The NFL play-offs continue on Saturday, with number one seeds the New England Patriots up against their bogeymen, the Baltimore Ravens. Neil Harvey previews the game and brings us his pick of the betting action...
"It looks as though Tom Brady will be under as much pressure this Saturday as he has been all season. And this should be of major concern to the Patriots, whose few poor performances this season have come against aggressive defenses"
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Saturday January 10, 21:35
Live on Sky Sports 2
Recent history tells us that, as often as not, one of the top two seeds will fall at the very first hurdle in the NFL play-offs. For me, second seeds Seattle are a shoo-in to beat Carolina. But top dogs the Patriots look to have their hands full against a Ravens side who've proven tough post-season opposition in recent years. In the last five years these sides have met three times in the play-offs. All three games were played in New England. And yet it was Baltimore who emerged victorious on two of those occasions and were were unlucky to miss a potentially game-tying field goal in the third. You may find this surprising but the reality is that the Ravens have been more than a match for the Patriots of late.
In the battle of the quarterbacks, again perhaps surprisingly, it's Baltimore's Joe Flacco who's been the superior performer in the post-season. In those three contests I mentioned, it was Flacco who played the better, averaging 199 yards and throwing for 21 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. And whereas Tom Brady's yardage was a little higher at 237 yards, his combined total of just three TDs and seven picks explains why his New England side struggled so.
Of course these teams have changed greatly since those games in terms of personnel. Indeed, more than half of the Ravens 2012/13 Superbowl winning squad has since departed. But their styles remain the same. Baltimore still depend on their crushing defense to make big plays. Averaging three sacks per game, only Buffalo have got their hands on the opposing QB more times than Baltimore this season. Last week, their pass-rushers sacked Ben Roethlisberger on five occasions, so it looks as though Tom Brady will be under as much pressure this Saturday as he has been all season. And this should be of major concern to the Patriots, whose few poor performances this season have come against aggressive defenses. Twice the offensively inept Jets kept them to within just a field goal. And way back in Week One, I recall Miami's defense sacking Brady four times and forcing him to fumble twice en route to a 33-20 Dolphins win. Under pressure, Brady has struggled. And that's exactly where he will be on Saturday.
Moving to the ground now and Justin Forsett is likely to see a large number of carries for the Ravens. He'll be up against New England's 9th ranked run-defense. Remember though that nobody averages more yard per carry than Forsett this season. At more than five yards a pop, and with a high workload expected, he could soon pass the 100-yard make in this contest. By contrast, Baltimore have been stout at stopping the run. And that's without considering that New England's running game hasn't been great. It's also been by committee, with LeGarrette Blount the man most recently in vogue.
Given the poor match-up there, Patriots' coach Bill Bellichick is unlikely to risk putting the mortgage on the run, as he did with Jonas Gray against the Colts. A coach who loves to focus on opponents' weaknesses, Bellichick is instead likely to place New England's offense firmly in the hands of Brady, as he goes up against Baltimore's 23rd ranked pass defense.
Brady looks to have a good match-up here when it comes to gaining yards, and he certainly has an array of talented receivers at his disposal. In particular, Rob Gronkowski has been a huge outlet for the Patriots and looks certain to be targeted in the endzone. Indeed, if there's one player you'd want money on scoring a touchdown in this game - Gronk's your man. Yardage should not be the problem though. As mentioned earlier, it's the pressure Brady could be under and the potential turnovers they could cause that are the concern. Many people thought that the gunslinging Roethlisberger would torch the Ravens' secondary last week. And they were just plain wrong. The Ravens linebackers are packing heat and will be looking to bring it to Brady.
On the plus side for New England, their defense has been tidy and they've been playing sensible, percentage football. However, they are giving up a big start to a Baltimore team who've had their number of late and who looked impressively match sharp last weekend. So I'll be taking the headstart and cheering on the tortoise, as he looks to cause yet another upset against the hare.
Baltimore (+7.5) to beat New England @1.715/7
Baltimore (+3.5) to beat New England at Half Time @ 1.9110/11 or better
Justin Forsett to score anytime touchdown @ 2.001/1 or better
Rob Gronkowski to score anytime touchdown @ 1.608/13 or better