Another Wild Ride Past their Nemesis Ravens for the Patriots to Reach This Year’s Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks is shaping up to be a great match-up. It pits the dominant team of the past 15 years against their former head coach, leading a team seeking to be the first NFL team to repeat since none other than the Patriots themselves did it back in 2003- 2004, and a dominant defense that in last year’s Super Bowl dismantled what had been one of the best offenses of all time.

But the New England Patriots almost lost in the playoffs to their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens weren’t very good this year. But in the AFC divisional round to this year’s playoffs, Baltimore came into town; and playing Baltimore in the playoffs should never make the Patriots feel comfortable.

Never mind that the Patriots were at home, where they almost never lose. Or the fact that Baltimore hasn’t typically been a great road team. (Or at least during the regular season, in 2012 they made it to and won the Super Bowl, winning two of three playoff games on the road en route, and in the playoffs have won multiple other games on the road.)

Or the fact that but for the Chargers losing against the Kansas City Chiefs back up quarterback, Baltimore never would have been in the playoffs in the first place. Or that as an underdog they had to beat the division winning Pittsburgh Steelers to even make it to the divisional round. (They did, 30-17.)

For the Patriots first playoff game, the Ravens were coming to town. And in January,  that normally means trouble for the Patriots – one of the winning-est playoff franchises in modern NFL history:

The Ravens beat the Patriots handily in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, knocking them down 33-14 (Though after the game, then Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was quick to correctly surmise “their era is not over.”)

And the Ravens beat them again, 28-13, in the 2012 AFC Conference Championship Game for the right to play in the 2012 season Super Bowl. (Which the Ravens won, fending off a furious near come from far behind 49ers victory, interrupted by an infamous, and very long, stadium power outage during the game.)

In the 2011 AFC Championship game, the Ravens should have beat the Patriots as well. But a dropped pass by wide receiver Lee Evans –  as well as a strong play by an undrafted rookie cornerback waived by the team that originally signed him earlier in the year – changed who went to Super Bowl 46 (XLVI).

Evans was a former star for the Buffalo Bills – drafted 13th overall by them in 2004, and traded to the Ravens before the start of the 2011 season for a mid round draft pick. And had Evans caught that pass from Flacco, the New England Patriots would now have five total Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season – not six – and the Baltimore Ravens would have four – followed by Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants at three each. Instead it’s six, three three three and three for the five teams.

The Giants incidentally are the same team who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season Grand Finale. And it was the Giants, of all teams, that would have faced the Ravens again on February 5, 2012 in Super Bowl XLVI, but for that drop which vaulted in the Patriots instead.

(A Patriots team who, even more coincidentally, in a duplicate of Super Bowl XLII, lost a Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years, as the New York team’s only other Super Bowl appearance of the millennium, after the Ravens, was also against the Patriots.)

But here’s what happened on the pass play that changed NFL history (although what happened two plays after that pass play is often referenced even more). Coverage was strong by rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent by Oakland who was then waived and picked up by the Patriots. (And who is currently with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Evans caught the near perfect pass, with two hands comfortably wrapped upon it, cradled up to his body. But he didn’t really secure the ball or catch it correctly. So a light hand swipe well after the ball hit Evans gut, and which needle threading connection by Flacco should have vaulted the Ravens into the Super Bowl – knocked away what should have been a catch, as well as another Ravens Super Bowl appearance. Here’s the play:

New England was leading 23-20 at the time, and the Ravens had driven from their own 21 down to the Patriots 14, in just under 80 seconds. Only 27 more seconds remained, and it was 2nd and 1. Flacco then hit Evans – who from examination of subtle body language, basic kinesthetics, and the ease with which Moore’s desperation swipe knocked away a ball that should have been easily secured, likely went into pre-celebratory mindset mode the moment he “caught” the ball.

Had the pass been held onto, the Patriots would have had 22 seconds left (minus any taken off by the ensuing kickoff), and would have trailed by 4 points, 27-23. That is, but for a “music city miracle” type of play, the game was over.  (Even if the Patriots had just over a minute left but not much more than that, trailing by more than field goal they still would have had almost no realistic chance to win the game.)

