AFC Championship Game Preview

AFC Championship Game Preview

by Aaron Schatz

As they say every week on the NFL Matchup show, "Football is a game of matchups." No matter how successful an NFL team is, its personnel will match up better with some opponents and not as well with others. But how do you measure this? In a season that consists of only 16 games, how can you tell how much of a loss can be blamed on random chance and how much can be blamed on the fact that your personnel just doesn't match up well with the other team's personnel? Does it help to look at games against the past opponent in recent years, even if many of the players on the field have changed? And regardless of matchup, how much does last week's game tell us about a team's current status, compared to their record from the entire season to date?

Any forecast of this week's AFC Conference Championship revolves around these questions. If we look solely at how well the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens played during the 2012 season, the Patriots are very obvious favorites. The Patriots weren't just miles ahead of the Ravens on offense this year; according to our DVOA ratings, they were also (slightly) better than the Ravens on defense. While the Ravens had the best special teams in the league during the regular season, the Patriots ranked fourth. On top of that, the Patriots have home field advantage and are coming off an easy win instead of a double-overtime victory which left the Ravens physically exhausted.

And yet, on the surface it sure seems that the Patriots have particular problems with the Baltimore Ravens. It's hard to argue that 2009's playoff blowout has much bearing on the game this weekend; when the Ravens stomped the Patriots 33-14, everybody on the aging Ravens defense was three years younger, and only five of the current Patriots starters were starting back then. The current phase of the Patriots organization really starts in 2010, but since then the teams have played once a year with all three games decided by a field goal or less. This year's 31-30 game from Week 3 in particular stands out because DVOA says it was the best game for the Ravens offense all season, and by far the worst game for the Patriots defense. How much does that say about this weekend's game, especially given that the Patriots will be fielding an entirely different secondary? There's also the question of what we can learn from the games played just last week. The Ravens were not expected to beat the Broncos, but they brought their best defensive performance of the year and their best offensive performance since that Patriots game four months ago. What are the odds they can keep up that level of play? For that matter, what are the odds that the Patriots will be as efficient on offense as they were against Houston? And how likely is it that either team revisits the kick coverage problems they showed a week ago?

To figure this all out, we'll want to look at each team's numbers for the entire season, their trends over the past few weeks (far more important than just the last single game), and what matchup issues from Week 3 might remain four months later.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. All FO game charting data is now complete for the four remaining playoff teams.

Ravens on Offense
DVOA 3.0% (13) 1.3% (15)
WEI DVOA 3.9% (13) -3.0% (12)
PASS 9.6% (15) 13.9% (23)
RUSH 7.5% (7) -16.0% (6)
RED ZONE -6.1% (19) -6.8% (9)
Patriots on Offense
DVOA 30.8% (1) 2.2% (19)
WEI DVOA 34.0% (1) -5.6% (10)
PASS 53.8% (1) 3.4% (13)
RUSH 11.9% (4) 0.9% (26)
RED ZONE 34.5% (3) -10.4% (8)
Special Teams
DVOA 9.0% (1) 5.5% (4)
BAL kickoff +12.4 (3) +2.2 (11)
NE kickoff +13.3 (3) +15.0 (1)
BAL punts +7.4 (10) +5.9 (5)
NE punts +2.5 (9) +6.2 (11)
FG/XP +9.4 (3) -1.8 (18)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game. Don't forget to also check out our scouting preview in Andy Benoit's Film Room


This is where the questions about the AFC Championship really reside. On the other side of the ball, we know that the Patriots have the best offense in the league while the Ravens have consistently been an average or slightly above-average defense except for a two-week stretch in October against Dallas and Houston. But on this side of the ball... who knows? This, despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the playoffs, is where the Patriots personnel looks much different than it did in Week 3. This is where the Patriots seem to have weaknesses that the Ravens can exploit -- unless the personnel changes have solved those problems. And most importantly, this is where the Ravens are extremely inconsistent. Baltimore relies heavily on the deep ball, and deep ball offenses are often inconsistent. Baltimore ranked 30th in offensive consistency this year, based on game-by-game offensive DVOA. They were 26th last year. Consistency is usually considered a good thing, but when you go into a game as the inferior team trying to score an upset, it's better to be inconsistent. If each team comes out and has their average performance on Sunday, the Ravens will lose by two touchdowns. Inconsistency means that Joe Flacco put up a 3.2 yards per pass, two-interception craptacular like he did against Houston back in Week 7. But it also means that the Ravens could have one of those days where everything clicks, where Ray Rice is gaining five yards per carry and all those deep passes all fall right into the hands of the receivers (and then don't bounce off those hands, especially if the receiver in question is Jacoby Jones).

