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Ask PFW: Fearing the Ravens?

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Sick of all the talk about Pats not "wanting" to play the Ravens and we fans should be scared it's the Ravens. Belichick is the best coach in the game, and knows the Ravens as well or better than they know the Pats. The frequent prior matchups are to Pats advantage. Further, Pats have advantage since it's the Ravens as they will be more jacked for them and "out to prove" the naysayers wrong as if they need additional motivation...Pats are much more talented than Ravens while the past 2 playoff games were w/o Gronk. What are your thoughts?? Agree/disagree...?*
*John

* Brookfield, CT*

I think the Patriots should very much be confident in a matchup against the Ravens for some of the reasons you mentioned. A healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of Darrelle Revis make the Patriots a more playoff-ready team than we've seen in some time in these parts, even compared to teams that went to AFC title games and the Super Bowl. That said, I do think the Ravens were the least favorable of the three potential foes New England could have faced to open this postseason. That feeling stems from a simple matchup – the Patriots suspect offensive line against the impressive Baltimore front on defense. The Ravens notched 49 sacks this season, led by veteran edge forces Elvis Dumervil (17) and Terrell Suggs (12). The front also includes impressive depth and an elite interior defensive lineman in Haloti Ngata, who has fresh legs coming off a four-game suspension to end the season for a unit that allowed opponents to average just 3.6 yards per carry on the ground. If there is going to be a fatal flaw with the Patriots, based on what we saw over the last month of the season, it could be the offensive line. The group got banged up down the stretch and was too inconsistent in battles in Green Bay, San Diego and against the AFC East foes to close out the year. The best way to derail the Tom Brady-led offense has always been by dominating the line of scrimmage and putting pressure – mental and physical -- on No. 12. The Ravens might be able to do that. They've proven they can upset the Patriots and fight the good fight in Foxborough in the postseason, with two January victories and a hard-fought loss to New England over recent winters. Are the Patriots still the favorite to advance to the AFC Championship? Yes. Do I think fans should be respectively fearful of the Ravens? Yes.
Andy Hart

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This game is going to be a nightmare for the Pats. The Ravens should be able to stop the run and also put on a heavy pass rush. It may be like a typical Jets game, except the Ravens have a much better offense. Can you paint a better picture for us fans?*
*Richard D'Andrea

Sure. If the Patriots protect Brady they should be able to take advantage of a very suspect back end of the Baltimore defense. The Ravens have the NFL's 24th-ranked pass defense. The unit allowed opponents a combined 90.6 passer rating, 64.2 completion percentage and 22 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. Brady and his Gronkowski-led attack are certainly more than capable of taking advantage of the weakness in the Baltimore back end, assuming the line does its job up front.
Andy Hart

The Ravens worry me, like a lot of people. That pass rush, Dean Pees' knowledge of Tom and the offensive approach, and their confidence level worry me. But... the recent work of all the OL together as a group is my question. Two weeks, a prior loss and some recent injuries. The protection or scheme to counter the rush will decide this game IMO. So... I will be watching for you guys to report on health issues, and questions please... Can we expect variations of screens and/or quick slants to counter the rush? With the DL attack will we see the run game go outside? Will we see the fast-paced no-huddle to slow the rush down? I say yes, with short, controlled high percentage completions early to move the ball, gas the defense and score early. If not, we may be in trouble. Thoughts?
Michael Monk

I couldn't agree with you any more. I expect Brady to come out in spread sets with an up-tempo approach. Short drops with quick, high-percentage passes could be on tap. Not only will that help the offensive line keep the Suggs-led rush off Brady, it could keep Dumervil off the field entirely. The veteran had 17 sacks as a situational, third-down player this season. If the Patriots go up-tempo from the get go it may not allow Pees to substitute his players as often, potentially keeping the most productive pass rusher for the Ravens on the sidelines more than they'd like. The only flaw with this plan is if the Baltimore secondary is willing/able to crowd the line and the short throws, daring Brady to hold onto the ball or try to make some plays down the field. Still, I do think the approach of spreading the Ravens out, throwing the ball quickly and making theoretically high-percentage throws is indeed the way to open up this big playoff battle on offense. As always, though, it will be all about execution on both sides of the ball.
Andy Hart

