The Patriots/Ravens game was a grinder. The matchup lacked the usual offensive fineness of the Patriots and the signature recklessly-smooth Ravens defense.
The back-to-back fourth quarter interceptions were evidence of what a hard fought game this was by both teams as defense was crucial at every turn. To quote Tom Brady after the game, “I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us.” He ain’t lying!
Both teams were evenly matched in many respects (we’ll get to that in a moment), so what was it that gave the Patriots the slight edge? Three words: BIG. VINCE. WILFORK.
The patriots 325-pound nose tackle set the tone from the get-go. During Baltimore’s third possession of the game (a third consecutive three-and-out), Wilfork tackled Ricky Williams for a five yard loss on first down and repeated the performance two plays later viciously sacking Joe Flacco for a five yard loss, forcing another Ravens punt.
One might think the big guy had worn himself out early, but au contraire! Wilfork’s presence in the middle was huge, and felt consistently throughout the game, which he capped off with a massive performance late in the fourth quarter.
Wilfork was credited with tackles on three of the Ravens seven plays in their second to last possession of the game, including a stop that left Ray Rice hobbling and sidelined for two plays before welcoming him back with a tackle on a five yard run immediately followed by dropping Rice for a loss of three yards. At the end of the day, Wilfork was directly responsible for the loss of 13 yards for the Ravens between his six tackles, one sack, and a quarterback hit. That said, most of Wilfork’s contributions never make it to the stat sheet and as a result, are primarily felt by opponents on the field in real time and seen in slow motion during film sessions.
The 21st over all draft pick in 2004, Wilfork is one of the few players on the current Patriots roster left over from the Super Bowl-winning teams of the early 2000’s. The former Hurricane won Super Bowl XXXIX with New England as a rookie and was a member of the 2007 team that lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Wilfork has long since been a leader of not only the Patriots defense, but the team as a whole. He leads by example on and off the field and is seemingly a friend to all in the Patriots locker room. He has remained the constant in a unit full of variables.
The Patriots and Ravens both played a balanced, mirror-image game, each passing the ball 36 times and running it 31 times. It can’t get much more even than that. The Ravens beat out the Patriots in total yards, time of possession and interceptions (2) while the New England defense got to the quarterback more often (three sacks and seven hits on Flacco and five tackles for a loss versus one sack and three hits on Brady, and two tackles for loss) than the Ravens. Neither offense broke 300 yards passing (both Brady and Flacco went 22-36) and the Ravens rushed for 116 yards while the Pats couldn’t crack triple digits, gaining 96 yards on the ground.
The Patriots defense suffered all kinds of injuries and personnel changes throughout the regular season contributing to their ranking of 31st in the league. Yikes. But this defensive unit sure has looked good in the post season, even with Kyle Arrington missing significant time in today’s game with an eye injury. The Patriots have had the most explosive offense in the league all season long and finally the defense is coming around and holding its own. As Bart Scott would say, I CANTWAIT to see what Belichick & Co. will show us in the Super Bowl.
I’m torn. The Patriots are good for football. I think they have become what the Dallas Cowboys used to be; America’s Team. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s hoodie make for great drama and top-notch TV ratings. Behind Tom Terrific, the Pats also have the second most entertaining offensive player in the league in tight end Rob Gronkowski who makes experts marvel and fans drop their jaws to the floor with every catch. Oh ya, then there’s Aaron Hernandez, tight end/running back extraordinaire. On the other side of the AFC you have the Ravens with one of the league’s top defenses. Probable Ravens lifers Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs have yet to win a ring, each missing out on Baltimore’s championship year by two and three seasons respectively. One of the league’s best rushers and nicest guys, Ray Rice deserves to play in a Super Bowl game. Then there’s the other Ray. Ray Lewis, the medicine man-like spiritual leader of the team who has waited so long for another shot at a title.
In a land far, far away from Foxboro, MA, the 49ers and Giants will duke it out in San Francisco for a chance to represent the NFC in the big game. What’s not to love about the comeback-kid 49ers? The young and intense rookie head coach finally gets a talented defense to play to its potential and turns a draft bust into a respectable, winning quarterback after six seasons of misery. The Niners would be headed to their first Super Bowl in 17 years. In the New York Giants, you have a team led by a guy who has been bullied and picked on by pundits as he was overshadowed by his superstar older brother, until now. Eli Manning has finally proved that he is on the doorstep of being an elite quarterback and could very well finish his career with more Super Bowl wins than his brother Peyton. Who ever would have imagined that? Eli and his receivers aren’t even the talk of the town as the Giants defense has been stellar, providing what could be an epic duel of the defenses at Candlestick.
