations. He's a good quarterback, period. I have a lot of respect for him," noted Belichick of Flacco.
While Torrey Smith represents a deep, reliable threat for Flacco to look for -- with Smith leading the Ravens with 11 touchdown catches -- Steve Smith topped the team with 79 catches in his first season with the club and added another five receptions for 101 yards against the Steelers.
Known for excellent hands, Steve Smith may see himself facing Pats cornerback Darrell Revis a lot in this game.
Revis was credited with 14 passes defensed this season and picked off a pair of passes. Quarterbacks sometimes tend to avoid throwing to his side of the field, but Flacco said that limits an offense too much.
"I think as a play-caller, you have to just go out there, rely on your guys that you have that are out there, rely on the fact that they have ability. And as a quarterback, you have to go out there and just go through your reads. And if he's open, throw it to him; if he's not, don't," Flacco said.
Linebacker Jamie Collins led New England with a career-high 115 tackles and was one of only three players this season with at least four sacks and a pair of interceptions.
It's never easy, but the Ravens are one team that has been able to run with the Patriots in the playoffs, and obviously playing on the road does not bother the team.
Baltimore is 10-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, but Harbaugh doesn't think that gives his club any added advantage.
"I don't think it really matters. It's a new game. Really, the past, the future -- It's just whoever plays best Saturday afternoon is going to be the team that wins the game. It's always that way. So, I don't think it makes any difference at all one way or the other," said Harbaugh.
The Ravens combined a good defense with an offense that managed to put up points last weekend, but now they face a motivated Patriots team that has begun to see its window of success under Brady enter the latter stages.
"We're always trying to win the last game of the year. We set pretty high expectations and I think we all have high expectations but you've got to go out there and earn it," declared Brady. "It's not easy and this is a first step for us. A lot of teams played last week, we didn't get a chance to do that. This is a week where we can really try to make an impact on this season. We've worked pretty hard to get to this point."
New England is going to have to work hard again this weekend and though Brady may take some shots, he'll probably also have an opportunity to make some plays against a suspect secondary, with a healthy Gronkowski being the difference maker.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Ravens 24
01/10 10:33:16 ET