AFC Championship Preview
OUR COMPLETE STAT PREVIEW FOR THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: RAVENS/PATRIOTS
The New England Patriots have been a dynasty through the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. They are more than a touchdown favorite to make ANOTHER trip to the Super Bowl when they host the Baltimore Ravens Sunday in the AFC Championship game.
What's been most noticeable about the recent years in this dynasty has been the lack of domination against top quality opposition. If you can play smash mouth football, you can take the Patriots out of their gameplan. The NY Giants proved that in two different Super Bowls. The NY Jets proved it in a Foxboro shocker not too long ago. Baltimore themselves almost proved the same point exactly one year ago, but they shanked an easy field goal that would have won the game in the final seconds.
Are the weaknesses of New England about to be exposed again? Or, has a tired Baltimore team drifted too far away from smash mouth principals to hang tough with Tom Brady's high powered offense? Let's run through our key indicator stats and see what they're suggesting...
BALTIMORE at NEW ENGLAND (6:30 p.m. ET on CBS)
Las Vegas Spread: New England by 8.5, total of 51
This line has actually been dropping through the week, as Wise Guys seem to believe the Ravens will recover from a brutal fatigue spot (playing a week after an overtime thriller at altitude), and that the Pats may lose a step because of the injury to Rob Gronkowski. The public tends to bet the Pats as favorites, and could move that line higher before kickoff late Sunday afternoon. Note that this line is saying New England would be favored by 5.5 on a neutral field, and by 2.5 if the game were in Baltimore. The total of 51 hasn't moved despite the possibility for windy conditions in Foxboro in the early forecast.
WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Baltimore: 10-6 (18th ranked schedule)
New England: 12-4 (25th ranked schedule)
You can see why some would have these teams more evenly matched than the opening lines that went up on the Vegas board. New England probably drops back to 11-5 if they play a league average schedule. Baltimore probably moves up to 11-5 if they go to play New England's easy schedule. You'll recall that the AFC was so weak this year, Baltimore actually faced the toughest schedule of any playoff qualifier. And, they certainly had a tougher challenge last week too having to knock off Peyton Manning in Denver.
New England +25
Big edge here to the Patriots. This is always an ace they have up their sleeve. But, it's important to remember that they start to look mortal when opponents AREN'T turning the ball over. That's been at the heart of recent postseason disappointments. If you play clean, you can beat New England in Foxboro or anywhere. Can Baltimore play clean with a downfield passing attack in a tough fatigue spot?
Baltimore: 352.5 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
New England: 427.9 yards-per-game on 5.7 yards-per-play
New England is only up +0.3 in yards-per play, but a ton in yardage because they run so many more plays than anybody else. Baltimore tries to go for the quick strike. New England dinks and dunks you to death, with some of those dinks breaking free for big plays. The Patriots approach is more reliable and less turnover prone. Baltimore MUST connect on a few bombs or they won't be able to keep up.
Baltimore: 350.9 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
New England: 373.2 yards-per-game on 5.7 yards-per-play
Edge to Baltimore, who grades out better despite facing a tougher schedule. You see there why smash mouth football can beat the Patriots. If you stay on the field and drive for points, you make sure that Brady is rusty when he gets his turn. The Pats defense can make up for a poor YPP with opposition turnovers. When those don't happen, they're just out there giving up yardage.
BALTIMORE VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-4 SU, 1-5 ATS)
Baltimore (-7) beat Cincinnati 44-13
Baltimore (-2.5) beat New England 31-30
Baltimore (+6) lost at Houston 43-13
Baltimore (+1) lost at Washington 31-28 in OT
Baltimore (+3) lost to Denver 34-17
Baltimore (+5) lost to Cincinnati 23-17
Suffering four straight losses vs. playoff teams during the regular season sure didn't hurt the Ravens against Indianapolis and Denver. They fired the offensive coordinator at just the right time to get things moving in the right direction for January football. Note that they did knock off New England in Baltimore early in the season. Change sites, and that would equate to a loss but a cover this time around.
NEW ENGLAND VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (3-3 SU, 3-3 ATS)
New England (+2.5) lost to Baltimore 31-30
New England (-5.5) beat Denver 31-21
New England (-3.5) lost at Seattle 24-23
New England (-10) beat Indianapolis 59-24
New England (-5.5) beat Houston 42-14
New England (-4) lost to San Francisco 41-34
The Patriots match up very well with Houston, and added a 41-28 playoff win over the Texans to that 42-14 regular season romp. They did lose to San Francisco and Seattle in smash mouth games, which is why you have to be careful with them this week and in the Super Bowl if they get that far.
LAST WEEK'S BOXSCORES
BALTIMORE 38, DENVER 35 (in OT)
Total Yardage: Baltimore 479, Denver 398
Rushing Yards: Baltimore 155, Denver 125
Passing Stats: Baltimore 18-34-0-324, Denver 28-43-2-273
Turnovers: Baltimore 1, Denver 3
Third Downs: Baltimore 41%, Denver 44%
Vegas Line: Denver by 9, total of 44
Baltimore's ability to connect on deep passes without suffering turnovers allowed them to dominate this boxscore and pull off a late miracle. They're certainly capable of a replay, but this approach is definitely playing with fire unless New England trades for Champ Bailey and sticks him in the defensive secondary. Some would also point out that Denver would have had a better boxscore if they hadn't spent the second half trying to sit on their lead. New England is going to be more aggressive than Denver was. That creates a feast-or-famine scenario that could lead to either team covering Sunday by more than a touchdown.
NEW ENGLAND 41, HOUSTON 28
Total Yardage: Houston 425, New England 457
Rushing Yards: Houston 91, New England 122
Passing Stats: Houston 34-51-1-334, New England 25-40-0-335
Turnovers: Houston 1, New England 1
Third Downs: Houston 27%, New England 46%
Vegas Line: New England by 9.5, total of 50
New England was up 38-13 before Houston tacked on some garbage time points and yardage. They were more impressive than the final score suggests. Yet, that final score only beat the spread by a few points. Baltimore is certainly capable of scoring in garbage time themselves, which gives dog lovers some potential insurance this Sunday. Baltimore might play well enough to pull off an upset...they might play well enough to hang within the number all day...and they might play badly but still rally for a garbage time cover.
It's tough to say there's a "best expectation" when there's so much volatility in play. A fatigue disadvantage can be worth 2-3 touchdowns based on what we've seen in NFL championship games. If you run out of gas when you're facing a juggernaut, it's going to get ugly quickly. New England in a rout is a clear possibility. But, as we said, you can hang with the Patriots by playing clean football and getting a few stops on defense. And, you can cover big numbers in garbage time even if you don't!
NETWORK'S computer simulations are all over the place here depending on the turnover category for Baltimore, and the freshness of their defense. JIM HURLEY is working very closely with his on-site sources to get a read on the Ravens. He can't tell you here who he's taking. He CAN tell you he expects to cover by at least six points!
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