Are the Baltimore Ravens a team of destiny? Can anybody stop the New England Patriots offense? What does the Gronk injury mean? Let's take a closer look at this AFC conference championship.
Here's a point spread that I expected to come out higher than it should have. In the theoretical look-ahead line prior to the Divisional round, the Patriots were actually -6 favorites vs the Ravens. That's very surprising on every level. What did we see over the weekend to suggest this should come out at -9? By my numbers, the Patriots are clearly more than touchdown favorites in this match-up. I have the "true line" at -7.5. Throughout the week we've seen a trickle of support for the Ravens as we are now looking at -7.5 to -8's across the board. Where will this line go leading up to kickoff? I can't imagine it hitting -7 as most of the general public will be betting both favorites this weekend.
No Mysteries in This Game
Some gave me some misguided slack a couple weeks ago when I called Ray Lewis "overrated" after the Wild Card game, but what people seemed to ignore was the fact that I clearly was referring to his ability to contain pass-catchers over the middle and in space. I was also referring to the current version of Ray Lewis, not the guy from yesteryear.
People can point to his tackle totals this post-season, but we all know those are inflated stats - often times coming as second man in and assisted tackles. If you actually watched the game or caught some replays on tape, you'll see how rusty he's been and how often teams have taken advantage of his speed deficit. Look for Brady and company to do more of the same this weekend. Big advantage Patriots.
Patriots lost Gronkowski, but they've been down this road earlier in the season. The completion percentage, YPP, and TD-INT ratio all went down with him out of the lineup, but when I say "down" it must be taken in context. This offense is a well-oiled machine with or without Gronk.
One aspect of the improved Patriots defense that is finally getting more attention is the acquisition of Aqib Talib. It took him a while to get adjusted and overcome some injury problems, but he's settled right in and put some semblence of stability in that secondary. The trickle down effect on the guys around him has been noticeable as the consistent gaffs in coverage are not nearly as prevalent as they were in the first half of the season.
Flacco has impressed this post-season and surpassed my expectations by a long-shot. He deserves a lot of credit for not only being a major difference maker, but for overcoming the challenges he faced in Denver. He's shown these flashed of moxy before, but there always seems to be some kind of major speed bump somewhere along the way. In fact, after a great start, his numbers continued to trend towards mediocre before this final surge late in the season.
It's this kind of inconsistency that will remain to leave doubters with major questions - especially in big moments such as this. The thing he has going for him is no one expects them to win this week. It's very similiar to what we had last week when they were -9 point underdogs.
As usual, much of Baltimore's success will rest on the legs of Ray Rice. The Patriots rank near the very top in rush defense efficiency, although some of that is due to the fact that teams become one-dimensional after falling behind.
If Rice can reach the 25-30 carry/touch range, the Ravens might actually be in a position to give the Patriots some concerns.
That said, without a strong pass rush from their defense it might not matter what they do on offense. I haven't seen much from this defense to suggest they are about to dominate, or even win, the line of scrimmage on Sunday. What could be even more troubling is what they do when Brady goes into hurry-up mode. Not many defenses have an answer for that.
Even if Baltimore do find a way to sustain some pressure, they have to be wary of New England's potent run game. As I pointed out last week, this offense is at or near the top of the rankings in every meaningful advanced stat category out there.
This point spread is exactly where it should be; above -7. When the Ravens took on the Broncos, I said I would have made an official pick on Denver if the line fell to -7, which it didn't. Even though Denver lost, I would have felt pretty good about that bet since the Ravens were trailing by a TD with under 2 minutes to go. The Broncos had held their passing attack to just 36 yards in the 2nd half before their miracle TD to tie it up.
The Patriots aren't a lock to win this game because this is the NFL, but their odds are obviously pretty high to come out on top - and by two scores at that. I'm willing to put them in a teaser with the Falcons right now, but if by some chance it drops to -7 I'll add the home favorite as a pick as well.