The story, as assuredly all Ravens fans remember, got even better for the Patriots, as Baltimore then got stopped on 3rd down and with 15 seconds remaining, lined up for the “gimme” 32 yard game tying field goal: A field goal rarely missed in the NFL, and that Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff very rarely misses.

But he did here. And the Patriots went onto their 5th Super Bowl appearance since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady entered the scene in early 2000.

This year, although New England was clearly the better team entering the playoffs, the Ravens again gave them trouble.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been underrated as a playoff QB, although that somewhat changed after his bulletproof (and never losing) performance in the upstart Ravens 2012 run all the way to Super Bowl victory.

But in this game, the 2014 AFC divisional round playoff, and just as Brady finally did years into his career (losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in a game where the Patriots could have pulled it out at the end, and for the first time in his playoff career, they didn’t), Flacco finally came back down to earth when it ultimately mattered most.

Despite some prognostication otherwise (save from those who have vivid memories of the Ravens Patriots playoff history), the game was once again a very tough match-up for the Patriots; and if not a lopsided affair in the Ravens favor, it was certainly, as with their 2011 AFC championship tango, a reasonably even game.  And it came down at the end to a final drive, with the ball in Joe Flacco hands.

Flacco, as usual in tight spots, tried to make the most of the situation. But this time he pressed a little too much, didn’t pay quite enough or the right kind of attention to the clock, and threw too loosely for the situation; perhaps just in hope “something,” like a super catch or a huge penalty flag, would happen.  And something most definitely did happen. .

But the situation didn’t call for such a move, and there were enormous clock considerations:

After losing the lead on a Brandon LaFell TD, the Ravens started on their 11 yard line, down 35-31, with just over 5 minutes to go. This was probably not the situation the Patriots had wanted to be in. But it was better than losing, and the Ravens having the ball at the end. (As a side note, LaFell was part of an interesting team purge of the otherwise crescendoing 2013 Carolina Panthers.)

Minutes later, after a Patriots’ offsides, the Ravens found themselves with an opportunistic 1st and 5 at the Patriots 36.  Since a TD would only put them ahead by 3 and allow the Pats a chance to tie the game on a field goal, they needed to be careful with the clock; but since the Patriots only had 1 timeout remaining, a few plays in bounds should crunch off enough clock easily enough when and if they needed to.

But for their part, the Ravens, after a 3rd and 3 incomplete from their own 42 with 2:25 remaining, took their 2nd timeout. This would have been a bad move had they wound up scoring fairly quickly; it stopped the clock above the two minute warning and kept a lot of time left for New England if they did score quickly – which does happen – and took away their clock flexibility for later control.But they probably wanted to think about the play longer, since it was 4th down and the game was on the line. And unless they scored very quickly, it was probably not going to be a problem. (Still, since there is little support for the idea that “thinking” about what play to run even more than the 20-30 seconds an incomplete allows, just because the situation is crucial, necessarily increases a team’s chances, they probably shouldn’t have called it, but it wasn’t at all a horrendous move, like this strategy call in the Packers Seahawks NFC Conference Championship Game was.)

More likely than not the Ravens were not going to score right away from the 36. But the 1st and 5 gave them a few shots at making up significant yardage (which is part of why getting that clock lower for control would have been a good move), and then making sure to pick up the 1st down and keep the chains rolling regardless.

Yet the Ravens did something ill advised. After a short incomplete, they threw deep down the left sidelines. Almost to the end zone.

This was a bad move, for two reasons. It was a low probability play that was also well covered, and had they scored it would have left the Patriots with over a minute and a half and just a 3 point deficit.  (The strong coverage and poor angle for the throw in combination with its low odds are the key reasons it shouldn’t have been attempted; if open, even if it will leave the Patriots some time, take it.)

