Winds will gust at 20 mph and temperatures won’t get above 20 degrees, but the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will kick off the divisional round at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
The 4:35 p.m. start will mark the fourth postseason meeting between the Patriots and Ravens since 2009. And leading up to it, here is a look at the football forecast.
Baltimore Pass Rush Hitting Home: The Ravens sacked opposing quarterbacks 49 times during the regular season, placing second in the league behind only the Buffalo Bills. And in the AFC wild-card round, the unit got to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger an additional five times. Up next for Baltimore’s 3-4 front is a New England offensive line that has conceded just 26 sacks this season, tied for fourth-least in the NFL. The expected starting assembly of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has conceded four sacks in eight games together. But lining up across from Baltimore’s exotic blitz packages will heighten the importance of communication.
Brady’s Playoff Past against Ravens Revisited: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has played in 26 playoff games, going 590-of-950 passing for 6,424 yards, 43 touchdowns and 22 interceptions as New England has gone 18-8. Yet against the Ravens in the postseason, the Patriots have gone 1-2 while Brady has gone 74-of-132 passing for 713 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions. And while each, year is different, No. 12 now finds himself only one postseason touchdown pass behind Brett Favre, and only two behind Joe Montana for the most in NFL history.
Slowing Gronkowski: Baltimore’s defense afforded San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates seven catches for 83 yards in Week 13. And against the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen this season, eight catches, 77 yards and two touchdowns were the combined byproduct. Rob Gronkowski will look to exceed those numbers on Saturday. The Patriots’ unanimous first-team All-Pro tight end is expected to go against Ravens safety Will Hill, whose speed and size could be an equalizer. Much will also depend on how often Gronkowski stays in to block, however, as Ravens outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil tallied 29 sacks over the regular season.
Road Resilience Remains for Streaky Flacco: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco received high praise from head coach John Harbaugh during his news conference earlier in the week. “I think Joe’s a great quarterback every month. I really do, I really believe that,” Harbaugh said, “Joe is resilient. Joe does not get rattled easily.” Those sentiments have rung true in the playoffs, where Flacco has played in 14 playoff games to go 222-of-402 passing for 2,931 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Baltimore has gone 10-4 in those contests since 2009, while the former Delaware QB has been part of the most playoff road wins in league history with seven. Flacco has gone 2-1 against New England there, with a mark of 47-for-82 passing, five touchdowns and two interceptions. And he’s thrown 166 consecutive postseason passes without a pick, which ranks him fourth all-time and among the likes of Montana, Steve Young and current Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
New England Secondary Facing Big Plays: Flacco and the Ravens’ offense completed 21 of his 56 passes more than 20 yards downfield during the regular season. The results were 663 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and seven drops, according to Pro Football Focus. “I’d say Flacco being one of the best deep ball passers in the league with good deep receivers, especially [Torrey] Smith, but [Jacoby] Jones, they’ve got a bunch of them – Steve Smith – they can get the ball down there to several different guys,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his Monday conference call. The Patriots’ defense deceivingly finished the regular season tied with the third-most pass plays of 20-plus yards with 62, but only about half of those completions arrived on passes of at least 20 yards through the air.
Forsett’s Backfield: Ravens running back Justin Forsett rushed for 2,266 yards over the 2014 regular season, landing him fifth in the league and in the company of Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray. Yet none of those four averaged more yards per attempt than the 5-foot-8, 197-pound Forsett, whose 235 carries came at a 5.4-yard clip in Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme. The former Seattle Seahawks seventh-round pick led all NFL backs with 17 runs of at least 20 yards.
Patriots Holding Offenses out of End Zone in Second Half: The last time New England’s defense let up a touchdown in the second half of a game was Nov. 16, when Indianapolis Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo caught a pass from quarterback Andrew Luck as an eligible tight end. It’s been six games. The Patriots are hoping it becomes seven.
Belichick Closing in on Playoff Record: Belichick’s teams have gone 19-9 in the postseason. Those 19 victories currently tie the 14th-year Patriots coach with Don Shula for the second-most in NFL History. With a win against the Ravens at Gillette Stadium Saturday, Belichick would tie Tom Landry for first place on the all-time postseason wins list with 20.