Patriots vs Ravens preview

Joe Flacco. The name alone conjures up images of the waterfront. So when a football observer rightly says that Flacco has the strongest arm in the league, the double entendre is irresistible. The Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback just can’t be taken seriously by fans in bulk, especially now that he is facing Lord Brady. Even when Flacco wins, such as when the Ravens thrashed the Patriots 33-14 in the 2009 playoffs, he gets no respect. Perhaps he hasn’t earned it — Flacco completed only four passes on that day.

But when you look at team stats, the Ravens — known for a ferocious, yet perhaps aging defense — have an offense that isn’t half-bad. They rank 12th in total offense and 10th in rushing. And their 31st ranking as a passing offense led by Flacco looks competitive when considering on Sunday they will be facing New England’s defense that is equally dreadful with their 31st league position.

The problem of course is that the 2011 Patriots have the highest ranking offense in the league and the second-ranked passing offense. Their rushing attack has been derided all season (20th, but certainly better than the Giants’ 32nd ranking), but Brady’s aerial game has more than made up for that deficiency. So far.

Consider this. According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best red-zone passing defense in the league. Could holding the Pats to short and mid-range field goals be enough to make the difference for the Ravens? Baltimore’s ranking as the second most effective defense against the rush will help there as well.

And then there’s the Ravens ground game. When Ray Rice carried the ball at least 20 times in a game this season, Baltimore won (a 9-0 record).

The problem from my eyes is that last week, at home, the Ravens struggled mightily against Houston. Flacco was sacked five times. Baltimore ran for less than 100 yards. The Ravens couldn’t stop Houston’s big offensive guns in Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson.

But with the help of four Texans’ turnovers, Baltimore won.

And last week, San Francisco won by a whisker, not possible without the Saints’ five turnovers.

And the Patriots give up more than 400 yards per game.

So, it wouldn’t exactly be smoke and mirrors if the Ravens were to upset the Pats. Mistakes, forced or unforced, will do the trick. But the stars will have to have a certain alignment. And here is some astronomy for you. The record of the Number One seed in the AFC championship game from 1994 to 2010 is only 5-4. So much for home-field advantage.

Baltimore has played New England tough up in Foxborough in the recent past. Five of their seven games, including the playoffs, have been in New England. Four of those games were losses, all close games. But the lone Baltimore victory was a playoff victory.

I see this game going to the final quarter with the outcome far from a bettor’s paradise. That brings us to Ray Lewis’ summation of the challenge for his Ravens this week.

In fourth quarters, your fundamentals go out the door… You start thinking about a mistake on a previous play or thinking too much about the next play… I’ve said this a million times — the hardest thing to do in the NFL is to win on the road. When you make little mistakes, it’s hard to fight back from those mistakes and those mistakes become turnovers. It’s different, though, in an AFC Championship Game because it’s for all the marbles. Everything is on the table.

It will be all there for the taking as Sunday’s opener goes down to the final minutes.

Patriots 23 Ravens 20

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