Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4)
I was ready to make a big play on the Patriots this week. They haven’t looked good in a while. With most teams, that’s a concern, but that’s never been a concern with the Patriots in the Brady/Belichick era. In fact, short periods of struggles tend to wake up this team. The Patriots are 19-12 ATS with a healthy Tom Brady in his career off of 2 straight non-covers, 33-15 ATS off of a loss, and 12-6 ATS off of a loss when they also failed to cover in the previous game. Their last two games should motivate them more than anything and Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL at adjustments. Besides, you have to remember that those rough two games to end of the season were a road game in New York against the Jets, who always play them tough (4 straight matchups within 3 points, including a 27-25 Patriots win in New England earlier this season), and a meaningless game against a decent Bills team in which Tom Brady only played a half and a lot of starters didn’t even play.
Despite those two games, the Patriots come in ranked 5th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 4 games at 6.82% and 2nd in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 8 games at 11.27% (only behind Seattle at 11.68%). In their last 11 games that actually mattered, they move the chains at an 80.87% rate, as opposed to 71.51% for their opponents. The difference isn’t really on defense, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a similar 72.00% rate in their first 4 games of the season. The difference is on offense, as they moved the chains at a 66.38% rate in their first 4 games.
What’s changed? Well, the offensive line eventually settled in and Tom Brady’s play improved and Bill Belichick coached teams always make the right mid-season adjustments and improve as the season goes on, but the biggest difference is Rob Gronkowski. After struggling in his first 4 games back from that torn ACL, Rob Gronkowski played some of the best football of his life over that 11 game stretch, catching 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns and that made a huge difference. He was once again one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL this season, which is what he always has been when healthy. He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.
In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. As a result of the final 2 games of the season (one of which Gronk didn’t even play), I think people are forgetting exactly how good this team was during that 11 week stretch and they have a very good chance of reminding everyone this week.
On top of that, they are incredible at home, winning 16 straight home games that actually matter over the past 2 seasons, going 11-5 ATS in those 16 games. This season, excluding week 17, they move the chains at a 80.00% rate at home, as opposed to 71.37% for their opponents (a differential of 8.63%), while they move the chains at a 75.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 71.90% for their opponents (a differential of 3.20%). Part of why they struggled to start the season was because 3 of their first 4 games were on the road and that’s also part of why they struggled in New York against the Jets. Now back at home, they could easily be very, very tough to beat.
However, I’m not making a big play on the Patriots this week, despite all that, because of their opponent. I’m not worried about the Patriots playing the Ravens for the same reasons that everyone else seems to be worried about them playing the Ravens, which is that they are only 1-2 against the Ravens in the playoffs in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era (0-3 ATS). I don’t put too much stock into that number. For one, it’s way too small of a sample size to prove anything. Two, teams change on a year-to-year basis anyway. Baltimore having former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees running their defense is a concern and the Ravens do match up well with the Patriots (more on that later), but acting like that record proves anything about these two teams is short-sighted.
Three, the Patriots have covered against the Ravens all 4 times they’ve faced them in the regular season over that time period and their only loss came by a point in Baltimore. I don’t put any more stock into playoff statistics than I do into regular season statistics because I don’t buy into the notion that the game significantly changes in the post-season and that certain players do better or worse against certain teams in certain situations in the post-season. Once again, I believe that’s short-sighted. The Patriots’ 41-7 win in Baltimore last year should carry as much weight when evaluating this game as the Patriots’ 28-13 home loss to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship, if not more because it’s more recent. If anything, all this talk that Brady and Belichick can’t beat the Ravens in the post-season might just add to their motivation, which should already be very high considering this is the playoffs and considering their rocky finish to the season.
The reason I worry about the Patriots’ opponent here is because I thought going into the playoffs that the Ravens were the best team in the post-season outside of the four teams with first round byes. The Ravens went 10-6 despite a 2-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were a rare 10+ win team that was actually better than their record. They finished 5th in DVOA, and their +107 point differential was 6th among playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains, they moved them at a 75.93% rate, as opposed to 70.31% for their opponents, a differential of 5.62% that ranked 3rd in the NFL this season, behind only Denver and Seattle and actually ahead of New England.
Baltimore had a weak schedule, but even when you take schedule into account, the Ravens only fall to 4th in differential at 4.94%, trading spots with New England, who is at 5.40%. The Ravens also came into the playoffs as the 4th hottest team, ranking 4th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams over the final 4 games of the season at 10.56%, only behind Seattle, Carolina, and Dallas. That’s a little skewed because the Ravens faced back-to-back 3rd string quarterbacks against Houston and Cleveland and even schedule adjusted differential doesn’t take injuries into account, but it’s still very impressive.
The Ravens certainly didn’t do anything to disprove my theory that they were the best team to play during wild card weekend last week, as they beat the Steelers 30-17 in Pittsburgh, moving the chains at a 78.57% rate, as opposed to 69.70% for their opponents, a differential of -8.87%. That’s impressive, even if Pittsburgh was playing without Le’Veon Bell. This week, they get left tackle Eugene Monroe back from injury, after he’s missed the past two games with injury. He’ll be a significant upgrade over undrafted rookie James Hurst, who has struggled mightily when called on to play this year, though they’ll still miss right tackle Ricky Wagner, who has also missed the past two games and who was actually the better of the two tackles this season. 5th round rookie John Urschel, his replacement, has been solid so far though.
Defensively, they got Haloti Ngata back from suspension last week and that proved to be a huge addition. Ngata didn’t play at all during their final 4 games and the Ravens still allowed opponents to move the chains at a 58.41% rate over those 4 games, 11.06% less than average given their schedule (still very impressive even considering they faced 3rd stringers Connor Shaw and Case Keenum in two of those games). With Ngata back, their defense is very solid, despite issues at cornerback. Teams have proven in the past that secondary play is, well, secondary to good front 7 play and the Ravens are once again doing so of late.
If you can stop the run, you can make the other team one dimensional and force them to pass and if you can do that, it will allow you to unleash your pass rushers, who will mask your secondary. That’s how the Ravens have been getting it done and, as I mentioned earlier, they’re a tough matchup for the Patriots because of that. The Patriots’ weakness is still their offensive line, especially the interior of their offense line, a serious concern considering Tom Brady has always struggled under pressure. Over the past 6 seasons, he only has completed 541 of 1134 passes (47.7%) for 7056 yards (6.22 YPA), 47 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2354 for 3359 (70.1%) for 27302 yards (8.13 YPA), 216 touchdowns, and 45 interceptions while not under pressure.
The Ravens haven’t been as good on the road this season. In the regular season at home, they moved the chains at a 77.91% rate, as opposed to 67.26% for their opponents (a differential of 10.65%), while they’ve moved the chains at a 73.91% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.97% for their opponents (a differential of 0.94%). This home/road disparity is nothing new as since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh came in before the 2008 season, the Ravens are 47-11 straight up, outscoring opponents by an average of 10.33 points per game, at home, as opposed to 35-33, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.22 points per game on the road, a swing of about 9 points. In fact, their win in Pittsburgh last week was their first road victory of the season over a team who finished the season with a winning record. Ultimately, I’m going with the Patriots, but because they’re playing a team like the Ravens, I can’t put any money on them as touchdown favorites.
New England Patriots 27 Baltimore Ravens 17
Pick against the spread: New England -7