The New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the AFC Championship, and it is time to see what the numbers have to say about this important matchup. These two teams met in the same game last season, but this contest could look quite different than that 23-20 affair.
Baltimore has fallen off a bit on the defensive side of the ball. Do they have what it takes to slow down the Patriots, or will they need a few lucky bounces? Will New England's secondary let Joe Flacco have another big game? Time to see what the statistics have to say.
When the Patriots have the ball...
New England has been a juggernaut on offense ever since Tom Brady took over the quarterback position, and that didn't change in 2012. The Patriots were first in Football Outsiders' weighted offensive DVOA (a metric that measures efficiency adjusted for strength of schedule). Despite injuries, Brady still led the passing game to the top of the NFL.
Baltimore isn't the defensive force it once was. The Ravens were all the down to 19th in DVOA this year after leading in the category the season before. The Ravens particularly struggled in the ground game, where they were 26th in rushing DVOA.
The Patriots don't seem like a team that cares to run the ball effectively all that much, as Brady slings the ball all over the field. However, New England was near the top of the league in rushing efficiency (4th in DVOA). That likely stems from their effectiveness in the passing game, where they spread the defense out across the field. That opens up some nice holes for running backs as Brady audibles to plays based on defense at the line.
If they Ravens are going to perform statistically the same way they have all season, this should be an easy offensive day for New England. Baltimore finished 13th in passing DVOA, but was still 3.4 percent worse than what is expected of an average passing defense.
Can the Ravens at least bother Brady, and not allow him to go through his progressions? Well, the New England offensive line makes that tough, allowing just a 4.5 percent adjusted sack rate (fifth-best in the league). On the other side, Baltimore was decent at sacking the quarterback, with a 6.9 percent sack rate.
Making Brady uncomfortable and possibly forcing him into a few mistakes is what the Baltimore defense will need to do to be successful. They don't have the horses to stick with New England's fast-paced attack on long drives. It wouldn't be shocking to see the Patriots move the ball and light up the scoreboard.
When Baltimore has the ball...
While the Patriots should be able to score on the Baltimore defense, the good news for the Ravens is that they could very well do the same to the New England defense. Baltimore was 13th in offensive DVOA (even when giving more emphasis to late in the season).
Bill Belichick's squad is a bit a mixed bag when it comes to defense. They are just plain bad when it comes to the pass, but among the best in stopping the run. The Giant human being in the middle, Vince Wilfork, may have a lot to do with that.
Joe Flacco is going to have to step up again for the Ravens. They were more successful with the run during the season, but that plays right into the strength of the New England defense. The Ravens were seventh in weighted rushing DVOA, while New England was sixth in weighted DVOA when it came to stopping the run.
Where the Patriots faltered this year was in the secondary, as they were 23rd in the league in weighted passing defensive DVOA, coming in at nearly 14 percent worse than average.
That is what the Ravens need to exploit. They weren't bad in the passing game (15th in DVOA), but Flacco can be fairly inconsistent at times. His performance against the Broncos was evidence of that. Flacco's 334 yards and three touchdowns were great, but completing just 18 of 34 passes isn't going to sustain drives. He'll need more of those big plays to take advantage of a porous New England pass defense.
Baltimore's adjusted sack rate on offense is nearly identical to New England's sack rate on defense. Both are around six percent. So if Flacco drops back to pass around 30 times, expect him to get sacked twice. That's not to bad for Flacco, who'll need all the time he can get to let receivers open up downfield.
There is certainly an opportunity for Baltimore to stick in this game with their offense, but Flacco is going to have to bring his best game. If he does, then the Ravens can put up the numbers necessary to keep pace with Brady and the Patriots.
Prior to these playoffs, it would have weird to think of any Baltimore team engaging in shootouts during the postseason, but that is exactly what they did last week in Denver. This game is likely to be more of the same as each side features some fairly pedestrian defense.
The Patriots do have the advantage, thanks to their ridiculously good offense. Baltimore will have to get a few breaks to go their way to avenge last season's AFC title game loss and win yet another one for Ray Lewis.