Ravens 38, Broncos 35, 2OT
Strategy: It took a ton of wise decisions to triumph in the instant classic. Jim Caldwell blended aggressive deep passes with an old-fashioned approach on the ground, piling up 479 yards of total offense. Joe Flacco trusted his receivers in jump-ball situations. The shotgun formation was utilized on 25 of 74 snaps with zero no-huddles. The reconfigured line's basic blocking techniques warded off Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele's double-team blocking and a textbook lead block by pulling guard Marshal Yanda created running room for Ray Rice. Dean Pees didn't have to blitz much, generating pressure with Terrell Suggs bull-rushing Ryan Clady for two sacks. Pass coverage was primarily a bold man-to-man style, shadowing receivers to squeeze down sight lines for Peyton Manning.
Personnel: With rookie Bernard Pierce hobbled, Rice's workload expanded to 30 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown. The ironmen who played 99 percent of the snaps: McKinnie, Osemele, Yanda, Matt Birk, Flacco, Corey Graham, Bernard Pollard, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe. Edge rusher Paul Kruger and nickel back Chykie Brown had 93 percent participation (88 snaps). Suggs played 78 percent of the defense's time on the field (74 snaps). Ma'ake Kemoeatu (42 snaps) and Terrence Cody (23 snaps) divided time at nose tackle. Haloti Ngata (61 snaps) and Courtney Upshaw (26 snaps) didn't play as much as usual. Tight ends Dennis Pitta (58 snaps) and Ed Dickson (33 snaps) split action.
What went right: Flacco used a precise touch on two touchdowns to a streaking Torrey Smith and launched a high-arcing spiral to Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard score. The line stonewalled the Denver rush, allowing only one coverage sack. Rice ran with determination, vision and sound ball security. Smith's speed created a mismatch against veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. Graham alertly snagged a Manning pass that was deflected by Brown for a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown and later picked off a throw from the veteran quarterback in overtime by mirroring wide receiver Brandon Stokley. Lewis racked up a game-high 17 tackles.
What went wrong: The kick coverage was horrendous, allowing Trindon Holliday to set records with a 90-yard punt return and a 104-yard kickoff return for touchdowns. Brendon Ayanbadejo missed a tackle on the punt as Sam Koch outkicked his coverage. Ayanbadejo and James Ihedigbo were out of position on the kickoff. Reed and Lewis whiffed on tackle attempts on Demaryius Thomas' bubble-screen touchdown. The return game was dormant. Birk got pancaked by Justin Bannan in the red zone. Lewis allowed eight receptions for 97 yards in eight throws directed toward him.
Turning point: Running past Tony Carter and leaving a flailing Rahim Moore behind, Jones headed into the end zone for an electrifying touchdown that sent the game into overtime and restored momentum for the Ravens.
X-factor: Reed had zero impact, reacting slowly and breaking up none of Manning's 43 passes. Now, the 34-year-old former NFL Defensive Player of the Year has to contend with Tom Brady's rapid-fire throws. It's imperative that he reprise his playmaking ways.
Patriots 41, Texans 28
Strategy: The Patriots, the league's highest-scoring team during the regular season, use their versatile offensive personnel in a variety of formations. They are running the ball more than they did in recent years, and quarterback Tom Brady is precise in the short and intermediate passing game. They keep the pressure on opposing defenses by often going with an up-tempo no-huddle offense. Defensively, they have a base 4-3 scheme, but they are blitzing more often and playing more man coverage than they did when the Ravens beat them in Week 3.
Personnel: Brady has one-of-a-kind weapons in shifty slot receiver Wes Welker and do-it-all tight end Aaron Hernandez. They use a trio of running backs, led by Stevan Ridley. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is still a force for a New England defense that starts three rookies, including first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Since Week 3, the Patriots have added cover cornerback Aqib Talib via trade and shifted around their starting secondary. Each of their starting four defensive back spots is being manned by a new player since the last meeting in September.
What went right: Brady and the Patriots dominated one of the NFL's best defenses. Keeping the Texans off balance with the no-huddle and an assortment of formations within their standard personnel groupings, Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns, and the Patriots as a team rushed for 122 yards and two scores. They averaged 7.0 yards per play. The Texans had no answer for Welker, who had eight catches for 131 yards. The Patriots started to pull away from the Texans in the second half, forcing them to get away from their strength, which was running the ball. The defense played particularly well on third down, allowing the Texans to convert just four times.
What went wrong: Their kickoff coverage struggled as Danieal Manning opened the game with a 94-yard return and averaged 54 yards per return. The Texans got away from running with Arian Foster, but he shredded the Patriots on Houston's second-quarter touchdown drive. Foster had seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. They also allowed 14 receptions to tight ends, led by Owen Daniels with nine for 81 yards. That suggests the Ravens might have success throwing to running back Ray Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta. Oh, and star tight end Rob Gronkowski reinjured his forearm and will sit out Sunday. That was the worst development.
Turning point: The Texans scored 10 points in the final two minutes of the first half to pull within four points, but the Patriots pulled away for good with a seven-play, 69-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. The key play was a short completion to Hernandez, who cut upfield and weaved through the Texans for a 40-yard gain. Ridley scored on a run two plays later.
X-factor: Losing Gronkowski will hurt the Patriots, but they still have another matchup-busting tight end in Hernandez, whom the Ravens may not be able to cover with a linebacker or safety in man-to-man. Much like the way the Ravens use Pitta, the Patriots move Hernandez all over the field, from the backfield to out wide, but he is most effective out of the slot. Against the Texans, Hernandez caught six passes for 85 yards. He has 20 touchdowns in 43 career games.
Matt VenselCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times