The AFC Championship Game rematch should be an intense contest.
Two elite teams will be looking to avoid a 1-2 start when the Baltimore Ravens host the New England Patriots tonight at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC. Much will be made about the heartbreaking nature of Baltimore’s AFC Championship Game loss in New England last season, but the reality is that both of these squads with Super Bowl aspirations need to rebound from excruciating losses last week. The Ravens blew a 10-pont halftime lead in Philadelphia and lost 24-23 to the Eagles, while Patriots suffered a rare 20-18 home defeat to the Arizona Cardinals.
When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
It all starts with tailback Ray Rice, who has gone over 2,000 total yards in two of the last three seasons. The diminutive but powerful runner is off to another good start, totaling 167 yards on the ground and ranking second on the team with nine receptions. Quarterback Joe Flacco has found a new favorite target in tight end Dennis Pitta, who leads Baltimore with 13 catches. To beat New England, however, Flacco will need to involve receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin more in the offense.
The Patriots defense struggled for much of last season, but rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower have already paid dividends this year. New England was able to contain Rice (67 rush yards and just one catch) in last season’s 23-20 AFC title tilt victory, and that will be a key again tonight. Boldin and Smith can be effective if Flacco has time to throw, so the Patriots will look for another three-sack performance like they had last January.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
Quarterback Tom Brady was rattled in week’s loss to the Cardinals, who had four sacks and an interception. One factor that will help protect Brady is a strong running game, and second-year back Stevan Ridley has 196 yards and a score in two games this season. Receiver Wes Welker only has eight catches (low by his standards) this year, and it will be interesting to see if he is a bigger focus for the offense against Baltimore. With tight end Aaron Hernandez out, the Patriots signed former first-round pick Kellen Winslow Jr. this week.
After a solid Week 1 performance against the Bengals, the Ravens defense allowed 17 second-half points in the Eagles loss. Ray Lewis and company will need to pressure Brady, and Baltimore has compiled six sacks this season. While it’s easy to concentrate on all of New England’s pass catchers, the Ravens must also contain Ridley. Baltimore has allowed 258 rushing in two games, and that must improve versus the Patriots.
The Ravens allowed an alarming 486 total yards in Philadelphia, the highest total their defense had given up since 1998. They simply must be better against New England’s usually prolific offense. Baltimore’s ability to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket should decide this game. The Patriots almost never lose twice in row under coach Bill Belichick, so we’ll take New England in a tight thriller.
Patriots 27 Ravens 23
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)