For the second year in a row the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will face off with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line when the two teams kick things off in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The Ravens lost 23-20 to the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in last year’s AFC title game, as wide receiver Lee Evans couldn’t hold onto a potential game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. Both Evans and Cundiff are no longer with the Ravens, who beat the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore back in Week 3 and have already shown they can win on the road in the playoffs in a hostile environment, as evidenced by last week’s come-from-behind 38-35 double overtime win in Denver.
When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
Somewhat maligned during the regular season to the point that the team made a coordinator change in December (from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell), Baltimore’s offense showed up in a big way in last week’s win. The Ravens’ 479 yards of offense sent a new franchise playoff record and were highlighted by quarterback Joe Flacco’s impressive passing performance. Sharing the field with league MVP candidate Peyton Manning, Flacco outshined his Denver counterpart, completing 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns, the biggest being a 70-yard bomb to wide receiver Jacoby Jones that tied the game with just 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Just as he did during the regular season, Flacco did most of his damage throwing the ball deep. Besides the 70-yarder to Jones, Flacco’s other two touchdown passes against the Broncos covered more than 20 yards, a 59-yard strike to Torrey Smith in the first quarter that put the Ravens in the scoring column and a 32-yard hook up with Smith that tied the game right before the end of the first half. During the regular season, Flacco completed 37 percent of his throws deeper than 20 yards with seven touchdowns and he had the most attempts of any quarterback without an interception. The Patriots are already aware of Flacco’s ability to beat teams deep, as he put up a season-high 382 yards passing against them in the Ravens’ 31-30 home win back on Sept. 23. The Ravens finished that game with 503 yards of offense, which has only be topped this season by the 553 they had in their Week 16 victory over the New York Giants. The Patriots’ defense has been highly susceptible against the pass, so it will need to tighten up its coverage against Jones, Smith, as well as fellow wideout Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta unless New England wants to see a repeat of what happened in Week 3. The Ravens, however, are by far anything but a pass-only team as they also picked up 155 yards rushing against the Broncos. Running back Ray Rice led the way with 131 yards on 30 carries (4.4 ypc) and he also had 101 on the ground the first time versus the Patriots. Backup Bernard Pierce has been key to the Ravens’ offensive success recently, but he sustained a knee injury against the Broncos. Even though Pierce said he will be out there on Sunday, expect him and his touches to be limited, putting more of the burden on Rice to produce on the ground. Going against an offense like New England’s, ball security will be critical as the Ravens need to make the most of their opportunities with the ball, while also not giving the Patriots many extra possessions. After losing two fumbles in the Wild Card win against Indianapolis two weeks ago, Rice held onto the ball against Denver with the Ravens’ only turnover versus the Broncos being a Flacco interception. Likewise, a Flacco pick was the lone giveaway in Baltimore’s Week 3 win over New England. The Ravens also gave up just one sack against the Broncos’ pass rush, which finished tied for the league lead in sacks, and didn’t allow a single one the first time they faced the Patriots.
After shutting Miami out in Week 17, New England’s defense returned to its regular-season form in its Divisional Playoff game against Houston. The Patriots gave up 425 yards and 28 points to the Texans, although to be fair 15 of the points came in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were nursing a 35-point lead. Still, given its statistical production during the regular season, the defense needs the offense to do its part to put the team in its best position to win. Look no further than the Week 3 meeting with Baltimore. The Ravens piled up 503 yards of offense against the Patriots, while holding New England’s offense to 396, one of the reasons why Baltimore came out on top 31-30. The Patriots’ strength on defense this season has been stopping the run, as they held the Texans’ Arian Foster to a modest 90 yards on 22 carries (4.1 ypc) last week and finished the regular season ranked ninth overall (101.9 ypg) in rush defense. Baltimore running back Ray Rice had 101 yards rushing by himself the first time against New England, and if the Patriots struggle to contain him and fellow back Bernard Pierce, it will more than likely just open up the Ravens’ passing game even more. The Patriots ranked near the bottom of the league against the pass (271.4 ypg) during the regular season, gave up 343 yards passing to Houston’s Matt Schaub last Sunday, while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco lit them up for a season-high 382 back in September. One rather significant change, the addition of former Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib, has occurred in New England’s secondary since that first matchup with the Ravens, but this hasn’t stopped teams from victimizing the Patriots’ pass defense either. For all the yards this defense has allowed, it has been able to limit the impact on the scoreboard, thanks in large part to turnovers and the fact that the offense has been able to stake them to large leads that dictate their opponents’ offensive game plan. Without the turnovers, however, this defense walks a thin line between bending and getting broken.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
Pretty much like clockwork, New England’s offense had little trouble with Houston’s defense in last week’s win. The Patriots put up 457 yards and 41 points against the Texans, exceeding their regular-season averages of 428 yards and 35 points per game. The offense starts and ends with quarterback Tom Brady, who passed Joe Montana for most career playoff wins (17) while posting his fifth 300-yard passing game in the postseason. Brady completed 25-of-40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns against the Texans, while he put up 335 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers against the Ravens in Week 3. However, Brady and the Patriots lost that game, and in seven career games against Baltimore, including the playoffs, he has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven), while completing less than 59 percent of his passes and averaging less than 244 yards passing per contest. Brady has particularly struggled in his two playoff matchups with the Ravens, including last season’s conference championship game when he tossed two interceptions and no touchdown passes. It’s no secret that the Patriots will need Brady to produce if they want to beat the Ravens, and he will have to do so without the services of Rob Gronkowski. The dynamic tight end, who missed some time during the regular season after breaking his forearm, re-injured the same arm against the Texans and will miss the remainder of the Patriots’ playoff run. New England doesn’t lack for weapons, not with wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez among others, at Brady’s disposal, but that doesn’t mean the offense won’t miss Gronkowski’s presence either. That’s why running back Shane Vereen’s breakout game against Houston, in which he caught two touchdown passes and added a rushing score, couldn’t have come at a better time. The Patriots may need to rely on the running game a little more against the Ravens, which is where Vereen and leading rusher Stevan Ridley come into play. Ridley finished seventh in the NFL in the regular season with 1,263 yards rushing and contributed 82 yards on 15 carries (5.5 ypc) and a touchdown against the Texans last week. The first time against Baltimore, however, Ridley managed only 37 yards on the ground on 13 carries (2.8 ypc), so he will need to be more effective Sunday night. Sticking to their regular-season script, the Patriots didn’t have any turnovers versus the Texans, and are hoping for a second-straight mistake-free game against the Ravens. Pass protection is always a key for Brady’s effectiveness, and his offensive line surrendered just two sacks to the Ravens back in September.
