You might not be aware of this, but the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots will be playing tomorrow in a re-match of last year's AFC Championship.
Wait a sec - you knew that already?
Well darn. You see, while the teams may bear the same logos they did in last year's game, there actually are a lot of differences. This week, I gathered the opinions from the Pats Pulpit staff on the differences in the two teams. Here's what we came up with:
You could point to the differences in schemes, coordinators, players and even injuries that stand as a stark contrast to last season's squads, but at the end of the day, this game is no different at all.
It's yet another winner-take-all bout between two of the AFC's best that been there before and seen it all--repeatedly.
Expect another tough, defensively governed game where victory is handed to whichever team makes that one less crucial mistake. The Ravens arguably outplayed the Patriots in last year's AFCCG, but a couple of costly errors doomed them down the stretch in the form of a Lee Evans drop/Sterling Moore strip and a Billy Cundiff missed kick. The team left standing that emerges from this one will certainly be battle-tested and in prime position to take the Lombardi from the less experienced remaining NFC foes.
The stakes are the same as last year. On the one side, Ray Lewis is retiring and wants revenge for last year and another shot at the Super Bowl. On the other, we've got Brady and many veterans that want another shot at a Super Bowl win. Both sides can't leave happy.
What I like most about our offense this year is the depth they've shown. The additional playmakers, like Brandon Lloyd and Hooman that can step in if needed. In addition, the running game is better than it has been since the early aughts. It is stronger and more diverse than ever. On defense, most of our guys have another year of experience. We also have some great rookies in Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, and UDFA Justin Francis and the pickup of Aquib Talib has played huge dividends. We are better across the board than a year ago.
On paper, this game is likely to be identical to last year's AFC Championship Game. It's going to be close, it's going to come down to one or two plays, and it is going to be decided by one score or less (how the spread on this game is 9.5 is completely beyond me; 9.5 is more points than the last two matchups were decided by combined).
But what's different about this game, in my opinion, is not what will happen on Sunday, but what is happening right now. I don't know if I can really explain it, but this game just feels different from last year. There is nothing about this week building up to the Ravens game that feels the same in my ample gut. All the analysts are saying the same things, everyone is comparing the same stats, and for the most part, the teams are pretty much the same as they were last year, but there's just something in the air that is giving me a completely different feeling. In 2011, the Patriots were the unquestioned best team in the AFC and the #1 seed, with the Baltimore Ravens a close second with the 2 seed, and last year's game was pitched as an epic battle between the two best teams in the conference, offense vs. defense and finesse vs. grit. This year, I see this game more as an emotional team that struggled early but is peaking at the right time coming in to challenge the perennial powerhouse that has been so good for so long that it's barely even a story anymore when they win. I feel like there is a lot more on the line - for both teams - than just a trip to the Super Bowl. There is something very, very special happening in both Baltimore and New England right now, and for one of those teams the story is about to come to an abrupt end.
While I think the result will be the same, quite possibly right down to the final score, I think the energy, the atmosphere, and just the overall vibe of what is about to take place this weekend makes me feel like these two teams are playing for the very first time.
What's most different about this year's game from last year is the makeup and play of the Patriots' defense. The Pats were playing well on that side of the ball headed into the game last year but that was with guys like James Ihedigbo and Sterling Moore starting and playing crucial snaps in the secondary, a linebacking corps that had more trouble covering and defending the middle of the field than this one and a defensive line without the capability to pressure the opposing QB the way this one does with Trevor Scott, Justin Francis, Chandler Jones (if healthy) and even Brandon Deaderick playing the way they have of late alongside with Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich. The Ravens' offense seems to revolve around Ray Rice and Joe Flacco throwing up prayers 40-50 yards down field. If the Patriots can defend the deep ball and keep Rice under wraps (stopping checkdowns and short passes in the flat will be crucial), this game could be a blowout, Ray Lewis inspirational, farewell tour or not.
The biggest- and arguably most important- difference has nothing ti do with the Patriots; it has to be the Ravens defense.
