AFC Wildcard Playoffs Preview and Pick: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots

AFC Wild-Card Playoffs

Baltimore Ravens (9-7 SU, 8-7-1 ATS) vs. New England Patriots (10-6
SU, 7-7-2 ATS), 1:00 p.m. EST, Sunday, January 10, 2010, Gillette
Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., TV: CBS

by Badger of

Point Spread: Ravens +3.5/Patriots -3.5
Over/Under: 43

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Two teams very familiar with strapping it up in the AFC playoffs get set to duel in the opening Wild-Card round Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens travel to Foxborough, Mass., to play the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Both teams also face the same problem too, as neither team enters the
second season with the kind of momentum needed to make a four-game
run at Super Bowl 44 in Miami.

The Patriots were in prime position to be a sleeper in the AFC playoffs, but all of their momentum was sapped on Sunday when they lost receiver Wes Welker to a season-ending knee injury in a
meaningless 34-27 loss at Houston. Now, instead of coming into the
playoffs on a win streak and peaking at the right time, the Patriots
have questions about who will replace Welker and his gigantic role in
the offense.

Baltimore can feel good about winning in the final week in order to
get themselves into the playoffs, but the good feelings end there.
Their win was an ugly 21-13 one over the aimless Oakland Raiders, and
even though they did win three out of four games down the stretch,
its no secret the Ravens are no where near the threat to cause havoc
in the AFC playoffs this season compared to last year.

Clearly oddsmakers out in Las Vegas arent exactly sure of what to
make of Welkers injury and the Patriots chances moving on either,
since the Pats opened the Wild-Card game as 4-point favorites at
home, just a mere point above the standard 3-point given for having
the homefield advantage. The point spread has dropped to New England
minus -3.5-points at just about every sportsbook offshore and in
Vegas that lists a line on their board, meaning the public is also
jumping off of the Pats bandwagon.

The over/under total opened at 43 and has held firm on the opening
number despite the fact that the forecast for Gillette Stadium on
Sunday calls for high winds and single digit temperatures.

The obvious question mark going into the game Sunday is how and if
the Patriots can replace Welker. Ands its not just about replacing
Welkers gaudy stats (123 catches, 1,348 yards) either.

Welker is the most vital cog in the Patriots offensive machine, with
the lone exception being quarterback Tom Brady. Welker was the
receiver in the middle doing the dirty work between the hash marks,
he was Bradys main target (12 catch per game average) and his
favorite hot target on blitzes lined up in the slot.

Rookie Julian Edelman will likely replace Welker in the slot, but the
former Kent State quarterback-turned-receiver is not going to command
the attraction that Welker did, meaning fellow receiver Randy Moss
will likely get double-teamed every week from here on out.

If this game turns into a contest of who has a stronger running game,
the Ravens would hold the advantage there. Second-year back Ray Rice
has become a flat-out stud for the Ravens, averaging 116 yards a game
with a 6.3 per carry average over the Ravens last four regular season

Baltimore will need quarterback Joe Flacco to pick up his game in the playoffs too, knowing that defenses are going to scheme to stop Rice
and the running game. Flacco is coming off of a 10-for-19 outing for
just 102 yards against the Raiders, not exactly confidence inspiring.

Defensively both teams are very capable of stopping the opponent,
its just that the Ravens seem to be playing better football right
now. But looks can be deceiving.

Baltimore has allowed just 11.5 points per game during the stretch run, with a high of 20 points coming against the Steelers back in week 16, but when you look to see those numbers came against Detroit,
Chicago and Oakland not so impressive really.

Meanwhile the Patriots gave up 439 yards of total offense to the
Texans last Sunday, including 303 yards in the air to Matt Schaub,
and they look like they can be scored on a little easier than
Baltimore. But the Pats played a playoff-ready schedule down the
stretch, including games against a few teams (Miami, Carolina,
Jacksonville) still playing for a playoff birth themselves.

New England hosted the Ravens at Gillette once already this season, a
week 4 contest the Patriots won, 27-21. A few of the more telling
stats from that game include New Englands nearly 10 minute time of
possession average (34:56-to-25:04) and the penalties (nine) and
yardage (85 yards) the Ravens cost themselves in the game.

Baltimore owned the ground (6.8 yards per carry), but never was able
to take advantage because they were trailing and constantly killing
themselves with penalties. If they can play from the front instead of
from behind, the outcome of the game could be drastically different.

Most of the betting trends favor the Patriots here too.

The home team is 4-0 ATS in the last four head-to-head meetings. In
fact, Baltimore is 1-4-1 ATS in the last six meetings and 0-3-1 ATS
in their last four visits to Foxborough. Those trends all are
opposite the Ravens success last year for bettors, as the Ravens are
actually 6-2 ATS in their last eight playoff road games overall.

The under has some strong trends too, going 11-2-1 in New Englands
last 14 playoff games including 4-1-1 in their last six as the
favorite. The under is a perfect 4-0 in the Ravens last four wildcard

Badgers Pick: Both offenses will struggle with the weather supposed to be cold and windy, so Im putting my wager on the team with the
better running game. Baltimore wins ugly in a low scoring game. Take
Baltimore plus 3.5-points.