Nowhere near as stout as in recent years, the Baltimore defense got the job done last Saturday against Denver in its Divisional Playoff showdown. While the Broncos finished with 398 yards of total offense, the Ravens forced quarterback Peyton Manning into three turnovers, returning one of his two interceptions for a touchdown, while holding the Broncos to just three yards per rushing attempt and only two offensive plays that covered more than 20 yards. In fact, if not for Broncos’ kick returner Trindon Holliday’s record-setting afternoon that featured a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns, this game may not have even gone into double overtime. But it did, and in the end it was the Ravens’ defense that made the game-changing plays, the biggest one being Corey Graham’s second interception late in the first overtime period, which set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning 47-yard field goal. Graham’s other pick also produced a score, as he returned his first-quarter interception 39 yards for a touchdown that gave Baltimore its first lead. Graham wasn’t even a starter at cornerback when the Ravens played the Patriots in Week 3, but that was before Lardarius Webb went down with a season-ending injury. Now firmly entrenched in the secondary, Graham will be called on again to put forth another big-game effort against the Patriots’ pass-catchers. Another change for the Ravens’ defense this time around will be the presence of pass-rusher and playmaker Terrell Suggs, who missed the first meeting in September while he was recovering from a partially torn Achilles tendon. And of course, the Ravens still have Ray Lewis patrolling the middle, as the Canton-bound linebacker is leaving it all on the field in his final season. Lewis followed up his 13-tackle effort in the Wild Card round with a season-high 17 stops against the Broncos. While Lewis may have lost a step and is somewhat limited by a triceps injury, his mere presence seems to elevate the defense’s play. Now it’s up to the Ravens’ defense to channel the emotion and energy the unit gets from its leader to its performance on the field. Anything but the defense’s strongest all-around effort probably won’t get the job done against the Patriots’ well-oiled, high-powered offensive machine.
Let’s see, a conference championship rematch featuring one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history versus the game’s all-time winningest playoff quarterback? What’s not to like? In fact, whether it’s Baltimore or New England playing in New Orleans come Feb. 3, the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLVII will come pre-packaged with a made-for-TV subplot. For the Ravens it is Ray Lewis’ chance to ride off into the sunset on top, while the Patriots’ Tom Brady hopes to cement his place in Super Bowl history by capturing a fourth championship ring.
Before the endless media coverage of either storyline (not to mention so much more) can commence, however, the game to decide the AFC’s champion must be played. And this title game offers enough historical significance of its own, as it is the first conference championship rematch since Dallas and San Francisco battled for NFC supremacy three straight seasons in the early ‘90s (1992-94), and the first in the AFC since Cleveland and Denver faced off in 1986 and ’87.
It is very easy to pick the Patriots, since Brady is 17-6 in the postseason in his career and has the highest winning percentage in all home games of any quarterback whose career began in the Super Bowl era (min. 20 career starts). That said, Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco is no slouch himself when it comes to the playoffs, as his 7-4 postseason record puts him behind only Brady (17), Ben Roethilsberger (14), Peyton Manning (9), and Eli Manning (8) for playoff victories among active quarterbacks. And everyone except Eil Manning (11 career playoff games) has played in more playoff games than Flacco to this point. On top of that, five of Flacco’s seven postseason wins have come on the road, including one on Brady’s turf, a 33-14 victory over the Patriots in the Wild Card round on Jan. 10, 2010.
Playoff-tested quarterbacks and Hall of Fame-bound linebacker aside, this game will more than likely be decided based on which defense can rise to the occasion and make that key stop or force a pivotal turnover. The Ravens have had a fair amount of success holding Brady in check recently, while the Patriots’ defense has been bailed out more than once by a turnover or its own offense. In fact, last season it could be said that the Patriots got an assist from two Ravens — wide receiver Lee Evans, who dropped a potential game-tying touchdown pass and kicker Billy Cundiff, who then shanked the game-tying field goal attempt at the end of the game — in their 23-20 victory. Evans and Cundiff are both no longer on the Ravens’ roster, and with a nod to symmetry, I think their replacements — wide receiver Jacoby Jones and kicker Justin Tucker — will prove to be the difference in this one. After all, what’s wrong with adding another media-ready storyline to this game?
Prediction:Ravens 30, Patriots 28