Cheat Sheet: Remember the last Ravens-Pats matchup? Well forget it!
The Ravens and Patriots have a rich playoff history that’s been well-documented over the past several days.
You know the facts by now: Joe Flacco has faced Tom Brady in three postseason games, all of which were played in New England, and only one of them resulted in a Patriots victory. That one Brady win over “January Joe” Flacco was an awfully close one, 23-20 with the 2012 AFC Championship Game ultimately decided in the final minute when Sterling Moore made the play of his career on a pass to Lee Evans in the end zone. Next up was Billy Cundiff missing a field goal on an attempt that would have sent the game to overtime.
So, Flacco owns Brady, right? And the Ravens are going to storm right into Foxborough and give the Patriots hell on Saturday night?
Maybe, but that’s by no means a sure thing.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Those past meetings have very little to do with the one on Saturday night.
The NFL changes from week to week, and regardless of whether the stat heads want to believe it, teams can fully change from year to year, too. Take Baltimore, for example. The 2012-13 Ravens were a Super Bowl-winning team that went on the road and beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before defeating Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl. It was a special team; one for the ages that will never be forgotten in the city of Baltimore. It was also one led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on defense and featured Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger in starring roles in big games. It was an offense that had Flacco passing behind Bryant McKinnie and Matt Birk and tossing to Anquan Boldin over the middle and Ray Rice out of the backfield. It was a team that had Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson at tight end and Jim Caldwell running the offense, with Teryl Austin handling defensive backs. In short, it was a very different team than these current Ravens.
Better or worse, only time will tell; but different it was.
Baltimore’s 2014 53-man roster has 36 players who weren’t on the title squad from 2012. That’s more than half (math was always my strong suit). The coaching staff has been shuffled and re-shuffled. If anything, the Baltimore roster from last season’s 41-7 blowout loss to the Patriots in Week 16 more closely resembles this roster than does the Super Bowl version.
Furthermore, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski didn’t play in either of the Patriots’ playoff losses to the Ravens. He was still at the University of Arizona, sowing whatever wild oats Gronk hadn’t yet sowed, during the first one. He missed the second one with a broken arm. He didn’t play in last year’s regular-season game, either. Also, at the time of that last playoff meeting two seasons ago, Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis was recovering from ACL surgery with the Jets, Brandon LaFell was on a listless Panthers team, Brandon Browner was just emerging with the Seahawks, and Jamie Collins wasn’t even a blip on NFL scouts’ radars.
There’s history between these two teams, yes. The quarterbacks know each other quite well. The head coaches do, too. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was with the Patriots for years. Bill Belichick and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome were colleagues in Cleveland.
But this Patriots team is a different one — and by all accounts, a better one — than the one that lost to Baltimore two years ago in the playoffs.
The Ravens are a different team, too.
New year. New slate. Enough with the past.
Let’s just play ball.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week
Flacco has beaten Brady twice in Foxborough in the playoffs. Who’s the only other starting quarterback to beat Brady in Foxborough in the postseason?
Cheat Sheet Throwback Jersey of the Week
Saturday will mark Steve Smith’s 11th career postseason game. In his first, back in January 2004, the Panthers beat the Cowboys 29-10. Here’s a throwback jersey for the Dallas starting quarterback that day, one Quincy Carter:
Now, on to the picks.
Last week’s record: 3-1
Baltimore at New England
There are several great one-on-one matchups to watch in this late Saturday afternoon treat, but I’m already excited for the potential duel between Smith and Revis. The former was quiet during the first few drives of last weekend’s wild-card game, only to explode for five big catches for 101 yards in an upset win in Pittsburgh. The latter is playing in his first playoff game in four years.
At 35 years old, Smith has rejuvenated his career in Baltimore, putting up strong statistics in a 79-catch, 1,065-yard season. Smith hadn’t caught more than 79 balls since 2007, and Torrey Smith’s 49 grabs were the next-highest total on the Ravens this season. If Baltimore’s offense lacked an edge or “meanness” last year, it certainly filled that void with the acquisition of Smith. “Blood and guts” jokes aside, the 5-foot-9 sparkplug has saved his best for the biggest of stages this season; the fun subplot is that Smith could have been a Patriot this year.
“This was my first time being a free agent,” Smith said Wednesday in Baltimore. “Everything was new to me being a free agent. I really just went in there not thinking about what was lined up, but just kind of taking it one trip at a time, going with my gut, and experiencing being a free agent for the first time.”
Belichick and Smith did do the dance back in March. “We had a conversation that indicated that [the Patriots] were very interested in me,” Smith said when he signed with Baltimore. “And I was also open to going there as well, but I really felt like after sitting here that this is the place that I felt would best fit me, and they convinced me that I would fit in here very well.”