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Check out photos from access to players and coaches as the Patriots prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

We know that Fitzgerald will be a free agent, great addition, price, talent and leadership. All what BB is looking for. Also what are the chances of Wilfork staying in NE under the current contract?*
*Nader Behbehani

With Larry Fitzgerald saying he doesn't see a return to Arizona in his future do you think the Pats will have a look at him, beyond the due diligence they do on almost every player, since they have had an interest in him in the past?
Doug Somers

First, Fitzgerald is technically under contract with Arizona for next season. He's scheduled to have a $23.6 million salary cap charge next year for the Cardinals. It's highly unlikely he'll be kept at that number. So that means he's in store for a re-structure to stay in Arizona, could be traded or may be given his release. Fitzgerald's role changed in recent years, with him becoming more of a slot receiver with blocking responsibilities and short catches. Would that fit in New England where Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman already work inside with regularity? I'm sure the Patriots will looking into Fitzgerald if he does hit the market, but I'm not sure he makes as much sense at this point in his career and the Patriots offensive evolution as he may have in the past. Fitzgerald failed to reach 1,000 yards for the third straight season and had a career-low two touchdowns, though he certainly was hurt by Carson Palmer's injury and his own late-season ailments. As for Wilfork, given his return to excellence and his renegotiated deal last spring, I fully expect him to remain in New England for at least one more year as a defensive and organizational mainstay.
Andy Hart

The Ravens are coming to town next week. Unfortunately, historically not the best matchup for our Patriots. Obviously, Suggs, Dumervil and Ngata are going to do all they can to make Brady's day a bad one, and I see our best chance of winning is to get off to a fast start, to not settle for 3 points in the red zone and to establish a running game to keep Suggs & company honest. Any guess, though, as to any additional schemes Belichick might come up with to flip the script on a matchup that historically tends to favor the Ravens? Thanks!
J.D.

Hi Guys. Can you please tell me I'm misinformed? The Ravens are a bad matchup. Dumervil, Suggs and a well-rested, refreshed Ngata are just the type of unit that has been responsible for ending the Pats past postseason hopes. What's worse, the Pats OL is by most people's understanding, the team's Achilles Heel. Chillingly, the Ravens sacked Big Ben 5 times, and all were done with standard pressure, just 4 past rushers. One might argue that the Pats will counter the DL with quick throws to attack the weak Ravens secondary, but in the past, because the Pats don't have someone to stretch the field, the Ravens have packed the short and intermediate zones, causing Brady to have to look past his first read, giving the DL time to get Brady off his spot. One might also suggest the Pats have to run the ball; however, the Ravens are 4th in the entire NFL against the run. Would you please address and hopefully dismiss my concerns?
Tony D.

As I said in previous responses, the Patriots are the more talented team in this matchup. They have the better coach and the better quarterback. New England is the favorite to return to yet another AFC title game. But this game is far from a layup and maybe the worst-cast scenario for this postseason. But I remain where I was confidently to open the season – a healthy trio of Brady, Gronkowski and Revis gives New England its best chance to win a Super Bowl since probably 2007. I have not changed from that spot. I think the Patriots are healthier than people assume from afar after the bye week. I think the five-man offensive line that was the key, on some level, to midseason success will be ready to go. Now, it will just have to win the battle in the trenches often enough to let the rest of the unit do its job. I like the idea of spreading the Ravens out and throwing the ball quickly. Now we'll see if Belichick and Josh McDaniels feel the same way. New England is a full touchdown favorite. They are that for a reason. They are the better team. They are at home. They should be expected to win.
Andy Hart

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I'm worried about the fact we're playing the Ravens, probably followed by the Broncos and the Seahawks/Packers. All of these teams have a strong running game and a fearsome pass rush, both of which are probably the Patriots biggest areas of weakness. What do the Patriots need to do to win these games?*
*Alex Marr

