In our only consistent feature, we present another AFC Championship preview. (Warning: We talk about how the Patriots are like the Spurs)
Did you want New England? Maybe it was an unconscious hedge on my part, or my inability/refusal to root with my head over my heart, but I really, really did. We bill ourselves as an “excessively macro sports blog,” and all of our Ravens “analysis” is really just our scanning Football Outsiders, anyway, so let’s get straight to the narrative. The Ravens’ post-2000 story is clear: a great defense fighting, usually in vain, against the great quarterbacks Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger. (I do wonder whether Ravens fans ludicrously overrate Roethlisberger, although I’m going to continue doing it.) New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis have won the last nine AFC championships; the Ravens, despite six playoff appearances in that span, have been shut out, and usually lose to one of those teams.
Houston is a nice team. I’m sure they’ll be able to keep this little string of AFC South titles going a little longer, get some nice banners in that indoor stadium they’ve got down there. But this isn’t about the Houston Texans. They just don’t figure into this for me.
Maybe I’m just full of irresponsible swagger, not fully appreciating how improbable our win over Denver really was, and how unlikely it is we’ll pull off another shocker against a team nearly as lethal. Maybe you should just want to play the worse team, and it really is that simple. But if we’re really going to do this, if we’re going to finally break through — let’s do it at the scene of the crime, against one of our signature rivals. When the same teams, the same players are so good, for so long, I think individual seasons lose a little significance, bowing to the historical frame of the matchup. If the Ravens win the 2012-13 AFC championship, it’ll be more than a single-year accomplishment.
Late in Ray Lewis: A Football Life, as Lewis and Reed are the last two Ravens out of the tunnel, Reed murmurs: “We’ve been doing thing so long together, bro, let’s complete it now. Let’s complete it.”
If we win in Foxborough, we’ll complete it.
Did I want New England? There was a rational part of me that said no, the gap in quality between the Patriots and the Texans is clear, and it was evident in Sunday night’s game. At the same time, the prospect of going in to Foxboro for a rematch with Tom Brady was too good not to want. I tweeted after the game that winning this AFC Championship would be more meaningful to me than a possible Super Bowl win would be. I probably won’t agree with that statement a year from now, but right now it feels true. Maybe it’s just my AFC bias (those CBS telecasts feel much more like real “football” than the glossy sheen of the NFC East on Fox), but I think that the last decade of NFL football has been dominated by an AFC “Big Four” of the Patriots, Colts (or whoever Peyton Manning is currently playing for), Steelers, and Ravens. The Ravens have been the Andy Murray of this group, always knocking at the door but never able to break through (the Super Bowl win came before this AFC power structure was really established). Could this be our 2012 US Open?
The odds this week are once again against us. No team has ever beaten both Manning and Brady in the same playoffs (to make another tennis analogy it would be like Juan Martin del Potro beating Federer and Nadal in the 2009 US Open). The Ravens had an opportunity in 2009 before having more turnovers than points against the Colts in the divisional round. For some reason though I too have a strange confidence in the Ravens this week. Last week was supposed to be the game where everything had to go right for us to win, where we couldn’t make mistakes. Instead, terrible special teams play allowed 14 points and we still won the game. How? By Joe Flacco answering with big plays time and time again. I know that having so many long touchdowns is probably not repeatable, but if Flacco could torch the Broncos secondary shouldn’t he be able to do the same against the weaker Patriots? If our offense line could contain Denver’s vaunted pass rush, shouldn’t they also be able to contain Rob Ninkovich? It may be a stretch to call the Ravens’ style of football “old school” anymore, but there was something “old school” about Joe Flacco, in the age of read options and 7-yard slant patterns, playing the role of gunslinger and throwing deep ball after deep ball. Maybe this is the year he sheds the game manager label and helps Ray Lewis “complete it.”
I feel like conference championships are generally more intense and meaningful for the fanbases involved because the two teams are so much more likely to have a history. I can probably count on one hand the number of recent Super Bowls/World Series/NBA Finals where teams and fans entered with real animosity toward their opponent. I’d much rather be in Foxborough this Sunday than in New Orleans two Sundays later. (But I would much rather be in New Orleans two Saturday nights from now than Foxborough this Saturday night.)
To provide some context for the “Big Four” analogy, the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, and Ravens have occupied 16 of the last 20 slots in AFC championship games. The closest you can come in the NFC with a “Big Four” is 9 of 20 championship game slots, and 12 different NFC teams have made a championship game in the last 10 years. This is the cost of parity. The AFC gets an era-defining game, possibly the last stand from two surefire Hall of Fame defenders, against a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback seeking his sixth AFC title. I’m glad Falcons-49ers is the matinee.
