If you asked Ravens fans to come up with an appropriate subtitle for the first game between the Ravens and Patriots this season, many would call it "Clayton's drop" or "Brady's Skirt." It's understandable, if not entirely fair. The images that endure from New England's 27-21 victory are of Mark Clayton failing to grasp a key late reception, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady crying about a late hit and drawing a flag.
But if you really take a hard look at the October 4 game in an attempt to uncover potentially important truths about the AFC playoff rematch between the teams Sunday at Gillette Stadium, another image looms larger than any. Have you looked at the earlier game's statistics? Talk about unforgettable.
That day in New England, the Ravens took 66 offensive snaps and ran the ball just 17 times in what was surely their oddest game of the season strategically. They filled the air with passes and all but ignored the run.
It almost worked. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed 27 of 47 passes for 247 yards and had the Ravens in position for a winning score in the final minute. Cam Cameron's offense generated enough yards.
But three months later, it's hard to imagine the Ravens wanting to reprise that run-pass balance in the rematch. I think their best chance is to turn their offense upside down from the earlier game and try to hammer the Patriots on the ground. That's where their advantage lies. Their running game was the NFL's fifth-best during the regular season, generating 137.5 yards per game and improving as the season progressed and Ray Rice emerged as a Pro Bowl back. Meanwhile, the Patriots' rush defense was fairly average, ranked 13th in the league.
New England's pass defense is of a similar caliber (ranked 12th) but Flacco has experienced some sophomore struggles lately and the Ravens' passing offense hasn't been as consistent, falling to 18th in the league. Time to emphasize the run.
The prospects of the Ravens having a go-go passing game appeared bright in September and October as the Ravens ran up big totals against both good teams (Chargers, Vikings) and bad (Browns, Chiefs). Everyone in Ravenstown was excited after watching vanilla offenses for years. That was the environment in which the first New England game played out.
But a lot has changed since then. Rice became a top weapon, breaking run after run and making it impossible for Cameron not to get the ball in his hands as often as possible. Defenses adjusted to Flacco, taking away his favorite receiver, Derrick Mason, and making his life harder. As the downfield passing game disappeared at times, the running game, long a Ravens staple, continued to reassert itself, culminating last Sunday in Oakland when yet another back, Willis McGahee, gave a dominant performance.
Bill Belichick's Patriots are notorious for taking away their opponents' favorite weapons, and I expect they'll stack their defensive front Sunday, trying to slow the Ravens' running game and daring Flacco to beat them. Flacco is capable of meeting such a challenge, but with Brady running the other offense, the Ravens need to avoid getting into a shootout.
These Patriots aren't as daunting as their Super Bowl-winning predecessors, especially defensively, but Brady remains a huge obstacle. He was superb this season, throwing for 4,398 yards and 28 touchdowns, and he'll be ready Sunday. (If you believe this stuff about him possibly being injured, I have some swampland for you that would make a nice real estate investment.) And as the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy noted yesterday, Brady has won 22 straight starts at Gillette Stadium and has never lost a home playoff game.
Those are truly intimidating numbers, and the Ravens would be wise to heed their obvious lesson and try to keep Brady from controlling the game. He's going to anyway, at least to some degree, but the longer he stands on the sidelines and watches the Ravens' offense, the better the Ravens' chances of winning.
The way to control the ball is to run it, and then run it again, even if the Patriots focus on taking that away. You win in the playoffs not by departing from your normal strategy, but by using what you do best to trump what your opponent does best. And what the Ravens do best, unmistakably, is run the ball.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.