The Ravens had a game like that the first time they played the Patriots. Of course, the fact that they still needed a last-second field goal to win that game despite a dominating offensive performance doesn't necessarily bode well for their chances this weekend.

The deep ball is generally acknowledged to be the big weakness of the Patriots' defense, but it's a lot less of a weakness since the midseason changes that put Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard into the starting lineup at cornerback while moving Devin McCourty to safety. In fact, it may have been overstated to begin with. The Patriots led the league, allowing 79 different pass plays of 20 or more yards this year (including DPI calls). However, only 40 of those plays were actually passes that went 20 or more yards through the air. Six of them actually started as passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage.

Forty bombs of at least 20 yards is still a lot, but again, that's changed significantly since midseason. If you split the season in half, you can really see the difference. (The second line includes two games where Talib and Dennard were hurt, but also includes the playoff game against Houston where they returned to the lineup.)

Patriots Defense on Passes over 20 Air Yards, 2012
Weeks DVOA Passes Yds Avg C% DPI INT TD
Weeks 1-10 45.2% 59 915 15.5 46% 3 6 7
Weeks 11-19 -3.1% 40 413 10.3 32% 3 4 5
Numbers (except completion rate) include DPI.

The improvement has been particularly strong in the deep middle of the field, where Devin McCourty now roams. Since Week 11, including last week's playoff game, opponents have completed just 3 of 13 pass attempts to the deep middle of the field, with one very long DPI gain (40 yards by Andrew Luck to Donnie Avery) and four interceptions.

Joe Flacco's strengths and weaknesses will really force Aqib Talib into the spotlight for this week's game. After Talib's arrival, Bill Belichick occasionally went away from his usual strategy of leaving the cornerbacks on specific sides; last week, for example, Talib basically covered Andre Johnson wherever he was. For the most part, however, Talib is on the offensive right and Dennard is on the left. This is where we run the same table we've run the last two weeks, which shows just how dramatically better Flacco is throwing to his right or up the middle:

Joe Flacco Passes by Direction, 2012 (includes DPI)
Direction Passes C% Yd/Play DVOA
left 183 49% 5.1 -22.1%
middle 116 69% 9.7 57.1%
right 241 63% 7.8 30.1%

The game charting stats actually show Dennard with better numbers than Talib, although we haven't made any adjustments yet for the quality of receivers each defender was covering. Based on current data, Dennard has a 57 percent Success Rate and 7.4 yards allowed per pass, while Talib has just 38 percent Success Rate and 9.3 yards allowed per pass. Last week, Talib had a hard time shutting down Andre Johnson, but then again, who doesn't? He did do a good job of preventing Johnson from getting yards after the catch.

The addition of Talib also let the Patriots move Kyle Arrington to the slot, where he is a much better fit. Our charting numbers give Arrington 13.2 yards allowed per pass with 30 percent Success Rate through Week 10, which would be the worst numbers for any corner in the league over the course of a full season. In Weeks 11-15, Arrington allowed 4.4 yards per pass with 73 percent Success Rate. (Arrington was back outside in the final two weeks due to Dennard's injury.)

One of the other changes the Patriots made around midseason was an increase in blitzes. In their first eight games, the Patriots blitzed on 16.6 percent of pass plays, and sent a big blitz (six or more) only 2.5 percent of the time.* Since Week 10, the Patriots have blitzed on 32.0 percent of pass plays, sending a big blitz 7.9 percent of the time. The Patriots' defense got stronger by sending more pass pressure: 7.1 yards per play with four pass rushers, 6.5 with five pass rushers, and 5.9 with six or more. Sending extra pressure will be even more important this week if rookie Chandler Jones is out or limited due to injury. For the record, however, Flacco didn't show much of a difference this year no matter how many pass rushers you sent at him.

