Hey! It's a flag! The Ravens-Patriots wild-card preview

Doug Farrar
January 10, 2010

The last two games between the New England Patriots had Baltimore Ravens have been bitterly fought, controversial contests that left the Ravens feeling as if they had victory in their hands, though New England won both times. There was December 3, 2007, the biggest scare the Pats had during their drive to an undefeated season until the Super Bowl loss ended it all. The abiding memory of that game is linebacker Bart Scott(notes) drawing a penalty for throwing a penalty flag in frustration after several defensive penalties undermined Baltimore's efforts in the Pats' 27-24 win.

New England's 27-21 Week 4 win this season turned into a referendum on roughing the passer -- it seemed that every time a Ravens defender brushed Tom Brady(notes) with a free hand, there was laundry on the field. It put forth the perception that the officials were biased to the extrame in the practice of quarterback protection, and this wasn't helped when one of those flags came after Brady pled his case to a ref. In the end, the Ravens tied with three other teams for a league-high five roughing calls during the 2009 season, and only the Bills had more roughing calls when their offense was on the field than the Patriots did. That's one story to watch -- how will the zebras call this one?

The major story, of course, is the loss of Wes Welker(notes), and how rookie replacement Julian Edelman(notes) will fare in Welker's stead. Against the Houston Texans last week, New England did some interesting things to get Edelman open over the middle for the short passes that serve as the engine for Brady's offense. The Pats ran frequent bunch formations, with Edelman either in the formation or just outside, and sent their speed receivers on vertical routes to loosen up any under coverage in Houston's 4-3. Baltimore's multifaceted 3-4/46 hybrid is a far more complicated beast, and Edelman will see several more obstacles when running those short slants and drags. Against the Ravens in that Week 4 turn, Edelman had one catch for 12 yards, while Welker caught six. I believe that while Edelman doesn't have Welker's sudden quickness and route consistency in those short passes, he has a downfield gear Welker simply doesn't have. If he gets in space after the catch, watch out.

In that Week 4 game, the Ravens ran the ball a total of 17 times. Expect that total to double in the sequel. Then, Baltimore was still trying to filter their offense though Joe Flacco(notes). Now, it's all about power running behind an outstanding offensive line (pay particular attention to right tackle Michael Oher(notes) and left guard Ben Grubbs(notes) in power situations) and using the pass as a necessary accessory. Ravens running back Ray Rice(notes) from Rutgers will use his rushing and receiving to rend rthe ropponent ruseless. (Sorry -- I got a bit carried away there). Rice is one of the two or three most productive overall backs in the game, and Willis McGahee(notes) is a scoring threat from anywhere. If the Ravens are to pull off the win they can't seem to get against the Pats, the key will be pushing New England's front seven back and keeping Brady off the field.