If you discount their loss in the last week of the season – when they rested many of their starters in the second half – the New England Patriots closed the year by winning 10 of 11 games, with the only loss coming by five points to the Packers at Lambeau Field.
All of which is to say, New England is really darn good this year, and it’s not hyperbole to say the AFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxboro.
But if you think it’s going to be a cake walk for New England, well, you had better think again, especially with Baltimore coming to town this Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET.
“The Ravens are just everyone in New England’s worst nightmare because this is the one team that has a history of coming into Foxboro and beating up the Patriots in the playoffs,” Boston Globe Patriots reporter Ben Volin said on After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “No other team in the NFL really can say that they’ve done that. But the Ravens can get after the passer, they make life very difficult for your offensive line and they can hit deep shots down the field. Both of those elements scare the Patriots a lot, especially the defensive line and pass rush of the Ravens. The Patriots offensive line hasn’t been terrible, but it’s been very inconsistent this year. They’ve had some communication problems upfront in recent games against the Bills and Jets and Dolphins. So I think Terrell Suggs, (Elvis) Dumervil and those guys certainly are going to provide a tough challenge.”
It doesn’t help that the Ravens have Joe Flacco, who has 13 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his last five playoff games – all wins. It also doesn’t help that Flacco loves taking deep shots and that New England cornerback Brandon Browner led the league with 15 penalties this season.
“They still have Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh and they’ve done it before,” Voin said. “It’s probably the one team that Patriots fans did not want to see in Foxboro this weekend.”
If there’s one weakness that the Patriots can exploit, however, it’s the Baltimore secondary, which allowed 33 receptions for 356 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh.
“I think (the Baltimore secondary is) very susceptible, and that’s where the Patriots are going to have to win this game – by attacking the Ravens secondary,” Volin said. “They’re just completely depleted right now. They have five cornerbacks on injured reserve out for the year. They have a safety, Matt Elam, playing cornerback, so it’s just all hands on deck for them.
“And considering how good the Ravens are at stoping the run,” Volin continued, “I think the Patriots shave to spread them out – four or five receivers, a lot of shotgun and just try to get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands quickly and attack the Ravens secondary because they’re not going to be able to ground-and-pound this team. The Ravens are very good upfront, so I definitely see a lot of passes, a lot of quick passes, getting Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen involved and maybe you hit them with some draw plays out of the shotgun and maybe a little play-action as well.”