Each matchup on Sunday looks fantastic on paper, and every potential Super Bowl pairing is likely to yield a fantastically exciting contest.
I’ll pick the Patriots with some degree of conviction, and the Giants, but barely. Here’s why:
Ravens at Patriots
I trust the Patriots offense at home versus anybody. Bring in the ‘85 bears, put them on the field against this Pats offense at Gillette and I’m taking New England. I know the Pats lost a game at home to the Giants during the regular season, and the picture of Ray Rice running wild on them in the 2009 playoffs is fresh in my mind, playing like an scratchy home movie on a projector as the lights flash and the film pops. But I still can’t bet against the Pats at hoe.
This game is Brady or Bust for the Patriots. This season the Pats are 8-1 at home, averaging a healthy 30.7 points per game… that’s an AVERAGE. The Pats shoddy defense (I say their worst in 10 years, as the current D is ranked 31st in the league) is giving up 19.2 points per game at home. By comparison, the Ravens are 4-4 on the road, scoring 19.9 points per game and the defense is allowing 18.4 points per game. Obviously if the law of averages plays out Sunday, it’s a no-brainer Pats win.
If Terrell Suggs can get to Brady and the Ravens sack him four or five times, that will be huge. If Ed Reed - who was injured in the final minutes of last week’s game in Houston - can get his sticky fingers on a few footballs, watch out Boston! If the Baltimore defense is playing at that level Sunday, they have a chance. Last week I picked the Saints over the 49ers because I figured at the end of the day, the league’s best offense would beat the league’s best defense. Clearly, I was wrong, which is why I won’t completely count the Ravens out.
Last week, only three of the Ravens 20 points scored were generated solely by the offense as the other 17 points came on possessions as a result of Texans turnovers. Points were tough to come by in that contest, but Joe Flacco and Ray Rice should have an easier time against a New England defense that is far less intimidating than that of the Texans. It’s still crazy to me that the Pats defense is ranked so poorly with guys like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington. Injuries have hurt the defense, but I think these guys will be fired up and playing with a chip on their shoulder come Sunday.
Should the Ravens defense find a way to grind Gronkowski, Hernandez will pop up instead. Should the Ravens D somehow hush Hernandez, Wes Welker will be hot on the screen game. Should the Ravens D weaken Welker, Deion Branch will run the dink and dunk. And should the Ravens D bother Branch, Robbie McCullough from Southie will jump out of the stands, take the field and find a way to catch a pass from Brady.
Giants at 49ers
I’m picking the Giants because I feel like the stars are aligning for a Giants/Patriots Super Bowl rematch. I wrote an article about it last week that provides a few legitimate reasons for why it’s bound to happen, citing some strange similarities between the Giants 2007 season and this year.
I won’t place too much importance on the fact that the 49ers already beat the Giants at home because that was all the way back in week 10, which at this point, was a football lifetime ago. The Giants were a different team back then, period.
As for the playoffs, I went with the Saints last week; fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Logic tells me the 49ers should win this game. I would love for them to win it. I think the rise of he 49ers from the depths of the NFL underworld would be one of the best story lines the league has seen in a long time. But sometimes magic just happens… How can one explain the success of Tim Tebow and the Broncos despite having a deplete offense run by a quarterback who Brian Urlacher referred to as a running back? Sometimes magic just happens, which is exactly what I think we’ll see Sunday as I predict the Giants will beat the hot-like-fire 49ers in what will be a classic game. Should the Niners win, shame on me!
Last week I wrote that the Saints vs. 49ers had the potential to be the best game of the playoffs, and as it turns out, I was right. I think we could see a similar product this week between two well-balanced teams. Heading into last week’s game, I expressed little faith in the 49ers offense, but I learned my lesson and I’m calling them legit. I still can’t get over the last 5 minutes of that game… wow.
Meanwhile the Giants threw the book at the defending champion Packers in impressive fashion as the G-Men have outscored opponents 61-22 in the playoffs while the defense has racked up six sacks (and 17 sacks in their last four games), two fumbles and one interception. Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul… these guys have everything working for them and I expect Sunday to be no different.
