Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens' opponent that week. This week, I chatted with reporter Mark Daniels, who covers The New England Patriots for The Boston Herald.
MV: Tom Brady is an all-time great and arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, but he hasn't won a Super Bowl in nearly a decade. Is he under more pressure to win now after coming up short in recent playoffs?
MD: There is pressure for Tom Brady to capture his fourth Super Bowl. It does stem from the fact that he’s lost his past two against the New York Giants but also at the notion that at the age of 35 years old, his window could be closing. Brady is also the type of quarterback who puts a lot of pressure on himself. He’s been fiery this year and blew up at the team for a poor Week 16 win over Jacksonville.
MV: The Patriots have pushed opponents to their breaking point with their up-tempo, no-huddle attack, which Bill Belichick worked with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles, to implement. What do the players, particularly
Brady, think about that strategy, and do you expect them to ramp it up against a possibly-tired Ravens defense
MD: If there’s one thing for certain, the Patriots will ramp it up against the Ravens defense. They’ve had success all season running their no-huddle attack. Last week, Houston not only had trouble keeping up, but there were often times where defenders were lined up in the wrong places. Tom Brady’s a fan, but has said, this year, it’s hard when relying on a heavy terminology-based offense, especially for newcomers (Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson for example). Chip Kelly actually visited the Pats for the first time two years ago, so it’s nothing new for Brady, who’s extremely proficient at running this offense.
MV: How much will the loss of Rob Gronkowski affect what the Patriots are able to do offensively? I know he is arguably the top tight end in football, but the Patriots did just fine without him down the stretch.
MD: The Patriots have been more efficient, this season, when they’ve run a two-tight-end set. There’s no replacing what Rob Gronkowski can do offensively, but the hope is that Michael Hoomanawanui can do an adequate job with the run blocking and pass protection. It helps the Patriots that they played five games without Gronkowski this season, unlike during last year’s Super Bowl. Even when he was out, this season, they were still able to put up 42 and 34 points up against Houston and San Francisco.
MV: The Patriots have added cornerback Aqib Talib since the last time these two teams met. How is he fitting in with the secondary, and how has the addition of a cover man like that affected their approach?
MD: The acquisition of Aqib Talib has completely changed the Patriots’ secondary for the better. Talib, by no stretch, is a shutdown corner, but he has allowed the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety and Kyle Arrington in the slot. Both players, who were the starting corners last season, are far better in those positions. Talib has been solid, but the Patriots overhaul of the secondary has started to pay dividends and they are less prone to the deep ball.
MV: Looking at how these two teams match up, what do the Patriots do well that could cause the Ravens problems Sunday, and are their areas in which the Ravens might be able to exploit the Patriots?
MD: The Patriots are going to test the Ravens defense from the start. Even without Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady has enough weapons (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Stevan Ridley) to push the pace. Their run defense has been outstanding this season and like in last year’s AFC Championship game, expect Vince Wilfork to clog up the middle. But as good as Wilfork was last year, Joe Flacco was outstanding. The Patriots still don’t have a shutdown secondary and tend to give up a lot of yards. The Ravens give the Patriots’ matchup problems with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Aqib Talib will obviously cover one, but when Boldin or Smith are covered by rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard, they’ll have a nice height advantage over the 5-foot-10 seventh-round pick.