All the Patriots need to do this week, and moving forward, is take advantage of their own strengths. I really believe that. They don't/won't need to upset anyone or do anything special. At least until the Super Bowl, I think New England is the clear better football team in its potential AFC matchups. The only area I have any doubt in is the same one that fans question – the offensive line. That means it's up to Brady, Gronkowski and others to perform at a level to cover up any concerns or matchup losses up front. Still, Patriots fans should, in my opinion, be very confident heading into this postseason stretch. Do upsets happen? Could New England lose? Sure. But I won't be predicting, at least not any time before February in Arizona.
Andy Hart

The Seahawks defense is arguably the best because of its athleticism, with speed and power causing opposition quarterbacks problems and tackling the runner before he has had a chance to gain momentum. As our quickest and most disruptive defensive ends and linebackers are Collins, Hightower, Chandler Jones, Ninkovich and Ayers, I'd like to see a multidimensional and constantly changing defensive alignment of those players and two big bodies (Wilfork/Branch/Chris Jones) up front in initial running and passing downs. Do you think that would have success?
David Beckett

I do think it would have success and I think we've seen some of that in recent weeks. The entirety of that group hasn't really been on the field healthy together very often this year. Guys like Akeem Ayers and Alan Branch were late additions to the roster. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower have missed time to injury. But at their best, that group certainly brings unique athleticism, energy and versatility. The Patriots have used a lot of essentially 4-2-5 type looks this year and I think you could see that continue the rest of this winter. That doesn't mean the group will suddenly look and play like the Seahawks, though. I think Seattle plays a more aggressive, athletic brand of football that's based as much on reaction and aggression as it is consistent, heady play. There are some differences between the defensive philosophies between the two teams. But there is no question that over the last year the talent, athleticism and versatility on the Patriots defense has been trending in the right direction. That's led to a more successful and exciting brand of defensive football.
Andy Hart

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Jamie Collins has been really impacting the game when he's rushing the passer. I know they need him in coverage as a priority at times but it seems like he could be a bigger impact to the game rushing vs being in coverage...bottom line is he gets to that QB. Do you think the Pats may let him rush more in the playoffs?*
*Jim Kelleher

I think you will probably see Collins used in a similar fashion as he's been deployed most of this season. He'll rush at times – from both the inside and the edge – and also will be counted on in coverage. I think that takes advantage of his unique playmaking skill set and also keeps the offense on its toes in terms of trying to defend the Patriots front. It works well in conjunction with the versatility of others like Hightower and even Ninkovich/Jones/Ayers. Collins seems to be on the verge of becoming maybe a key figure around which the defense, or at least the front, is built. I'm intrigued to see what he's able to do in his second taste of postseason action over the next few weeks.
Andy Hart

Thanks for keeping us updated with all the latest Pats news. Andy, good to see you've been on the WEEI Dale & Holley show lately, great insight! Anyway, I was curious if you fear the Ravens offense or defense more. My fear is of the pass rushing OLBs they have. Granted they have awful corners but with that pass rush, it's not as big of an issue. Also, who will cover Torrey Smith and Steve Smith? I don't think either is a good matchup for Browner. Go Pats!
David Sarro

Thanks, David. I had fun filling in on WEEI during the holidays. I certainly "fear" the Ravens defense more, based mostly on that pass rush and front that you mentioned. It coincides with the biggest questions I have about the Patriots at this point – the offensive line and protection of Brady. As for the matchups, I think that is a really fascinating part of this game. The Ravens have two primary receivers and the Patriots have two obvious top corners who like to play man coverage. Personally I would match the physical Brandon Browner up with the very physical Steve Smith Sr. That would leave Darrelle Revis to deal with the younger, faster Torrey Smith. I think Smith Sr. and Browner could have an epic, physical battle as they look to test each other and what the officials will let them get away with. I'm also concerned that Torrey Smith might be too quick and fast for Browner, even with help over the top, while I have confidence that Revis can deal with just about any type of challenge at this point. But most likely is that this is a game where there aren't man matchups from start to finish. I could see them staying on their right and left sides for a while, manning up at times and even playing some zone to keep the Ravens and Joe Flacco from getting too comfortable.
Andy Hart