You don’t want to leave any team with that kind of time. And Tom Brady and the Patriots in particular don’t fail to score very often when there is over a minute to go and they trail by 3 and have the ball – and the score would have stood at 38-35 at that point, not exactly a low scoring game. (One of the few times it did happen was in 2012, after a 46 yard near Hail Mary type of pass put them behind 24-23, but with over a minute left. That game was in Seattle, against the Seahawks, the same team they face on Sunday in the Super Bowl.)

But as Flacco had likely wanted, “something” did happen on the play. A catch into the end zone. Unfortunately it was by Duron Harmon, who happens to play Safety for the Patriots. And that was the ball game, and a slight change in NFL history.

Ironically, there is a good possibility that the Ravens would still be matching up with the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl had that game gone differently at the end. The Patriots, “deflategate or not,” went on to crush the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens easily beat the Colts back in the 2012 playoffs – although it was in Baltimore and both teams were a little different, and the Colts easily beat the Ravens in Indianapolis earlier this season, where this game would have been as well.)

The long ball to the end zone into extremely good coverage with far too much time left on the clock for the Patriots to still easily pull out the game, on an otherwise manageable 2nd and 5 in unambiguous four down territory with plenty of time to throw numerous incompletes and still get to the end zone, was a poor decision by the Ravens and Flacco – who is usually both clutch, and makes fairly good decisions for the given situation.

An occasional commentator has questioned some of Flacco’s moves.But they usually have a bigger upside times their chances than downside times those chances relative to the situation – which is the most crucial aspect of good quarterback decision making. Brady, of course, has long been the master at this. (Although Russell Wilson, who Brady faces in this upcoming Super Bowl – and who also possesses a great set of feet to both complicate and expand his decision making process and potential – like Brady early in his career has fast become very good at it as well.)

But regardless of what happens in this year’s Super Bowl coming up on Sunday versus Wilson and those same Seahawks (pick: Patriots win), if Brady returns for another year, – likely – and if the Patriots make the playoffs (based on past history also likely, as they’ve made the playoffs every year but 2 since Brady became the starter in 2001), they probably would rather not have to face the Ravens, one way or another.

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Week 14 NFL Picks, Against the Spread

History to date: A bit long, but a nice recap of all the weeks records prior to last week (as well as last week’s abominable picks) and some keys on assessing football games, is reviewed here.

There was no pick for the Thursday night game this week. In last weeks picks, recap, and assessment of Thanksgiving Thursday’s plate of three excellent games just linked to, this blog said the following about this past Thursday night Cowboys at Bears match-up:

Now the Bears face Dallas (next week), so they’re perhaps finally ready to let it all hang out, or their claims they “haven’t given up” are probably tepid. I have no pick on that game. I’m always wrong on the Bears. But hey, this is a blog, and if forced, until they do show that passion that should have come last week, here’s the pick for next week: Dallas.  (Though do recall that Dallas typically falls apart in late November and December, so this ought to be a good one.)

Two problems existed. One is too much faith in even repeatedly passionless teams to pull it together, get jazzed and play hard when it would seem teams would.  With the Bears this is a bad mistake to make, since one would have made that mistake about 5 or 6 big games in a row with them now, in games against good teams. And I think I’ve made it the majority of those times.

The second was a little too little faith in the Cowboys’ December abilities.

But in hindsight, the game materializes nicely, once the “is this the game the Bears finally rear up and play like a team and not a bunch of energy less piddlers” question was (once again), emphatically answered:

Dallas has been good this season.  They got embarrassed at home by the Eagles Thanksgiving day. With that loss their backs are against the wall. Past season tendencies are not a full indication of future performance. And they’ve played well on the road this season.

Meanwhile, putting idealistic guesswork on the Bear’s motivation aside, a callous examination of the Bears’ games indicates a decent team that has listlessly spiraled into a fairly bad one, while others are playing strong.

Hence, a team that is good, good on the road, with a very good quarterback – who unlike the week before had his normal full week to rest his ailing back – in a very important game for them, in front of a national TV audience, coming off of an embarrassing home loss in front of a national (thanksgiving afternoon no less) audience, against a fairly bad, and worsening, team, is likely going to win, and win strong.