With the improved pass pressure and the changes in the lineup, the Patriots' pass defense improved after midseason against all five of the types of receivers that we track. Nonetheless, they've had a weakness against tight ends all season long. In the Week 3 game, Dennis Pitta had five catches on seven targets, for 50 yards and a touchdown. (Ed Dickson, however, caught just two passes for five yards.) The Patriots' current defensive scheme also seems to leave big holes on the sides for opponents to throw to running backs in the flat. Those plays were open all game for Houston last week, and in Week 3, Ray Rice had catches of 12 and 27 yards.

It will be interesting to see if those holes make it easier for the Ravens to convert shorter third downs. For the season, the Ravens were just 21st in pass offense DVOA on third downs, primarily because they couldn't connect in situations with just 1-6 yards to go. On third-and-long, however, the Ravens ranked fourth in offensive DVOA. The Patriots defense was only 20th against opponents on third-and-long.

Normally, I emphasize that teams don't run enough on third-and-short, but in this matchup, short passes are the way to go for the Ravens. The Patriots were 25th on defense on third-and-short precisely because they couldn't stop short passes in that situation. They were excellent against runs, allowing just 50 percent conversion in Power situations, second in the NFL. The Ravens also need to figure out why their running game declined so much in the second half of the season. These numbers suggest that Ray Rice is a lot more likely to make a big play with a catch than with a carry:

Ravens Running Game, 2012: Before and After Bye Week
Weeks DVOA Rk ALY Rk Stuff% Rk
Weeks 1-7 22.5% 2 4.67 2 12% 1
Weeks 9-17 -0.7% 15 4.15 13 19% 15

The Patriots were quite susceptible to outside runs, ranking just 30th in Adjusted Line Yards against runs around right end, and 31st against runs around left end. Overall, the Ravens are better running up the middle or to the right than they are running left, so perhaps right end is the way to go if they want a big gain.

One more important split here is in the red zone. The Patriots defense generally bucks the usual regression and is better in the red zone year after year, and this year was no exception. When it comes to the red zone, the Ravens were fourth running the ball and 28th passing the ball, perhaps because the threat of the deep ball is gone.


If the Ravens offense vs. Patriots defense matchup is like a box of chocolates, then this side of the ball is more like a box of Cracker Jack. For the most part, you know what you're going to get. You're going to eat it all really fast and it's going to be pretty tasty. To provide just a little bit of mystery, there will also be a toy surprise. What could it be?  An 80-yard screen pass to Shane Vereen? Michael Hoomanuwanui darting up the seam for a touchdown catch? Aaron Hernandez rushing for 50 yards out of the backfield? Maybe it will be 137 temporary tattoos you can apply to your own arms to help you look like Aaron Hernandez rushing for 50 yards out of the backfield.

Ironically, perhaps, this is also the side of the ball with the most change since the previous meeting. Hernandez and Vereen are in for the Patriots, while Rob Gronkowski is sidelined. The Ravens are without their best cornerback, Lardarius Webb, but they have Terrell Suggs back. Suggs is one of the numerous Ravens defenders who is still dealing with the effects of injury, but most of those players have been moved up to Probable on this week's injury report, so the Ravens defense appears to be healthier than it has been in quite a while.

Suggs only had two sacks during the regular season, but whether he was the catalyst or not, the Ravens' pass rush definitely improved over the course of the season. The Ravens' Adjusted Sack Rate went from 5.2 percent before their Week 8 bye to 8.2 percent afterwards. If we want to look at that split as Suggs active/Suggs out, it becomes 5.7 percent with Suggs out (Weeks 1-6 plus Weeks 14 and 17) and 7.9 percent with Suggs in the lineup. It's hard to take down Tom Brady because he usually gets rid of the ball very quickly, as evidenced by the Patriots finishing fifth with just 4.5 Adjusted Sack Rate on offense, but every little bit of pass rush helps.

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The Ravens will surely gameplan to stop the Patriots' most dangerous weapons, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens' "defense vs. types of receivers" numbers suggest that Welker would be a huge problem, because Baltimore is 30th in the league against No. 2 receivers. However, the more important matchup here is which cornerback covers Welker, because he's usually in the slot. Since Webb's injury, Corey Graham has been covering slot receivers, and he's been very good. The numbers we have so far give Graham a 62 percent Success Rate, 11th in the NFL among corners with at least 35 charted targets. He's allowed 5.8 yards per pass, which ranks 16th.