Hi PFW. With the end of regular season, I believe that offensive line is the biggest problem. As well, Amendola should be traded/released next summer and we miss a deep threat. Do you see Patriots going for 2 guards and 2 wide receivers next draft?
Gregorio Pampaloni

The offensive line is and will be a consideration moving forward. What the team does in that area will depend on what the coaches and personnel people think of the talent that remains, especially the relatively young players. Cameron Fleming is a fourth-round pick who shows potential. Is he a backup right guard for the next year or more? Could he factor into the plans at right guard? What will Marcus Cannon, who just signed a two-year extension for decent money, be utilized as moving forward? So while there certainly could be some turnover at both guard spots – Dan Connolly is set to be a free agent – it probably isn't as simple as just drafting two guards a year after the team selected three linemen in the draft. I do think there will be one pick used on a guard in the first few rounds. I also would expect that Amendola's future with the team will be addressed this offseason. A trade or release are very much possibilities. Again, though, the need for youth at receiver very much could depend on what the team expects moving forward from Aaron Dobson. Much like guard, I would expect at least one pick at receiver next spring. But we are still a very long way from assessing the team's draft needs, especially when free agency has to be taken into account.
Andy Hart

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Looking Ahead, besides re-signing Revis, what would you say the top three priorities are for the Patriots?*
*Mark Davis

Is this the Raiders owner? Wouldn't that be tampering? At least use a fake name, man. Anwyay, there is a huge drop-off from Revis to the rest of the priorities. Next in line would probably Devin McCourty, set to be a free agent. He's evolved into a high-level safety in terms of solid play and communication in the back end, working behind Revis and Browner. He's probably looking for big money – something north of $40 million with half or so guaranteed would probably be a starting point of discussions – so it won't be easy. Another free agent to keep an eye on would be Stephen Gostkowski. He may be "just a kicker" but he's among the best in the game and has proven his value in New England. Retaining No. 3 should be a priority that won't break the bank. Next I'd say there might be a focus on what to do with the Nate Solder. He's scheduled to make $7.5 million or so on a fifth-year option. But the deal is not guaranteed and his suspect play at times this season have clouded his future. Is he a big-money left tackle worthy of a long-term deal? Does he need to play out the year at a really high salary? Could he be cut? Solder's future needs to be accounted for this spring as the team works to build its offensive line for next fall.
Andy Hart

With Arrington's recent injury, will our slot corners and nickel/dime DB's be solid enough to carry us through the playoffs? I like Logan Ryan OK, but who else could we expect to see if Arrington can't go? Also, is Chandler Jones 100% again?
Marcel Lounge

With a month to rest his hamstring injury, I'd expect Arrington to ready to go this Saturday evening against the Ravens and beyond. He's clearly the best third corner on the team and best option in the slot. If he's an issue to play or stay on the field, things get murky. Ryan has struggled and been targeted by opposing passers. Malcolm Butler has had his ups and downs and wouldn't seem to be counted on. Alfonzo Dennard has been a strange story and a healthy scratch for seemingly months. That's left times where the fifth defensive back has been one of the rotation of safeties. That has not been ideal, either. But if Arrington stays healthy, there is no doubt this is the best secondary the Patriots have thrown at postseason opponents in more than a decade. And he's generally one of the more durable defenders in New England.
Andy Hart

Alfonzo Dennard was arguably the Pats best D-back for the past couple of years (pre-Revis). He obviously fell out of favor somehow but please explain why Logan Ryan is getting all these snaps while continuously getting burned by opposing offenses. He is an obvious target of other teams and isn't close to the caliber corner of A. Dennard. Can you please enlighten me as why Dennard is in the dog house? He made a brief appearance a couple of weeks back but then he was gone again. My understanding is that this isn't an injury issue! I am also amazed at how little press this issue has received. Your response would be greatly appreciated.
John Kemmett