Nice analysis, huh.  Be a lot nicer if saw it and provided it before the game.

As always, the following picks are only for the purposes of raising massive funds in Las Vegas in order to buy copious amounts of food for the homeless in Fort Lauderdale and numerous other cities, and then be able to afford a bevy of lawyers for a defense when the police – charged with enforcing an inane law against feeding homeless people in public in order to – get this – reduce homelessness (“Charlie, no one’s feeding me, I think I’ll buy my house back now!”) – arrest you for helping the neediest of the needy.

Ravens (+3) at Dolphins

It’s going to be a little warm in Miami for this game. That is what it does in Miami: Stays warm. And sometimes during the colder months visiting teams have a harder time with this, as during colder months the blood thickens and the body accommodates to colder temperatures.

Teams have gotten pretty good at adjusting for this though, with wet air blowing sideline fans, etc. But the Ravens will still likely be the team in dark, sunlight absorbing jerseys, and the forecast is for mostly sunny.

And while in the world of climate change “debate” an increase in absorbed or even captured and re radiated energy can be dismissed via belief under the grand complexity of long term global impact, in the more simplistic world of incoming solar radiation upon a colored surface, or, shirt, we don’t debate it any more.

Going back over several years it would seem Baltimore is the better team. But this is now. And this is a heck of a football game, in terms of the AFC, and by this point in the season it will say a lot about who has a chance. While Baltimore still has a shot for their division (provided they win this game), the loser of this game will probably be out unless they run the table. And unless the game is closely played, the loser probably isn’t strong playoff caliber anyway.

The Dolphins got slightly outplayed in a 3 point win at the Jets last week that was misleading – as once in a while the Jets play like a strong playoff team. The rest of the time they play like a team with almost no wins. Which is pretty much what they are.

The Ravens were at home last week. And as six point favorites (in a game that this blog, despite a bunch of bad picks against the spread last week, specifically called the upset on), they lost late by a point to the Chargers. But they probably slightly outplayed San Diego in the game.

Then again, Baltimore also tends to be a fairly strong home team, and not a very strong road team. And whether they “slightly outplayed” the Chargers or not: it wasn’t by much, and they didn’t win, at home.

Going with the Raven’s history, and perhaps not giving enough credit to the Dolphins’ recent overall performances (it’s hard to see Baltimore going into Denver in week 12 and only losing by 3 in a game they led a good portion of the way, as the Dolphins for instance did in week 12), the call this week, perhaps questionably, is:

Pick: Ravens, but it’s close. If there’s any pick here you just want to skip, or ignore my take completely on it (apart from maybe all of them), this might be the one.

Steelers (+3) at Bengals

It took a while before the Bengals could finally beat the Steelers in a game that mattered. And if they don’t win this, it’s right back to the old ways.

But the Bengals are the better team. And either this is their moment to peak, or they might as well pack it in once again as a pretty good, but just can’t quite get it done, team. (Though if they do win this game they still have the playoffs to not get it done, as they now have five out of five times, going 0-5 so far in the playoffs under head coach Marvin Lewis: the second longest tenured head coach in the NFL, after some random guy no one’s ever heard of – and who certainly has never won anything – who coaches some team out of Boston.)

The Bengals are simply a better football team. The question to be answered here is whether they have as much heart as Pittsburgh traditionally shows. Because Pittsburgh, more likely than not, will show it here.

Pick: Bengals 

Panthers (+10) at Saints

A few weeks ago, the Panthers hosted the Saints, and despite playing well in the first half, fell solidly behind by halftime. Then when they needed to atone in the second half, they did so by playing worse.

Carolina has shown itself to not necessarily be the type of team that will rise up with passion in key games where it is really needed. (Or perhaps they play too tight, and too worried about losing. Or both. See links below.) And on some level they may have half packed it in for this season already.