But damn, the 49ers defense was even better than New York’s throughout the season! Until last week’s wild one against the Saints, San Francisco gave up only 10.9 points per game at home, the team didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until week 14 and until Marshawn Lynch got ‘em in week 16, the Niners had not allowed a single rusher to gain 100 or more yards in one game. Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith (the rookie has 14 sacks this season), Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and the rest of the 49ers defense run like a well-oiled machine where rarely does a guy take a play off. The unit plays with the intensity of its head coach Jim Harbaugh, which says a lot.
I won’t count on the Giants running game to be very helpful on Sunday, but I am counting on Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham to produce. I think Eli is good for two interceptions Sunday, seeing as he has 16 picks this season and the 49ers defense has picked off opponents 25 times.
Don’t let the Giants’ win over the Packers fool you; I don’t expect this to be a high scoring game for either team. Yes, the Giants scored 37 last week against one of the league’s worst defenses. In the final five minutes of last week’s game, neither the 49ers or Saints played a lick of defense, accounting for the higher-than-anticipated score, but the Saints did turn the ball over FIVE times in the game, thanks in large part to an outstanding defensive performance by San Fran.
Although Alex Smith and Vernon Davis played wonderfully against the Saints, those two alone accounted for so much of the offensive production (Frank Gore followed with 89 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving ) with makes me nervous. If the Giants defense plays Davis tough enough to make him a near-non factor, who is going to step up and do the damage through the air? Michael Crabtree? Tedd Ginn? Davis is the Niners only consistent threat in the passing game, so that leaves Gore and Kendall Hunter to take over on the ground. I can’t envision those guys getting past this Giants defense.
For some professional athletes, playing to win is not nearly as important as the paycheck and lifestyle that comes along with the job. For others, like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, logging that W is a major source of pride and accomplishment, making any loss unacceptable.
Suggs and the Ravens (10-4) were humiliated by the San Diego
not so super until three weeks ago Chargers (7-7) on Sunday night, the 34-14 defeat not sitting well with the four-time pro bowl selection. Check out a tweet posted by a sizzling hot T-Sizzle a few hours after the game ended:
@untouchablejay4: That was Phuckin Bullsh!t Bmore. I apologize from the bottom of my heart. WE WILL WIN OUT!!!!!!! #byanymeansnecessary
Please pardon his phrench, as clearly, Suggs is frustrated. When this tweet popped up on my timeline, my first thought was, “uh-oh. Guaranteeing wins never ends well.”
Suggs had several reasons to be upset. For starters, the Ravens went into Sunday’s game leading their division, but because of the loss, should the Steelers beat the 49ers on Monday, Pittsburgh would take sole possession of the AFC North and drop Baltimore down to the fifth seed.
“It’s back to the drawing board,” Suggs told the media in the locker room after the game. “Everybody said we’d fall to fifth so what… Like I said, we in hell now, so, but, we got a vacation home in hell. This is normal for us…”
Umm, okay. I won’t pretend to understand exactly what Suggs is getting at there but losing the game to the Chargers stung on several levels and wasn’t cool, even by Hades-dwelling standards.
The long-heralded Ravens defense only laid two nasty hits on Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers in the entire game, and the only sack the Ravens notched went bye-bye with a personal foul called on Suggs.
The Ravens came into Sunday’s game not only riding a four game winning streak, but also enthused for the return of their captain/emotional leader/amazing pre-game dancing linebacker Ray Lewis (from injury) for the first time in as many games.
Despite leading the defense with ten tackles, Lewis’ return wasn’t nearly enough for the Ravens as quarterback Joe Flacco was hammered by the Chargers, being sacked five times and throwing two interceptions.
As for Suggs’ promise of winning out, that isn’t out of the question by any means as the Ravens host the Cleveland Browns (4-10) next week, followed by the Bengals (8-6) in Cincinnati to close out the regular season.
Ravens fans should wait to see what goes down with their arch-rival Steelers on Monday night before going into freak out mode just yet, although ESPN’s Trey Wingo tweeted Sunday that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he was optimistic that the injured Ben Roethlisberger will be under center against the 49ers. I wonder if Suggs and the Ravens will watch that game with the rest of us?