It will be interesting to see how the Ravens cover Hernandez, and whether it changes depending on whether he's wide, in the slot, or in the backfield. The Ravens were ninth in defense against tight ends and seventh against running backs as receivers. However, as Vince Verhei pointed out in this week's Quick Reads, Ray Lewis has improved Baltimore's run defense but hurt their defense against running backs as receivers. Brady will be licking his chops if he somehow ends up with Lewis in man coverage on Aaron Hernandez.

If the Patriots want to concentrate on attacking Baltimore's weaknesses rather than concentrating on what they themselves do well, that means two things: passes to Brandon Lloyd, and a big dose of the ground game. Once again, we get into the question of how much we can learn from that Week 3 game compared to the season as a whole, because in Week 3, one of those weaknesses was a problem for Baltimore and one was definitely not.

Over the last few games, the Ravens have settled on a lineup that has Cary Williams covering the offensive left and Chykie Brown the offensive right, with Graham in the slot. We don't have that many charted targets to go on with Brown, but Williams has been awful. Williams has 43 percent success rate (82nd) and 7.8 yards per pass (59th). Looking at our charting for the Week 3 game is not very encouraging if the Ravens are counting on Williams to stop anything on Sunday. We have Williams listed in coverage on 14 passes in that game: nine to Brandon Lloyd, two to Julian Edelman, two to Wes Welker, and one to Deion Branch. Tom Brady completed 10 out of those 14 passes for 113 yards. Out of the four incomplete passes, one was overthrown, one was underthrown, and the other two were defensed -- but by Ed Reed, not by Williams. But hey, at least Williams didn't allow any touchdowns.

The ground game didn't work quite as well for the Patriots the first time around. Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, and Brandon Bolden combined for just 75 yards on 30 carries. However, this was Baltimore's best day on run defense all season. For the most part, the Ravens were awful against the run all season, and the Patriots were much better than they were in Week 3.

As I explained in an ESPN Insider piece this week, the Patriots' running game this year really wasn't much better than it was last year. There was just more of it, in large part because their hurry-up offense meant there was more of everything. One reason the Patriots run so effectively, of course, is that defenses are often planning against the pass, even when the Patriots are in non-shotgun sets with just two wide receivers on the field. One of the neat new statistics we have this year thanks to teaming up with ESPN Stats & Information for game charting is a record of how many defenders lined up in the box on each play. From that, we know that the Patriots faced a depleted box with just six or fewer defenders on 54 percent of all runs (not counting scrambles).* This ranked fifth in the NFL; the league average was 33 percent. The Patriots averaged 4.8 yards per carry on these plays with only six in the box, which was no better than average. The NFL average with six or fewer in the box was 4.8 yards per carry, compared to 4.3 yards per carry with seven and 3.4 yards per carry with eight.

On the other hand, a long run of fine Ravens run defense ended in 2012. From 1997 through 2011, the Ravens ranked in the top eight for run defense DVOA every single season except for 2002, when they ranked 11th. This year, they fell all the way to 26th. The defense didn't seem so bad on the surface -- 4.10 yards per carry by running backs was still 13th in the league -- because the Ravens were allowing consistent gains but not a lot of big breakaway highlight runs. They stuffed runners only 14 percent of the time, last in the league, and they allowed opposing running backs a Success Rate of 52 percent, also dead last.

The Ravens also couldn't stop the run in the most important situations. The Ravens ranked 24th in DVOA run defense in the red zone (New England was fifth on offense). The Ravens ranked 28th in DVOA run defense on third down (New England led the league on offense). If we include quarterback sneaks as well as running back carries, the Ravens allowed opponents to convert 76 percent of Power runs, which was 29th in the league. The Patriots' running backs weren't particularly great at converting those runs, but of course Tom Brady runs the best quarterback sneak in the NFL. He converted all seven of his runs in short-yardage situations.

Those stats in the most important situations really contrast with how well the Ravens defended the pass in the same situation. They were fourth in defense against red-zone passes, and second in defense against third-down passes. (The Patriots' passing game was third and first, respectively.)