Whereas New Orleans is playing pretty well again, and is hard to beat at home. But Carolina still has a game left against the Falcons, who “lead” the division along with the Saints at 5-7, one and a half games ahead of the Panthers.

The Panthers have also not beaten, nor in most cases even come very close to beating, a good team this season, with the exception of a 24-7 win at home against Detroit in week 2. (At a time when they sill had linebacker Greg Hardy, a key cog in that defense.) And a tie, in a wacky week 6 game against the Bengals, at a time when the Bengals were not playing all that great. (And which took a Bengals miss of a short 36 yard field goal at the end of overtime for the Panthers to pull out the tie.)

They’re just not very good.

And after turtling up just a little bit at the end and losing in a battle for the division lead to Atlanta, the Panthers had a bye to get all nice and rested, and then came out and lost 31-13 to Minnesota. Minnesota.

Not that Minnesota’s not good, but other than a few fluke seasons here and there, the last time the Vikings were otherwise a strong team, they were purple people eaters. (And even if the Vikings two blocked punts for scores in that game are removed – though failing to block well enough and giving up blocked punts are part of football – they still lose 17-13. Plus they would have gotten the ball two extra times, because after each blocked punt and score by the Vikings, the Panthers get the ball back.)

Sometimes however, even if not as much this season, the Panthers play tough in hard games.

They just don’t seem to be showing much capacity to do so this year. And aside from the still underrated loss of Hardy (on the NFL’s exempt list, practicing some rap while hoping badly to beat the rap against him on appeal from an initial trial with no jury, when the now delayed case finally goes to a jury trial after the NFL season), and the seemingly overly tense and mechanical play of quarterback Cam Newton, this team may have made some poor offseason moves, and they’ve lost a few key players to injury.

Nevertheless, this is a division game. It’s not a near foregone conclusion that the Saints win. They’ve battled the Saints tough before when they’ve been a worse team than the Saints; and the Saints, playing well right now, have been up and down this season.

Though they don’t show anywhere near championship caliber energy – one of the many things that distinguishes the Panthers from the Seahawks, who they keep losing late leads and close games at home to – this is a chance at some redemption against these Saints for the big cats from Charlotte; and a shot, long shot though it may be with a team that is not very good, at pulling something out this season.

This game could be all over the place, and it’s not a great call given the Panthers’ lackluster play and the Saints home record and general focus. But this is the Panthers’ game, or it’s their season. They do have the capacity to play well, and despite losses, their defense still has the capacity to hold the Saints in check.

Keep in mind that if the Panthers do somehow win, it would be the fourth consecutive home loss for the Saints. Who, until this season (two weeks ago, specifically) had never lost three home games in a row under head coach Sean Payton, now in his 9th NFL season. (Though one of those seasons Payton was required to sit out for some Bountygate hanky panky, for which NFL Roger Commissioner was later scolded, and Payton somewhat exonerated).

Still, here’s to the big cat underdogs to show some divisional spark:

Pick: Panthers

Buccaneers (+10) at Lions

The Bucs are at the bottom of the NFC South, where the two division leaders are at 5-7, and the third place team, the aforesaid Panthers, have 3 wins and 1 tie.

Still, the Bucs, even under former head coach Greg Schiano, were a team that on several occasions went into the stadiums of much better teams, and battled close or won outright. (In fact, late in quarterback Russell Wilson’s second season last year, the otherwise lagging Bucs were almost the first team to beat him in Seattle since he entered the league, losing in overtime.)

And while former Bears head coach Lovie Smith might have been a little overrated, and proclamations of how good the Bucs were going to be this season (seemingly long forgotten, like sand beach castles down by the edge of an incoming tide, washed over and gone from memory) greatly inaccurate, they have shown a few signs of playing some good teams tough, and might finally be improving.

No upset picks this week. But this would be the type of game – though in a tough battle for the division or a wild card, Detroit can’t really afford it – where an unexpected upset could happen. A 10 point (or more) loss looks very plausible. But so does a close game.

