Monday, January 16, 2012

AFC Championship is Anyone's Game at this Point

The AFC North division champion Baltimore Ravens are heading to Foxboro, Mass. this Sunday to face the No. 1 seeded New England Patriots for a chance to play in the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in February.

Baltimore's stingy defense helped them overcome the Houston Texans' hard-hitting defense and its five sacks of quarterback Joe Flacco, who was also hit on six additional plays and had seven passes defensed against Houston's fourth-ranked overall defense.

Flacco has been a bit of a disappointment this season, as he has been very inconsistent throughout the season, sometimes not even bringing his A game against teams with losing records such as Jacksonville and Seattle. A pair of rookie Texans–DE J.J. Watt and LB Brooks Reed–each recorded 2.5 sacks and combined for 15 solo tackles, including four TFLs (tackles for a loss) against Baltimore's passing attack.

Like I had said in my Preview for this game, the Ravens would win but they would need Ray Rice to get plenty of touches in order for them to do so. Well, he did. He carried the ball 21 times for 60 yards and caught four passes for 20 yards. Clearly he received his fair share of touches, but he wasn't very effective with the ball in his hands (2.9 Y/A, 5.0 Y/R).
I ended up only being half right about the outcome of the game: I picked the winner, but Baltimore's 20-13 victory came because of a dominating defensive effort against rookie signal caller T.J. Yates.

Overall Yates looked closer to a veteran quarterback than a rookie at times. His three interceptions were devastating and led to either BAL points or, as his last one sailed into veteran safety Ed Reed's hands, sealed the victory. Baltimore dropped numerous other possible INT's, which were simple rookie mistakes on Yates' part. But T.J. made a couple of throws that only a handful of QBs are normally able to execute.

This brings me to my next point. If you watched the first AFC matchup of the weekend then I'm sure you noticed how on point Tom Brady was with all of his throws. He was on fire, going 26/34 for 363 yards and 6 TDs with one interception. His five first half TD passes set the postseason record for most in a single half, and his six total tied the postseason record for a single game.

Denver's pass rush struggled to even lay a hand on him (two QB hits, two PDs, 0 sacks) and Brady had no trouble finding tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on three different occasions.

Baltimore's pass rush is far more dangerous than that of Denver, but that doesn't mean Brady is going to turn the ball over. Flacco got his chances at putting the ball in the end zone thanks to the four turnovers his defense forced on Houston. New England, however, doesn't turn the ball over. In fact, they did that just 17 times this entire season (third-least in the league).
Say what you want about New England's porous pass defense, but they have thrived all season on forcing turnovers, much like Baltimore's D, and Flacco's offense is far more vulnerable than New England when it comes to losing the football.

Here's how you know your team is in trouble: Ed Reed made an appearance on The Blitz on SiriusXM's NFL Radio and he made it clear that the Ravens needed to step up as a team this Sunday against the Patriots. He hinted towards the idea that Joe Flacco looked a little rattled by Houston's defense, and that the offense needed to make improvements if they expected to win against New England.

Before this weekend's slate of games I had New England over Denver, Baltimore over Houston, and then Baltimore defeating the Patriots in the Championship game for a trip to the Super Bowl. But after watching New England destroy the Broncos defense with 45 points Saturday night, I may have to re-think my pick.

That's why I will be waiting until the very end of the week to make my two picks. Not only is the AFC game tough to call, but both the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers lit up the scoreboards against their respective Divisional round opponents. With my 6-2 postseason record on the line, I will be taking every second I have to re-evaluate these two match-ups.

Who do you have representing each Conference in Super Bowl XLVI?

Photo credit
Joe Flacco: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Brandon Spikes: Al Bello/Getty Images

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