So, what happened in that Week 3 game that made it so different? Our game charter summarized the problem as "Ryan Wendell getting owned by Haloti Ngata," but Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee (who is not known for being particularly strong against the run) also did a good job sealing the edge. There were also a couple of plays where the Ravens defensive backs just flew into the backfield at the snap.

However, Wendell is a fourth-year project player who became a regular starter for the first time this season, and he clearly improved over the course of the year. Between sacks, hurries, and runs for loss, our charters marked Wendell with nine specific blown blocks through the Patriots' first seven games. In their last nine games, we marked him with just 4.5 blown blocks. (I'll note here that we're not asking charters to analyze every block on every play, so it isn't like all of Wendell's blocks are perfect. We ask them to mark when specific blown blocks stand out as blowing up the play. By that measure, and by the subjective opinion of pretty much everyone who covers the Patriots, Wendell improved significantly in the second half of the season.) Wendell wasn't the only lineman who played better later in the year, as the Patriots went from 4.33 Adjusted Line Yards per carry before their bye week to 4.55 ALY after the bye (which would have led the league over the whole season).

Run defense is where the return of Lewis is good news for the Ravens -- well, run defense and locker-room motivational speeches. With Lewis in the lineup, the Ravens' run defense DVOA has gone frrom 4.6% to -5.0%, which would have ranked 18th for the season instead of 26th. Lewis has looked reborn against the run the last two weeks, and the Broncos could barely get three yards per carry against Baltimore. However, the Patriots have more talent than the Broncos do at running back. They won't be giving eight carries to their fourth-string back, and even if they do, Brandon Bolden is better than Jacob Hester.

The other problem with all this running is that it sets up the play-action pass, where the Patriots offense is great and the Ravens defense is awful. The Patriots gained 8.5 yards per pass with play-action, and only 6.5 yards per pass without it.* The Ravens' defense had an even bigger gap, in fact the biggest for any defense in the league: 5.4 yards per pass without play action, but 8.6 yards per pass with play action. In the first game back in Week 3, the Patriots gained 10.8 yards per play when they used a play fake, including a 59-yard connection to Wes Welker down the left sideline, early in the first quarter. (That one was on Ed Reed, not Cary Williams, as Williams had Deion Branch on the outside while Welker came out of the slot with a bit of a modified wheel route.)


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Yet again, the issue here is one game versus what we've seen over an entire season. Yes, both the Ravens and the Patriots had major lapses on kick coverage last week, but they were still two of the finest special teams units in the league this year. Each team could possibly break a big long return, but it's more likely that neither will. The only real difference between the two teams was on field goals, where Justin Tucker was excellent (he missed three field goals, all over 40 yards) and Stephen Gostkowski slumped a bit this year (he missed six field goals, including from 36 and 39 yards). Nevertheless, given Gostkowski's career history and the general inconsistency of field-goal kickers, I'm not sure there's really any difference between them.


In case you haven't had enough "one game is often different from an entire season" stats, here's another one. In Week 3, the Ravens came back from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes. Last week, the Ravens came back to tie the game in the last 45 seconds. But over the course of the entire season, they were actually lousy in these kinds of clutch situations. In "late and close" situations (second half, within a touchdown), the Ravens were just 23rd on offense and 17th on defense. The Patriots, on the other hand, were fourth on offense and ninth on defense.

So, what does this all mean? Well, the conclusion won't shock anybody, because Football Outsiders has always argued that we learn more from long-term performance than we learn from a single game. A season is a much larger sample size to discover significant trends. As far as the specific matchups go, there's always film to help you correct or cover over whatever matchup problems you had the first time you played an opponent, and to help you attack new weaknesses.

Our playoff odds report gives New England a 69 percent chance of winning this game. With the improvement of the Patriots' defense and the decline of the Ravens' run blocking, I think the chances are a little higher, maybe 75 percent. That's not a slam dunk by any means, especially because the inconsistent Flacco could definitely go out and have a stellar performance, but either 69 percent or 75 percent is pretty darn high for a playoff game. If we look at the entire season, and not just Week 3, the Patriots are clear and obvious favorites to make their second straight Super Bowl.


DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. There are separate charts for offense and defense. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.