The Patriots have had their own changes- Ryan Wendell instead of Brian Waters, kicking Dan Connolly out to guard, a healthy Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Lloyd, the emergence of Stevan Ridley and the apparent showing of Shane Vereen, Brandon Deaderick stealing snaps from Kyle Love, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, and Justin Francis have platooned to cover Andre Carter's (and Mark Anderson's) defensive end spot, Jerod Mayo is playing like he never has before, Dont'a Hightower is playing over Tracy White, Kyle Arrington- last years #1 corner- has been relegated down to the #3 corner spot behind a fantastic pair of Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, Steve Gregory is playing well (even though he's the weak link) next to Devin McCourty who now has a year of experience at Free Safety (the position of greater turnover last year).
So there have been changes.
But what about the Ravens? Ladarius Webb, arguably a top 5 corner in the league and a player capable of shutting down half of a field- Out. Terrell Suggs, one of the best pass rushers in the league and one of the players who brings the salt and pepper every play- Hobbled. Ed Reed, Bill Belichick's golden boy, has fallen off this year and put together a poor season by his standards (even though its still better than half the league)- Old.
Ray Lewis, on his last ride, wants to head to Canton with one last ring on his hand- Old. Injured. One direction player. Incapable of coverage. The heart and soul of the franchise.
Those four players, with Haloti Ngata, form the core of the Ravens defense and they are intimidating no one. This is a defense that collapsed down the stretch. They have struggled all playoffs and are coming off an emotional win where everyone played extra minutes.
This Ravens defense is the most different part of this upcoming game. Last years Ravens knocked Rob Gronkowski out of the game and forced the Patriots to change their game plan on the fly (this time, the Patriots are prepared to play without Gronk). This years Ravens defense is not going to knock anyone out.
And that will make all the difference.
These are not your 2011 Patriots, and a few key personnel improvements on both sides of the ball make all the difference.
First reason, right off the top of my head, is that Jack-of-all-trades Julian Edelman will not be covering Pro Bowl WR Anquan Bolden on Sunday. Secondly, the Patriots will not be playing 'Wheel of Safeties' with the tough, but shoulder-popping James Ihedigbo and JAG Sergio Brown as options. The quality additions at corner, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, mean that Devin McCourty can anchor the safety position with make-some-miss-some Steve Gregory. That's a huge improvement in the backfield.
On offense, injured difference-maker Rob Gronkowski can't be replaced but his absence can at least be remedied with substitutions already on the roster. Josh McDaniels can stick to his TE-loving game-plan using Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells. Also, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be up and running this Sunday. I'm a huge fan of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but it's simply unfair to compare him to this pair - who were both inactive in last year's matchup. One more obvious change for the better is the huge upgrade wearing No. 85. Chad Ochocinco was not even active last year. I believe Brandon Lloyd will play a huge role against the Ravens. A few sideline catches from Lloyd opens the field for the Tom Brady and gives Welker room to do his thing. The less we see of Matthew Slater going deep as Brady winds up to throw, the better.
When you look across the rosters, there are some major differences. On paper, the Ravens have had some additions and subtractions. Paul Kruger has emerged as a legitimate threat on the edge across from Terrell Suggs, while Joe Flacco is playing the best playoff football of his career. On the flip side, they're without Lardarius Webb and their pass defense has been suspect all year.
The Patriots also have some major personnel differences. They're bigger on the front seven, they're playing the 4-3 as opposed to the 3-4, they finally have a legitimate cover cornerback in Aqib Talib, and they're without their best playmaker offensively in Rob Gronkowski.
While I could sit here and go through a laundry list of personnel differences from last year, the main difference is this: both teams have a greater sense of urgency than they did a year ago.
For the Patriots, they missed their shot to win it all in 2011. A year later, they're within two wins of immortality once again. But at the same time, if they were to get this close and come up short yet again, the weight of the championship drought would grow even heavier. There's a sense of urgency surrounding the team this year, that wasn't quite there last year.
As for the Ravens - not much needs to be said. At the conclusion of their season, linebacker Ray Lewis will be retiring. That team is going to undergo a change in culture, leadership, and attitude following Ray's retirement. So for this team, there is no tomorrow. And because of that, their sense of urgency couldn't possibly be greater.
What do you think? What are the major differences in these teams from last year?