With just three games remaining on this year’s NFL schedule, football fans should receive a treat of a match-up in the AFC Championship as the Baltimore Ravens take on the high-flying New England Patriots in Foxboro. This clash represents a perfect contrast in styles, as the staunch defensive unit of Baltimore will do battle with the offensive juggernaut of Tom Brady and his Patriots.
New England has been dominant for the entirety of the 2011-2012 campaign in spite of just how bad their defence is. Though they struggle in this regard almost every week, their offense has been accustomed to outscoring their deficiencies, although employing that strategy could prove problematic against the always tough Ravens. The Patriots enter the AFC Championship game riding a wave of confidence after easily disposing of the Broncos last week, but know they’ll need to expect a different game from the dangerous Ravens.
Baltimore too received a first-round bye in the post-season, however unlike the Patriots, Baltimore seemed a tad rusty last week in hosting the Houston Texans. The Ravens had multiple opportunities to close out the Texans early in the game, but their offense was stagnant with quarterback Joe Flacco being unable to quiet the critics with a solid performance. If the Ravens are to have any chance of staying with the explosive Patriots, they’ll need a much improved showing from both Flacco and their offense as a whole.
Both squads are roughly about as healthy as could be expected for this time of the year. Baltimore has nobody listed officially as doubtful or questionable, and star safety Ed Reed is listed as probable due to an ankle injury, but will definitely be good for game-time. New England meanwhile has a lengthy list of injury concerns, although all players on the report are expected to suit up. Aaron Hernandez, Patrick Chung, and Wes Welker are all listed as questionable, but will play, while offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer may be forced to sit out this contest due to a back injury.
Ravens at Patriots Spread, Line, and Betting Odds:
Baltimore Ravens +7 (-110)
@ New England Patriots -7 (-110)
Over 50 (-110)
Under 50 (-110)
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Ravens at Patriots Pick:
One thing is for certain in this match-up, expect this game to live up to the hype. Two hungry teams both with deep and realistic Super Bowl aspirations will battle in a game featuring a top offense versus a top defense. The Ravens malicious defensive unit will try and shut down the high-flying explosive attack of the New England Patriots and Tom Brady. The storylines are endless, and while I think these two AFC teams are the best squads remaining in the NFL, only one can move on to Indianapolis to play for the title.
Last week, the Ravens looked a tad stale and lacking the fire that often makes them such a dangerous team. Their defense looked susceptible against the rushing of Arian Foster, while their offence was wildly inconsistent and looked out of sync. However, it’s important not to overreact to the performance of the Ravens last week. While Foster’s ground performance can be concerning, New England will not, and does not have the personnel to take advantage if these struggles persist. Moreover, Joe Flacco and the offense will be better simply because of the fact that the Patriots cannot stop anybody. Their defense is simply abysmal, ranking 31st in the NFL this season while giving up 411.1 yards per game, the most in franchise history. Expect Ray Rice to shred them on the ground, and set up Flacco for deep balls to the always dangerous Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. The Patriots have been badly exposed by big receivers throughout the course of this season, and Sunday afternoon will be no different.
The Patriots main strength in this game is their dominant offense. Brady, Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez. An impressive quartet, and one that’s been seemingly unstoppable thus far. That said, going against the Baltimore Ravens defense will be no easy feat. The Ravens possess the 3rd-best pass defense in the entire NFL and should be capable of limiting the effectiveness of Brady and company. Remember, Baltimore only allowed more than 27 points just once this season, and if they can uphold that trend on Sunday, you simply have to like their chances in New England. Moreover, the Ravens rush the passer exceptionally well, and possess weapons that will one day be enshrined in football’s hall-of-fame. The likes of Suggs, Lewis, Reed, and Ngata should wreak havoc in the New England backfield without Vollmer’s protection, and get to Brady forcing him into trouble. It has been reported that Brady has a badly sprained joint in his left shoulder, and if Baltimore can revive their pass rush, it could severely hamper New England’s effectiveness in moving the football.
Though recent history favours New England straight up over the past four meetings, Baltimore has actually outscored New England 98-91 in those games and has never lost by more than a touchdown. And in the last three regular season meetings between these two squads, the games have been decided by a total of just 12 points. Baltimore and New England are more evenly matched than the public perceives them to be, and look for the Ravens to keep things very interesting on Sunday. While the Ravens offense is a big question mark, and the success of their team mostly hinges on getting to Tom Brady, expect Baltimore to exceed expectations in both regards. This is a veteran-laden team focused on making a serious push at one final Super Bowl run, and with their leadership and playmakers on both sides of the ball, don’t be surprised if Baltimore not only keeps it close, but books their ticket to the Super Bowl after the final whistle.
One intriguing trend to note heading into this AFC Championship clash is that going back to 1994, the week after a team scores more than 38 points in a playoff game, those teams have covered only 4 of 24 games (17%) against the spread. This of course is relevant as the Pats put up 45 last week versus Denver. It will be interesting to see if the New England offense comes back to earth facing the imposing defense of Baltimore. Don’t be surprised if it does. Look for Flacco to silence the critics for at least a week, and the Ravens defense to put on a classic performance. I like Baltimore to escape with a narrow victory en route to Super Bowl XLVI on February 5th.
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