45 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2013, 11:18am

1 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Following the "what can we learn from one game" theme, I wonder what we can learn from the Ravens' refashioned offensive line. By installing McKinnie at LT, the Ravens have gotten better at 3 O Line positions - LT (where McKinnie is better than Oher), RT (where Oher is better than Osemele), and LG (where Osemele is light years better than Reid, Williams and anyone else the Ravens have trotted out there). Flacco's been sacked just twice in 57 playoff pass attempts, after getting drilled all year long.

One other note. The Ravens played nickel for the first 68 snaps vs. Denver, before finally going heavy to stop the Broncos from running out the clock in the 4th quarter. I think they will do the same - dare the Patriots to run, and also have your desired personnel on the field to avoid getting an LB vs. RB in pass coverage on the outside.

2 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

I can't tell you how irritating it is for a Vikings fan to watch Mckinnie, who really had a bad year in 2009, as the Vikings made it to this weekend, then spent 2010 trying to transform into a large barrel of lard, as he got qbs killed, then showed up in July 2011 fully transformed into a large barrel of lard, now playing effective left tackle against good pass rushers, in playoff games.

I mean, Frazier had no choice but to cut him in July 2011. The fat bastard shows up in a new head coach's first training camp, in such bad shape that trotting 20 yards put his heart in danger of bursting, like a 1 quart balloon filled with 2 quarts of water. The guy loses a huge pile of cash by being so out of shape, then he goes to Baltimore, gets in good enough shape to be ok for them last year, shows up out of shape again this year, but gets paid for 4 months to do what he should have done to begin with, and now is playng effectively again. Ugh.

Having said that, I'll still root for the Ravens ths weekend, because I'm bored with Patriots, and there are guys,like Birk, who'd I'd like to see get to the Super Bowl.

3 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

I'm always a big fan of the idea of great veteran players finally getting rings. I think there are a lot of them worth rooting for this year.

Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, obviously.

49ers: Justin Smith and Randy Moss.

Patriots: Wes Welker. Last year they had more of these guys, with Andre Carter and Brian Waters around.

Ravens: Ed Reed, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin. I'm not sure if Terrell Suggs has been around long enough to qualify as "long-tenured veteran who really deserves to win at least one ring before he retires."

5 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Well, football isn't important, so I will allow mysef to be completely egocentric....

I really want to see the Falcons lose, no matter my regard for Gonzalez, because there will no doubt be screaming Falcons fans in the Georgia Dome, who danced in celebration when Gary Anderson shanked a short one in the Metrodome, in January 1999. I wanna see those heartless jerks suffer!!!!!

Eh, Welker's had his shot, Reed hasn't, and Birk has been a guy I've admired ever since he stuck on a roster, and then he started making Pro Bowls as a Vikings late round pick. Still bugs me that Childress alienated him, before Sullivan was ready to start.

Justin Smith, because it ain't often you see an enraged rhinocerous running on two legs.

10 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

"I really want to see the Falcons lose, no matter my regard for Gonzalez, because there will no doubt be screaming Falcons fans in the Georgia Dome, who danced in celebration when Gary Anderson shanked a short one in the Metrodome, in January 1999. I wanna see those heartless jerks suffer!!!!!"

Cough, cough. The 1991 World Series. Chuck Knoblauch tricking Lonnie Smith into stopping at second. Kent Hrbek wrestling Ron Gant off first base.

We're even, purple man.

6 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

"I'm not sure if Terrell Suggs has been around long enough to qualify as "long-tenured veteran who really deserves to win at least one ring before he retires."

Well if Welker qualifies, then Suggs does. He entered the NFL the year before Welker did.

15 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

The only Pats left from the last Super Bowl winning team are Brady and Wilfork. Even Logan Mankins could qualify in this category. I know it seems like he's been around forever, but he was drafted in 2005.

45 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

The Ravens played nickel in 77 of the Patriots' 80 offensive snaps, by my count. They held them to 3.9 YPC and a long run of 9. That comes after they played nickel in 80 of 86 snaps vs. Denver, coming out of it only on the last possession of regulation to stop the Broncos from running out the clock. They held Denver to 3.2 YPC and a long run of 11. This is fascinating to me - is it unprecedented for a team to play nickel defense for virtually every snap like this? I would think there's no way they can continue that vs. Gore and SF, although there's also no reason why they would probably want to.