Pick: Buccaneers

Seahawks (+1.5) at Eagles

Two birds going at it. This is the game of games. And Philadelphia, who has played well enough to be the standard 3 point home favorite here, doesn’t get much respect.

Still, the Seahawks, after what they did at the end of 2012 (blowing nearly everybody out of the water and then barely missing out on advancing to the AFC championship game), last year (a near dominant Super Bowl run and win) and the fact they are playing well of late, are a tough team to pick against right now.

If they are still for real, they have to win this game. While the Eagles, conceivably, do not.

No pick, it’s just a great game, and one that will tell a lot. And one in which the suddenly vulnerable Arizona Cardinals, who are just a game up on Seattle at this point but have already lost to them once, and who are playing the Chiefs at home and aren’t even 3 point favorites themselves, no doubt have a rooting interest in as well.

And which leads us into a game which, back to common practice, will yield a pick.

Chiefs (-1) at Cardinals

Perhaps the curtain is being pulled back on the Cardinals, who didn’t build as much as other teams in the offseason, and have suffered some key injuries. And who now have Drew Stanton at quarterback –  who throughout his career as a backup, and now in place of, is so far no Carson Palmer, by a long shot.

And the Chiefs are in a tough division, and a good team.

But don’t count these birds out yet.  They’ll give it all they’ve got, and should be a favorite to win the game.

Pick: Cardinals 

Patriots (-4) at Chargers, Sunday Night Football

Are the otherwise red hot Patriots, who once again seem to be one of the two or three best teams in the league right now, really going to lose twice in a row?

Maybe.

Straight up, this might be a Patriots pick. But the Chargers have the home field advantage. And while it doesn’t mean too much for current performance, compared to their other games, the Chargers simply have a near phenomenal record under quarterback Philip Rivers in December. (Albeit not as good as the Patriots record in December under Tom Brady.)

The Chargers are also a little handicapped though. They were down to their 4th string center, having lost a remarkable three centers to season ending injuries this year, and then their 4th center, Chris Watt, was injured in the close win at Baltimore in week 13.

This is not good. Also not good: Their starting right tackle, DJ Fluker, was drafted 11 overall last year. And he may be better than the 1st and 2nd overall picks in that draft, both also offensive tackles. Yet Fluker suffered a concussion this week. In practice.

If it was really a concussion, it is hard to see how he could sensibly play. But he was back at practice on Friday, as was Watt, who may play. (Although center number 5, Trevor Robinson, signed off the Bengals practice squad in week 7, seemed to do all-right against the Ravens last week.) Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who leads the Chargers in tackles for a loss (14), may also not play.

But 4 points is still relevant in a what could easily a close game, or even a Chargers win.

Pick: Chargers

Falcons (+13) at Packers, Monday Night Football

Sure, the Packers have been blowing nearly everyone out of the water at Green Bay, including some teams better than the Falcons.

But give Atlanta some credit here.  They may not be any good any more, but they are a tough football team under head coach Mike Smith, and less apt to completely fall apart in games.

True, they could not fall apart and still lose by 27 to the Packers up in Green Bay. But it’s time for these ridiculously lopsided games up there in Wisconsin to stop. At least that’s what the Falcons are thinking, right?

Or maybe the team from George is instead thinking. “It’s cold up here, when do we get to go home.”

Pick: Falcons

Some Early Observations, Week 9 of the NFL – Rams, Dolphins, Patriots, Chiefs and Cardinals, and Some Quarterback Numbers

Coming into week nine the New England Patriots were 3 point home underdogs to the Denver Broncos – despite rarely losing at home in Foxboro, and despite defeating the Broncos in a wild 24 point come from behind win in Foxboro (before losing to them in the AFC Championship game in Denver).

In this game, the oddsmakers either didn’t know what they were doing, or thought the public didn’t (or perhaps the Patriots just outperformed.) Continue reading

Week 9 NFL Picks Against the Spread

My only twitter picks this season, extra t’s and all:

Those three lucky calls don’t redeem last week’s awful 3-5 record ATS: Continue reading