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Patriots vs. Ravens Divisional Round Preview: Can Baltimore Do It Again?

Our math says the Patriots and Ravens tilt could be the closest of the weekend. Who has the edge?

The matchup between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens features two top-five teams in the NFL, if you ask our math.

According to nERD, our metric for detailing how good a team really is, the Patriots are the fourth-best team in the league, and the Ravens are the fifth. New England's nERD is 7.68, which means they should beat a league-average opponent by 7.68 points on a neutral field. The Ravens, though, aren't average. Their nERD is 5.53.

In New England and with the better overall metrics, the Patriots seem to have the edge. But is that really the case?

Let's dig in and find out.

Stay-at-Home Patriots

New England was strong on both sides of the ball this regular season, and were one of two teams to rank in the top six in both Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) in both offense and defense -- Seattle is the other.

The Pats finished the season ranked fourth in pass defense, too, which has made their 17th-ranked run defense good enough to go 12-4. And they didn't rely on some big games at home to inflate their metrics. In fact, their home and road splits on the ground are nearly indiscernible.

Run D SplitsAttYdY/ATD1D

At home, the team allows a higher percentage of passes to be completed (61.3% to 58.0%), but have eight more sacks (24 to 16) and two more picks (9 to 7). Why the elevated completion percentage by comparison? Well, the Pats outscored teams 33.0-16.8 at home, and just 25.5-22.4 on the road.

The offense, of course led by Tom Brady, had the fourth-best passing metrics in the league, and Brady was a top-four passer this year. His play at home, was significantly better than on the road.


Not Your Ravens of Old

The Ravens this year did end up with the fifth-best defense in football, but it wasn't well-rounded. Baltimore had the fourth-best run defense in the league but were just 18th in pass defense -- the Pats, again, were sixth and 17th, respectively. What does Baltimore boast on the offensive side of the ball?

For starters, Joe Flacco had his best passing season of his career this year, posting a Passing NEP of 89.35, roughly 33 points above expectation better than his second-best season in 2009 (56.40). Brady's, for comparison, was 131.05. So, Flacco sure isn't the best quarterback left in the playoffs, but the Ravens have had their best passing season since we started keeping tabs in 2000. The Ravens posted an Adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.17, significantly higher than the team's second-best season in the past 15 years (0.11 in 2006).

Still, the passing game will have its hands full with the fourth-ranked pass defense in the league. Torrey Smith ranked 10th among 90 receivers with at least 30 catches in Reception NEP per target (0.88). Steve Smith was actually below average in that group, ranking 51st (0.63).

On the ground, Justin Forsett played like one of the best running backs among all the backs left in the playoffs. In fact, Forsett actually ranked second in the NFL in Rushing NEP out of all running backs, adding 22.67 points above expectation. (Marshawn Lynch was first at 27.34.)

All things considered, the matchup is very close. So where do we go from here?

Strongest Predictors

If you check out our game projections, you'll see one of the coolest features on our site: Strongest Predictors. These are historical games that are similar to the matchup in both team composition and point spread. Rather than look at how the Ravens have played the Patriots in the recent past, we find teams who play similarly and have faced off.

The game with the strongest similarity took place in 2009. The Packers (representing the Patriots) lost to the Vikings (the Ravens) by a score of 38-26. If the game shakes out that way, then big things are in store for both quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre combined for 531 yards and 7 touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Packers, though, were held to just 38 yards on the ground from running backs, and Adrian Peterson went for 97 yards on 25 carries and scored a touchdown. Also, Rodgers was sacked six times. Favre avoided all sacks.

The second-closest game also is in favor of the Ravens, a 9-7 victory for the Giants over Washington way back in 2000. But 16 of the top 25-comparisons give the nod to the Patriots, and the closest one to the 2014 matchup that goes in their favor also took place 15 years ago. The Patriots are represented by the 2000 Washington squad, and Baltimore is represented by the Baltimore team of 15 years ago. Washington won that game 10-3.

Tony Banks and Brad Johnson combined to go just 34 of 54 for 293 yards and 2 interceptions. Aside from two second-quarter field goals, the only score was a 33-yard touchdown run by Stephen Davis early in the fourth quarter.

With games on both ends of the spectrum in terms of offense, what does our math ultimately predict?

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