You know what my favorite part of being a fan is? Besides the beer and the wings, that is?
It's my sense of entitlement. It's that irrational, overinflated sense that I really, really know football. That notion that I, as someone who reads football books and watches a lot of games, knows the first thing about effective coaching in the National Football League. It's somehow finding a way to equate really liking football to really knowing football.
And by no means are these sentiments exclusive to Patriots fans; sure, we may be a little more arrogant and annoying than most fanbases, but 13 straight years of dominance will do that to you. I would argue that there isn't a football fan anywhere who hasn't decided to share their vast, never-ending knowledge of the game with anyone and everyone who will listen at some point or another. Who among us hasn't shaken our heads in disgust over a questionable coaching call, pontificating on what we would have done differently were we the ones wearing the headset? And who among us hasn't gotten that smug "I told you so!" look if we happen to have predicted a playcall that ended up working? Walking around pretending that we know what we're talking about when it comes to football is the primary thing that keeps us coming back week in and week out. Hell, people have built entire careers faking sports knowledge. It's our God given right as fans to act like we know way more than we do, and I for one embrace that right with all 48 inches of my waistline.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce to the world that, after watching the Broncos vs. Ravens playoff game on NFL Replay last night, I have completely figured this Ravens team out. I have the blueprint. And what kind of fan would I be if I didn't offer my foolproof strategy for beating them in the AFC Championship Game?
Now I'm not talking about the ultra generic keys to victory like "pressure Flacco" and "generate turnovers." I've gone way deeper than that. What we have here are actually only mildly generic keys to victory, keys which I slowly and methodically honed in on as I rewound and watched that Peyton Manning pick over and over and over last night.
I can only hope that this post somehow makes its way onto Bill Belichick's desk, otherwise the team could be in real trouble.
When the Patriots are on Defense
Defend the right sideline. Joe Flacco absolutely loves that sideline Go Route to Torrey Smith. LOVES IT. Flacco loves that play like Tommy B loves supermodels and Deep V T-shirts or like I love a good bacon-wrapped hot dog. Flacco just can't get enough of that throw. Now this is the part where I'd usually make some snide comment about how that sideline throw was pretty much the only play in Flacco's arsenal, but to be honest, he hasn't needed much else. He has had success with it all season, and was able to score three touchdowns off of it against the Broncos on Saturday. He definitely used that route to light the Patriots up back in Week 3, so why should he quit now? He'll keep throwing it until someone proves that they can stop it. Hopefully, the Patriots will have more success against the deep ball than they had during their first meeting. The good news is that during the second half of the season, the Patriots have pretty much solidified their secondary and the safety tandem of Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory have done a nice job of limiting those long completions that we all loved so much (I'm pretty sure that New England only gave up one 40+ yard play - a screen pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars - during the second half of the year). I think the best matchup for Smith is Aqib Talib; he has the size and speed to run down the sideline with him, and should be able to compete for the jump ball. Utilizing Talib and cheating McCourty over to the sideline, where his speed will help out against Smith as he streaks down the right side, could not only be the recipe for some pass breakups, but that could also lead to some game changing turnovers as well.
Beware of the check down. Arian Foster was wide open on the check down in Week 14, and he was wide open on Sunday as well. Now the Patriots have to go up against Ray Rice, who is just as big a receiving threat as Foster. Getting Rice involved in the passing game is going to be crucial if the Ravens want to win this game; New England's rush defense is probably its greatest strength, and so odds are that they will be able to limit Rice on the ground. But Foster had a lot of success running after the catch against the Patriots on Sunday, and Ray Rice will definitely do the same if he is left uncovered. Unfortunately, none of our linebackers are exceptionally strong in coverage, and so limiting the check down is much easier said than done. I actually like the prospect of using Dont'a Hightower in the spy role; he has nice speed and knows how to deliver the big hit. Using Hightower as the spy will put more pressure on Spikes and Mayo, as it will increase their responsibilities redirecting the dangerous tight ends, but it could also greatly reduce the amount of damage Rice can do and force Flacco to look elsewhere. The Ravens simply don't do well when Rice doesn't get the ball, so taking him out is going to be key.
Limit Anquan Boldin. Boldin is going to get his touches; there is no way around it. But the less productive he is, the more Baltimore struggles to move the chains. Boldin is a big, tough, physical receiver with great hands who can make catches in an extremely tight window; because of that, I'd like to see New England bumping, bracketing, and double covering Boldin all day while leaving Talib matched up against Smith. That means Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are going to have to be on the same page, as Boldin lines up both wide and in the slot. I actually like the idea of perhaps incorporating Tavon Wilson as the extra back in a larger nickel package to help jam Boldin at the line and take away the bulk of his route tree. While I don't think that the Patriots will be able to flat out prevent Boldin from producing, they simply can't afford to let him get into a rhythm with Flacco.
When the Patriots are on Offense
Attack the middle. Ray Lewis may still have the emotional juice to dance around in the tunnel and deliver pregame speeches, but he's nowhere near as fast as he once was and gets burned on the underneath routes fairly regularly. As for the rest of the Baltimore linebackers, they share a lot of similarities with New England: big, fast, aggressive, and with a nose for the ball, but not overly effective in coverage. Fortunately, that's where Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez shine. Danny Woodhead, if he can go, also spends a lot of time catching balls in the middle of the field and will make for a great receiving threat in the short passing game. I don't know if Tommy B will be able to duplicate the success he had with the long ball with Ed Reed in the backfield, so those under routes are essential for sustaining drives and keeping the offense on the field.
Stick with the run and don't over-use the screen. New England has historically utilized a lot of screen plays against the Ravens, with mixed success. And while I'm sure there have been a fair number of screens that went for big yards, all I can think about right now are all those times where Wes Welker just got absolutely crushed in the backfield as Baltimore sniffed the play out and blew it up before it could even get started. In my opinion, the Patriots have the best screen game in the business; I just want to make sure they don't dip into that well too often and give the Ravens opportunities , particularly if they experience difficulty running the ball. The Patriots tend to use the screen game the most when they can't get the ground game going, and I think that rushing yards will be hard to come by for Ridley and company on Sunday. Hopefully New England won't abandon the run if they don't find any early success, as Brady will need a fully functional playaction pass. I'm all for using the occasional screen to pick up a quick eight yards, but hopefully those plays are counterbalanced effectively.
Tire them out. Baltimore's defense is aging - there is no way around it. And that aging defense, despite playing their best football right now and peaking at the right time, just played five and a half quarters in freezing, thin air, in a game that left me absolutely exhausted just from watching it. I don't care how fit you are or what your preparations are, a game like the Baltimore/Denver game has to take it out of you, especially on defense. Enter the Patriots no-huddle offense - that gimmicky, suspect #bitchassiness that some random nobody with 252 career tackles in 10 years doesn't think too highly of. The hurry up offense has potential to not only keep the Ravens from being ready for the snap, but it will also tire them out and make it all that much harder to cover New England's speedy receivers. This game, like all games between Baltimore and New England, will be decided by a score or less, so I'd like to think that the Pats will do everything in their power that the Ravens D is completely spent as they try to force a 3 and out to give Joe Flacco the ball back late in the game with a chance to win it. I'll take New England's offense over any defense in the league right now, but if said defense just so happens to be winded as all hell, it certainly can't hurt.
It's almost too easy.