I agree with everything you said in your email. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for you. Dennard's dropping down the depth chart from starter to healthy scratch behind an undrafted rookie has been shocking. I have not heard a valid reason for it. I have not heard great theories for it. The only thing I know is that it's likely what Belichick considers in the best interest of the football team. At least that's how he answers these types of questions more often than not.
Andy Hart

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Bill Belichick is a proven winner with a cautious demeanor. Other than these traits, what makes him so different from other coaches?*
*Norm Hamel

Short answer? Winning. Want more? First is his pure talent. He's clearly one of, if not the most talented coaches in the game. Coaching is more an art than a science in my mind and he's a great coaching artist. He also generally is a game-plan coach, meaning he tailors his game plans on both sides of the ball to his specific talent and the matchup that week. Not too many coaches do that. He also has the experience and the ability to coach just about any position on the field in all three phases of the game. Again, that's unique. Most guys are very much entrenched in one side or the other. Finally, I think he's supremely confident in his ways, whether that's on the field or in the other aspects of the job. He won't be altered in his path by any external or internal forces. He's going to do what he believes is right, regardless of what anyone else thinks. And more often than not, his way is the right way. His record proves that.
Andy Hart

Greetings from Fort Valley GA, I'm a GIGANTIC fan from the south. I love the work that PFW puts out every week. That's not why I'm writing, I would like to know what would it take to see more of the hurry-up offense to control the tempo of the game? Just wondering Please share your thoughts... True GAPatsfan
Marquis Collins

I think you could see more up-tempo offense this week. The Patriots haven't done that much this year, certainly not as much as in the past. Brady has said he enjoys that plan and doesn't always have a great reason why they don't use it more. And with a defense that can now more than carry its share of the weight, including spending a bit more time on the field if hurry-up drives end quickly in punts, I think it's a strength the Patriots could unleash in this game and in coming weeks. I also think the overall core of the offense is experienced and comfortable enough in the scheme to get it done. The only downside from a Patriots perspective is that New England is a team that generally likes to use a lot of different personnel groups and the hurry-up forces you to stay with one grouping for an extended series of plays. But I don't see that as a major problem with this group of offensive weapons.
Andy Hart

Why hasn't Tim Wright been active in games more? This kid seems like he could also play wide receiver from time to time. I think his presence helps get him catches while Gronk is on the field.
Husein Mehmedovic

In my eyes Wright is the definition of a complementary weapon. He gets in where he fits in, so to speak. The core of the passing game is Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. There are only so many balls to go around and roles to fill out. Some of those overlap with Wright. He also had to build a role on the fly with this team after joining New England at the end of training camp. So he probably still doesn't have the same level of comfort with Brady and the offense as he might have had he been here this summer. He's done a nice job catching the ball when it's been thrown to him and producing six touchdowns. He's probably ready for an expanded role if injuries or circumstances call for it. Other than that, I think he's simply an extra piece and complementary option in the New England offensive puzzle.
Andy Hart

Is there a possibility that the team may get a real offensive coordinator next year? Come on you and everyone else can see the play calling is stagnant. There has to be a better choice.
Ken Fortin

The only way the team is likely to get a new coordinator is if Josh McDaniels leaves to take a head coaching job with the Falcons or 49ers. Teams that would obviously be hiring him based on his success, play calling and young coaching mind. So some people think he is a "real offensive coordinator." I happen to agree with them and have seen McDaniels put together some of the best offenses in football in a wide variety of ways over the years in New England. Is he perfect? No. Do I question him sometimes? Yes. But I'd say the same about Belichick's own moves as a head coach. No one is perfect or beyond questioning. I also can remember in the past when people hated the game plans or play calling of previous offensive coordinators like Charlie Weis and Bill O'Brien. I guess it comes with the job. But I think McDaniels is a very good young offensive mind, play caller and coach. The only way I want to replace him is if he moves on to get another shot as a head coach. And if that happens, he will be missed in New England.
Andy Hart

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