Game of the Week: Ravens-Patriots
Patriots are still reeling from blowout loss to Ravens in last season's playoffs
Ravens defense is having a hard time forcing teams into mistakes
X-factor in this game could be Wes Welker, who didn't play in last matchup
ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's Baltimore at New England game (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Baltimore returns to Foxboro for the first time since humiliating the Patriots 33-14 in the wild-card round last January. Sunday's rematch is one of the most compelling statistical matchups and storylines of Week 6.
1. The Patriots have had 10 months to put a frozen steak over the eye of the worst loss in the Belichick Era. The Ravens walked into New England's pigskin playground in January and delivered the worst schoolyard beating the Patriots have suffered since 2000.
Sure, they've suffered bigger defeats on the scoreboard. But none came in the playoffs and none felt so thorough or humiliating.
The highlights (or lowlights from New England's perspective):
Ray Rice ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. The punishment quickly carried over to the other side of the ball: Patriots receiver Julian Edelman was buried by half the Baltimore defense on New England's second play, then Terrell Suggs strip-sacked Tom Brady on the very next snap, setting up a short field for Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense and a 14-0 Ravens lead before New England fans had finished their first Sam Adams.
On New England's next offensive play, Ray Lewis ran over helpless Laurence Maroney as if he were a tackling dummy -- and not a very good one at that -- and dropped Brady for a seven-yard loss.
The tone had been set and the score was 24-0 by the end of the first quarter. Baltimore held on to win handily and did it the old-fashioned, 1970s way: by beating up New England in the trenches. The Ravens won on a day when Flacco completed just 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards. It was the lowest output by a quarterback in a victorious playoff effort since 1973, when Miami's Bob Griese completed 3 of 6 for 34 yards in a 27-10 win over Oakland.
The game was a stunning psychological beating, too, for a franchise otherwise in the midst of a period of historic domination at home: the Patriots had not lost a playoff game in Foxboro since 1978; Brady, meanwhile, still has not lost a regular-season game at home since November 2006, a stretch of 22 consecutive wins in Foxboro.
2. The statistical relationship between Brady and Randy Moss had soured over the years. Brady and the recently traded Moss may have been best buds in the locker room. They certainly set the world on fire in 2007. But the statistical relationship between the two had slowly disintegrated over the years.
Specifically, the high-risk, high-reward downfield pitch-and-catch between Brady and Moss yielded more risks and fewer rewards over time.
Brady's passer rating when targeting Moss had declined each year from a remarkable 121.2 in 2007, to 98.3 in 2009, to an abysmal 64.2 through their four games together in 2010.
Additionally, Brady has thrown a meager 23 picks since 2007. But 14 of those INTs came when targeting Moss. In 2007, four of his eight picks (50 percent) came throwing to Moss; in 2009, 8 of 13 picks (61.5 percent) came throwing to Moss; in the first four games of 2010, both of his picks came when throwing to Moss.
Rumors continue to swirl that Moss was shipped out of New England for any of a variety of off-field incidents. Regardless, the on-field trends were troubling, too, and the stats support what the eyes were telling us: Brady and Moss just weren't connecting like they once did.
The New England offense will not be better, per se, with Moss gone. He's one of the great game-breakers the sport has produced and there's a reason he was the one constant on the two most prolific offenses in history: the 1998 Vikings (556 points in 16 games) and the 2007 Patriots (589 points).
But that doesn't mean New England can't be a better team. Remember, earlier in the 2000s, the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years and set NFL records with 21 consecutive wins and 10 consecutive postseason wins. They did it all by controlling tempo as Brady spread the ball around to a collection of no-name receivers with his frustratingly effective "death by a 1,000 paper cuts" offense.
It was an offense that produced three Super Bowl MVPs: Brady (twice) and Deion Branch, who was reacquired by New England this week.
Even with Moss gone, the New England receiving corps has more talent now than it did in the Super Bowl glory days.
3. Baltimore's famed Defensive Hogs aren't looking so mighty this year. The Ravens have a well-deserved reputation for defensive prowess, especially up front as Ray Lewis has backed up a series of mega-studs on the DL -- 2009 Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata most recently.
You probably know that the 2000 Ravens fielded the stingiest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present), surrendering just 10.3 points per game. You might not know that those 2000 Ravens also fielded the best run defense of the Super Bowl Era, allowing a meager 2.69 yards per attempt on the ground. The 2007 Ravens are No. 4 on the list of best run defenses of the Super Bowl Era (2.84 YPA).
But Lewis & Co. have been merely average against the run this year, allowing 4.18 YPA (15th). Consider Week 3: Baltimore beat a lousy Cleveland team, 24-17. But they were gashed by Peyton Hillis: 22 attempts for 144 yards and 6.5 YPA. It was easily the best day in the three-year career of the unheralded ballcarrier.
Baltimore's Defensive Hogs are also having great difficulty forcing quarterbacks into mistakes. Baltimore right now ranks 28th at forcing Negative Pass Plays, with just 6.12 percent of opponent drop-backs resulting in a sack (five total) or interception (one).
The lack of production along the defensive front creates an incredible opportunity for the Patriots. They rank No. 1 right now on our Offensive Hog Index, with a decent run game (4.33 YPA) while suffering few mistakes in the passing game. Just 5.5 percent of Brady's 127 drop-backs have ended in a sack (five) or INT (two). Only three teams have been better at avoiding those critical mistakes that kill an offense.
Baltimore made a very public investment in offense since last season. Most notably, they acquired highly productive receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But this effort has yet to yield results. In fact, the 2010 Ravens look very much like every Ravens team that has come before it: an unbalanced team with a very good defense and a struggling offense led by an underperforming quarterback.
Baltimore walks into Foxboro ranked fourth in scoring defense (14.4 PPG), but No. 22 in scoring offense (18.4 PPG).
Quarterback Joe Flacco, meanwhile, appears to have taken a step back in 2010 after a much-improved sophomore campaign in 2009. He posted an 88.9 passer rating last year; he's posted a very poor 72.1 passer rating this year. Even if you give him a mulligan and remove his four picks against Cincinnati from the equation, Flacco has posted a humble 81.9 passer rating as he enters a game in which he needs 147 yards to become the franchise leader in career passing yards.
The Patriots, meanwhile, counter with the best passing attack in football: Brady enters the game with a league-best 109.0 passer rating and is on pace for a career high in accuracy (69.7 percent).
The X Factor on Sunday? New England receiver Wes Welker. He's quietly on pace for his fourth straight 100-catch season (26 in four games). And, remember, he was injured and did not play in last year's postseason loss to Baltimore. He did, however, play in their regular-season meeting last October. New England won 27-21.
Baltimore's struggling offense will find a cushy reception from New England's poor defense (24.0 PPG, 26th).
But otherwise, the Patriots appear to matchup well this time around against Baltimore: New England has the best Offensive Hogs in the business at a time when Baltimore's Defensive Hogs have played below their usual standards.
New England rarely makes mistakes in the passing game (five sacks, two INT) at a time when the Baltimore defense is having trouble forcing mistakes in the passing game (five sacks, one INT).
But most importantly, the Patriots have been making big plays on defense in special teams. It's helped make New England the highest-scoring team in football (32.8 PPG), as well as the most efficient scoring machine in football, too (No. 1 on our Scoreability Index).
New England will ride one of those big plays to a narrow victory.
New England 21, Baltimore 20
(Week 5 prediction: Indianapolis 26, Kansas City 20. Result: Indianapolis 19, Kansas City 9.)
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