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Rematch of last two AFC Championship Games will alter 2013 AFC playoff picture
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots travel to Baltimore to take on Joe Flacco and the defending champion Ravens at M&T Bank Field on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. The Patriots are bitter after a last-second loss against the Dolphins, who continue to push New England for the AFC East title. Meanwhile, the Ravens won their fifth straight game with an 18-16 victory over the Lions on Monday night thanks to six field goals by Justin Tucker, including a 61-yarder with 38 seconds remaining.
If Baltimore wins out, against New England and Cincinnati, the Ravens will claim a second-straight AFC North title. The Ravens won't have it easy against Belichick and Brady. Brady is 42-6 in his career in December, making for the best win percentage in December for any quarterback since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
The Patriots are 6-1 in the regular season against Baltimore, while the Ravens are 2-1 in the postseason against New England. New England and Baltimore are used to playing against one another in big games as they've faced off in the last two AFC title games, which the two organizations have split.
3 Things to Watch
Joe Flacco's Knee
On Monday night, Joe Flacco was injured after Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy hit his helmet hit into the quarterback's left knee. Levy wasn't fined by the NFL, but Flacco was limited in practice as late as Friday. He will be forced to wear a brace for Sunday's game in order to keep from missing the first game of his six-year career. Expect Flacco to have trouble dropping back and moving around in the pocket. Monday he clearly had issues stepping into his throws as he couldn't get a consistent drive off of that lead leg. Flacco has only been sacked five times in the past three contests; however, he will be much less mobile this week. New England's pass rush combo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will be licking their chops as they lead a defense that has 40 sacks on the season.Flacco hasn't been strong against pressure this year. Last week he was 4-of-14 for 45 yards with a sack when the Lions sent five or more pass rushers. His average of 5.4 yards per attempt against added pressure ranks him as the worst among qualified quarterbacks. Flacco won't have the luxury of a rushing game to take pressure off of him as the struggling Ray Rice is listed as questionable for Sunday.
Torrey Smith vs. Patriots' Secondary
The Patriots have done an excellent job of shutting down bigger receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Jimmy Graham; however, they clearly struggle with speedy wideouts. In back-to-back weeks Josh Gordon and Mike Wallace have each posted over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Enter Smith, the NFL's fifth-ranked receiver in yards per reception at 17.5. Aqib Talib will have the duty of covering Baltimore's only option to stretch the defense downfield. Only Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Gordon have more catches of more than 20 yards, as Smith is fourth in the league with 19.
Tom Brady and Joe Flacco each have a few improbable comeback wins on their 2013 resumes. Flacco's have come in back-to-back weeks against Minnesota and Detroit. The thrilling 29-26 home victory that saw five lead changes in the final 2:05, including Flacco's 9-yard touchdown pass to rookie Marlon Brown in the back of the end zone with 4 seconds left. Though seemingly hard to beat, last week's comeback may have been even more exciting as Flacco drove the Ravens down the field to set up Justin Tucker's improbable 61-yard field goal for the 18-16 win. Tom Brady, working with depleted talent in the 2013, has produced memorable moments of his own in late game situations. Despite throwing a last second interception in the end zone last week against Miami, Brady came up big for New England in each of the three weeks prior. First, he helped the Patriots overcame a 24-point first-half deficit to beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. Next, they overcame a 10-point deficit against Houston to defeat them 34-31 thanks to two fourth quarter field goals by Stephen Gostowski. Finally, one of Brady's most unlikely wins came after the Patriots fell behind Cleveland 26-14 with 2:39 left in the game. Brady threw a 2-yard scoring pass to Julian Edelman with 1:01 left and a 1-yarder to Danny Amendola with 31 seconds remaining. Due to these late game heroics, the Patriots became the first team in 20 years to win 3 straight games in which they trailed by double digits in the 2nd half. Meanwhile, the Ravens strong fourth quarter play has resulted in their longest win streak, five, since 2006.
Key Player for New England: Stevan Ridley, RB
Baltimore's rush defense is ranked seventh in the NFL and have only allowed four rushing touchdowns, the fewest allowed in the NFL. Although the Ravens are fifth in the NFL allowing 3.8 yards per carry, Reggie Bush rushed 17 times for 86 yards and a touchdown last week. This Ravens rush defense is helped by the fact that most teams find it even easier to pass on a questionable secondary. Despite these high rankings, Baltimore has allowed touchdowns to opposing running backs in each of the past three weeks. In addition, they've allowed a hefty 4.5 yards per carry during this span. Ridley, thanks to his problems holding on to the football, is splitting carries with LeGarrette Blount. Still, Ridley is New England's top option out of the backfield and has scored seven touchdowns in his past eight games.
Key Player for Baltimore: Justin Tucker, K
Tucker, who was a perfect 6 for 6 last week, hasn't missed a field goal attempt since he was 0 for 2 in Week 2 at Cleveland. At 33 made field goals in a row, he has the NFL's longest streak since Matt Stover made 36 straight for the Ravens from 2005-06. Tucker is undoubtedly a major trump card for a Ravens squad that has struggled at times in the red zone.
Baltimore needs this win to keep up its hopes at an AFC North title and the playoffs, while the Patriots are still fighting for a first-round playoff bye. Suffice to say, both teams will have substantive focus for this game that will have a huge effect on the playoff picture in the AFC. The Ravens are the hotter team and own a 6-1 record at home; however, they've fallen each time against an elite quarterback in 2013, as they lost to Peyton Manning in Week 1 and Aaron Rodgers in Week 6.
Joe Flacco, despite the gusty comebacks, hasn't been that impressive. Justin Tucker's incredible performance last week speaks to the poor play of the Ravens' offense on third downs and in the end zone. The Ravens have only scored over 30 points all year and that was against the porous Texans. Flacco is banged up and the Ravens can't run the ball. It will be a struggle for Baltimore to put up points. While New England is a completely different team without Rob Gronkowski, Brady is good for the few scores which should be enough to topple the defending Super Bowl champs.
New England 27, Baltimore 17