For that “Big Four” framework to really fit the era, I think the Ravens have to win this game. Maybe I’m moving the goalposts (if you’d told me before the season started that we’d beat Peyton Manning in a road playoff game, I would’ve deemed the year a complete success), but if the Lewis-Reed Ravens don’t win at least one conference championship, don’t once best Manning and Brady in the same playoffs, then they will forever be a substantial notch below the top three. They’ve been that notch below for years, but the finality is setting in now.
I noticed the Ravens defense has crept to 10th in weighted DVOA, an impressive achievement considering they finished 19th overall, although certainly not surprising considering how our injury situation has improved. It’s nice to say we have an above average defense again. Weighted DVOA also loves the Patriots though, who managed a 96% single-game DVOA in a game where two of their offensive starters got hurt within the first five plays. I’m not crazy about Brady, Belichick, and McDaniels having a week to plan their Gronk-less attack, although the Ravens defense has a nice habit of continually not getting completely smoked by the Pats offense (which of course means keeping the score in the 20s). But I wonder whether recent playoff history (small sample size!) has made us underappreciate just how good these Patriots are. Dating back to 2007, they’re weirdly 2-7 against the spread in the playoffs (and 3-4 in the playoffs, period, since Super Bowl 42), and thanks to the Giants, Jets, and Ravens, we all know that if you run the ball and pressure Brady, you can win these games. But the Patriots are still historically good, and more often than not, historically good should win you playoff games.
I think you’re right that these Patriots teams have been underappreciated due to bad luck in the postseason. If you exclude 2008 and look at Brady’s last five seasons, it has to be the best five-year run by an offense in history. Part of what makes this Patriots dynasty so special is the way they’ve built around a single player at the center while the rest of the team has constantly evolved to win in new ways. Much like the Duncan-era Spurs, we’ve seen this team progress from controlling defensive-centric play to incredibly efficient offense in the course of ten years. Every time opposing teams begin to figure out their scheme they change up to something new. This is what makes them a great organization.The Ravens have probably changed more over the years than I realize, but they seem to be a great organization in a different way; not in their ability to change but rather in their ability to consistently find great players to fit their unique style of football. The Patriots have won in every possible way in the past ten years, it feels like the Ravens have won the same game over and over again.
The Ravens defense is undoubtedly in a better place than it was for most of this season. The return of Ray Lewis probably helps this, but not as much as the return of Terrell Suggs and the return to health of Haloti Ngata (despite making second team all-pro Ngata had a disappointing season). In fact, the stats show that Ray Lewis, while making our run defense significantly better, is a liability in the passing game. He simply doesn’t have the speed to cover the middle of the field anymore. I don’t know that much about football strategy, but it seems like this would be a problem against the Patriots who rely heavily on Wes Welker slants and two tight end sets. This is why the Gronk injury seems so important to me. I know the Patriots looked just fine without him last week featuring the two running back attack of Ridley and Vereen, but I feel more confident in our ability to stop them than the Hernandez/Gronk duo. My irrational confidence in Flacco has eroded throughout the week, but I can’t bring myself to pick against the Ravens right now.
Ravens 27, Patriots 23
Three of the six best offenses since 1991 belong to the Patriots (’07, ’10, ’11), and while the ’09 and ’12 versions aren’t in the top 12, they both led the league. They’ve even changed their offensive scheme substantially within that five-year stretch, from Randy Moss’ 23-TD behemoth of a season in ’07 to the ’12 version that set a league record for first downs. Of course, like the Duncan-era Spurs, this more aesthetically pleasing version hasn’t done won a championship. I’m just not convinced that really means anything.It’s double or nothing today.
We’re back in Foxborough, either to double down on our misery or erase the most painful loss we’ve ever experienced. The New England offense, even without Gronkowski, remains an efficient, in-its-prime machine. Our defense played a remarkable game last week, its best of the season, limiting Manning to 21 points and forcing three turnovers. But it isn’t the unit that so slowed Brady in previous years, and it’s now a unit that has played 94 snaps in back-to-back weeks. I fully expect Flacco to play well, but I don’t think Brady will play poorly just because he’s sometimes played poorly against us in the past.
The Ravens just delivered the greatest win in franchise history, and they have put themselves 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. In football, that is often enough — 60 minutes is actually a very short amount of a time, an amount of time where many strange things can occur before the Earth rights itself. But I don’t believe in momentum, and I don’t believe in teams of destiny. This is Denver again, and I don’t think we can pull it off twice.
Patriots 31, Ravens 24.