4 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Hard to argue with most of the points, save that the Ravens' D has played really well lately, and McKinnie being back at LT has done wonders for the offensive line.

I think it's closer than the FO scores say it is. Pats should still be the favorite, but you'd be silly to sweep the Ravens under the rug at this point. They just beat a team that was every bit as good as the Pats.

13 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Pats fans note that the Pats have handily beaten the Broncos three times in the past two seasons and would dispute that said Broncos are "every bit as good as the Pats."

(Yes, adding Peyton Manning changed the team, but the Pats still moved the ball pretty easily against that defense this season.)

21 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

It can sometimes be difficult to judge a team that has mostly abused creampuffs, because you're not sure which of the two factors you should be controlling for more strongly: laying the smackdown is good regardless of who you're beating, but some teams have consistent problems defeating their top opponents.

New England lost to Seattle (at Seattle, a worthy loss), the Ravens (a worthy loss), San Francisco (a worthy loss), and Arizona (which, while it certainly has real extenuating conditions, is still Arizona). Three of the four were by a total of four points, and the San Francisco loss was still a competitive game overall.

There also remains the fact that the Patriots destroyed the Broncos (once) and the Texans (twice), shelling good teams. They've got less-painful losses, and better wins, but didn't abuse the soft underbelly as much as the Broncos did.

I'm not saying the Patriots are clearly and obviously the superior team, but there is certainly a good case to be made there.

25 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Denver lost to NE, ATL, and Hou... All on the road. And all those games were still in doubt, up to the final minutes (even though DEN dug early holes in all 3games). Den whipped ATL for 51min, and soundly beat both HOU and NE in the 2nd halves.

They lost last week when their 2nd year FS made one of the derpiest plays ever with 45 seconds left... Going into that play, they had something like a 98percent win probability.

Also in that game they had a pick 6 that should've been PI, a questionable tuck rule fumble, numerous questionable PI calls that converted 3rd downs for Baltimore, not a single holding call all game while their pass rushers were being mauled, and a missed field goal. All those are subjective calls, and I'm not saying they should've been called different... Those things happen. But it really was a perfect storm of stupid plays and bad luck that led them to lose in double overtime.

Your perception of DEN is way off...

26 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

I'm not going to look into Denver's other losses in more than brief detail, but that's a revisionist view of the Patriots game.

Second half scoring: 14-14, with New England opening up its lead in the third, and then Denver scoring two touchdowns of their own to close it back up. At no point were the Broncos within ten points in the second half; the second score was with 6:48 left, Denver managed one more possession where they fumbled on a play that would have resulted in third-and-seven in easy field goal range. If you're going to complain about turnovers being random, that drive started when New England, just outside field goal range themselves, fumbled away the ball on what would have otherwise been second down.

I'm not sure where this "soundly beat New England in the second half" bit comes from.

As to the other losses:

The Texans loss was at home, not on the road, and wasn't "in doubt" unless you use the term very broadly; the Broncos closed the lead to within a touchdown with three minutes left, and the Texans then managed to eat two and a half minutes off the clock. The Broncos managed to run two plays and ended up at midfield after a lateral fiesta.

The Falcons loss saw the Broncos close within a touchdown with 3:25 left, and the Falcons then ran out the clock and knelt down to win. With a broad use, that's in doubt, but not really what most people think of when they hear the term.

Beating the Ravens soundly in the first meeting is a good win, and losing to the second isn't a bad loss, but going 1-4 against the other top seeds you play isn't proof of a great team. Losing three after falling far behind early isn't the sign of a great team, either, no matter how hard Manning tried to storm back late.

The Broncos aren't a bad team, nobody's saying that. There's reason to think that they aren't as good as their stats, though, and pretending there's no arguement there isn't really grounded in the past games.

27 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

When Denver played New England, Denver had THREE fumbles in or near the red zone. One by McGahee and two by Thomas. One of the Thomas fumbles wasn't inside the 20, but was dropped switching hands as he was pulling away from the Pats DBs for a TD.

Yes, Denver couldn't stop the Pats rapid snap offense that day, but Denver moved the ball

32 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

False. So incredibly false that it's hard to imagine how any serious person could have posted it...