You have to imagine that Revis — the game’s most suffocating man-to-man cornerback — will be lined up across from Smith on Saturday. Though he’s played the left side in some games, Revis went man-to-man and shut down A.J. Green in a Patriots win over the Bengals earlier this season. I’d expect a lot of Revis-Smith in this one. When asked Wednesday if Revis is still one of the best shutdown cornerbacks in the game, Smith had this to say: “I think his ID and social security number will say he’s still Revis. I don’t think you get a one-year deal for $10 million for being a slouch. Revis can play. He’s a great corner.”
Revis respects number 89 right back.
I love this matchup, and I love Baltimore’s toughness. I wasn’t the least bit surprised the Ravens took care of business last week. But this Patriots team is something else, and New England’s defensive backfield is a hell of a lot better than the one Flacco torched a week ago in Pittsburgh. I expect this one to be an all-time classic, and I’m going with the upset. Flacco, as he’s done the last five times he’s taken the field in the postseason, will find a way. Ravens win on a Justin Tucker field goal on the final play of the game.
Carolina at Seattle
I had John Lynch on my NFL on FOX podcast this week, and we agreed this isn’t the same Panthers team that faced the Seahawks back in Week 8. Carolina has cut ties with veterans defensive back Antoine Cason and receiver Jason Avant and benched safety Thomas DeCoud. Now, the Panthers are getting big production from corner Bene Benwikere, safety Tre Boston, receiver Philly Brown and offensive linemen Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. Rookie. Rookie. Rookie. Rookie. Rookie. Toss in receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and that’s some crop of first-year contributors for a team in the divisional round. The running game is the best it has been in years, and quarterback Cam Newton is playing well. The Panthers defense is a delight to watch — its 2014 season is truly a story of overcoming adversity — and that unit won’t be scared Saturday night in the presence of the 12th Man.
But to ask the Panthers to win in Seattle is a bit much. They’ll bring it, but they’ll come up short on Saturday night.
If you’re a fan of superior linebacker play, you won’t find better middle linebackers than the ones featured in this one — Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The pick: Seahawks 19, Panthers 14
Dallas at Green Bay
Green Bay hasn’t hosted Dallas in a playoff game since the Ice Bowl in 1967. The Cowboys haven’t lost on the road this season, the Packers haven’t lost at home. And oh yeah, these happen to have two of the biggest fan bases in the country. So to call this a “big one” is an understatement. The mystique of Lambeau Field in January has been a bit tainted in recent years, though; I’ve seen Michael Vick and the Falcons beat the Packers in the wild-card round a dozen years ago, the Giants beat the Packers at Lambeau twice, and Colin Kaepernick and the 49es get the best of the Packers last season in the wild-card round.
I think this Dallas team is built to compete in games just like this one. The Cowboys may have some flash to them, but they’re a line-of-scrimmage team. The problem for Dallas is, this season, Green Bay is, too. Though the Packers’ blockers are far less decorated, I’ve been as impressed with the interior offensive line play of Josh Sitton, Corey Linsley, and T.J. Lang as I have been with the Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin trio in Dallas. Aaron Rodgers is a gamer, he’ll go despite his calf injury — and he’ll extend an absurd streak of 38 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over the last two years at home.
Sorry, Governor Christie.
The pick: Packers 31, Cowboys 23
Indianapolis at Denver
The Colts offense didn’t look sharp last week in Indy’s 26-10 home win over the Bengals. T.Y. Hilton dropped at least three catchable passes, running back Dan Herron fumbled in a crucial situation and rookie Donte Moncrief had a stupid block-in-the-back penalty that negated a touchdown. But Andrew Luck was sublime and the offensive line played wonderfully. I think that’s enough to beat the Bengals at home.
But you’re going to need a bigger boat in Denver. Too much firepower, too much on the line, and too much pass rush from the Broncos. I believe Indianapolis is close but not there yet.
The pick: Broncos 34, Colts 17
Reader Email of the Week
I thought you’d get a kick out of this. My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said “Something useful”. So, instead of video games or socks or underwear or a new hunting knife, she got me a universal television/DVD/sound system remote control, a bunch of batteries, and a sweet cooler for my beers. I’m only 30. I am already the stereotypical American Dad.
Howell, New Jersey
No shame in getting a lot of batteries for Christmas. I’d love more batteries. I’m always running out of batteries. I was in Indianapolis last week for Bengals-Colts, and a guy had his iPhone attached to a giant stick and he was waving it all over the place in the first row during pregame. I’m standing there, looking up at him, wondering what this maniacal instrument in his hand is. Finally, I had to ask him. “It’s a SELFIE STICK,” he told me. Yes, a SELFIE STICK. This is real. You can attach your phone to a long stick and take selfies of yourself, family, and friends. Really capture the moment, you know? Yep, the end is near.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week
Mark Sanchez is the only NFL quarterback other than Joe Flacco to beat Tom Brady in a postseason game in Foxborough; Sanchez threw for 194 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as his Jets took down Brady’s Patriots 28-21 in the divisional round on Jan. 16, 2011. It remains the last playoff win for both Sanchez and the Jets.