Brady beat Manning in Indianapolis three times: 38-17 in his first year (this was the game in which David Patten ran, caught, and threw for touchdowns), 38-34 in 2003 (the goal-line stand game), and 24-20 in 2007 to maintain the near-perfect season.

Conversely, Manning has beaten Brady twice in Foxboro -- in 2005 and 2006.

29 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Couldn't have said it better. When I saw the first PI call against Carter I knew it was going to be one of those days... Don't forgot the phantom holding on the 3rd & 1...

I wish both of these teams could lose.

12 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

'and only five of the current Patriots starters were even on the team.'

Brady, Welker, Wilfork, Mankins, and Mayo?

But there are also Connolly, Vollmer, and Ninkovich.

Are you not counting the injured? Welker was on IR. Perhaps Nink and Connolly were not starters for that playoff game three years ago, but they were on the team. Yes?

(I'm ignoring kicker Gostkowski and special teams captain Slater, who were also on the team in 2009.)

23 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

McCourty, Talib, Dennard, Gregory, Nink, Wilfork, Spikes, Hightower and Francis all had nore snaps that Arrington this past week. While you are technically correct, what we saw against Houston is clearly NE's preference for Kyle; he isn't a starter any longer.

Regardless, I'm not sure why picking nits regarding guys like Wendell and Arrington is necessary or even useful. Whether they were 2009 benchwarmers or 2010 acquisitions matters not, NE's roster is still dramatically different than it was in 2009. Only Wilfork, Mayo, Brady and Mankins remain as starters from that 2009 playoff game.

24 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Something about this weekend's games that I find interesting:
No active players McCourty's age or younger have more career INTs than McCourty.
No active players Talibs's age or younger have more career INTs than Talib.
No active players Samuel's age or younger have more career INTs than Samuel.
No active players have more career INTs than Reed.

38 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Interesting that Samuel actually has a decent chance at catching Rod Woodson for 3rd place in total INTs and 1st among 'modern' players. 5 more seasons at 4-5 INTs per puts him at 70-75 for his career. He snuck up there kinda quietly, imo.

30 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Ed Reeds last game as a Raven, what a great player. Hes obviously past his prime, but in his day he covered like a CB and hit like Atwater. I think he will look good in Orange and Blue.

41 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

I will be shocked if Ed Reed isn't on the Pats roster next year, taking the place of Patrick Chung, who's an FA and is unwanted by NE. Given the mutual love between Reed and Belichick, it's a mortal lock.

43 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Only if he isn't looking for big money. NE is going to have a difficult enough time keeping their new, young defense together even without paying big money on a rental.

39 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

The article goes through great lengths to talk about how the Patriots are a better team now because of all the changes they've made, and completely ignores many factors trending in the Ravens direction (specifically on offense). Here's a list:

- Reshuffled offensive live which has improved pass protection and run production.

- Jim Caldwell taking over as OC, which inexplicably isn't mentioned. The Ravens are running the ball more effectively under Caldwell, throwing more short passes early in the game to get Flacco in rhythm and rolling the pocket to buy time. I think FO under estimates how bad Cameron is, how the Ravens ran no rub routes, ignored the middle of the field etc. and how much better the offense is with those elements involved.

- The emergence of Bernard Pierce has been a huge boost to the running game.

The games to evaluate the Ravens offense on are the Giants, Colts and Broncos game (excluding Bengals game b/c starters didn't play and Broncos game as Caldwell's first). That's roughly the offense you'll see, and it's a much improved offense than what the Ravens have had for most for the season, particularly on the ground.

44 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

Jim Caldwell has done nothing whatsoever for Baltimore. I've watched every game since he took over and, if anything, they are winning despite the play calling.

Pierce is a serious weapon, but he's hurt. We'll see how much he has.

I agree that the OL changes seem to have helped, though NE is going to challenge them in ways that neither Indy or Denver could. While those teams have better outside rushers, NE is both more creative in their pass rush and they have superior interior rushers. I don't expect them to overwhelm Baltimore or anything - NE simply isn't that good at the rush - but I do expect them to make 3 or 4 plays with the interior rush that the other teams couldn't. We'll see if that is enough.

40 Re: AFC Championship Game Preview

heh, Phil Simms just claimed that Flacco doesn't like throwing down the middle; he only likes throwing to the sidelines.