Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots 2013 AFC Championship Game: X-Factors

By Craig Ballard

The 2013 NFL Playoffs kicked things up a notch as the Divisional weekend was significantly more exciting than Wild Card weekend, and Conference Championship weekend is always a ton of fun each year. In the AFC, we have a rematch between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. As the 2013 NFL Playoffs Insider for Rant Sports I have a detailed game preview RIGHT HERE and this article is a look at some potential X-factors for this game. Let’s take a look…

The Ravens average six rushing first downs per game, and they had six in their week three victory over these same Patriots (they also had six in last season’s loss to these same Pats in the AFC Championship game). Their passing game is looking good lately, but I think their best chance on Sunday to dominate a specific area is likely their running game. Bernard Pierce is somewhat hobbled currently, but Ray Rice is picking up steam and we have seen him dominate the Pats on this same field in the playoffs before. Rice has his best success when he runs to the left, so I am picking Patriots linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes as the X-factors.

These two are likely to see a lot of action as they are in the way of where the Ravens want to run the football. Anything in the half dozen area for rushing first downs in this game will be too “normal” for the Ravens to be able to pull off an upset and they will need to dominate on the ground, thus keeping the Patriots high scoring offense on the sideline. If Tom Brady and the offense ever stumble, they have no worries as they will get the ball back and simply re-attack their foes, but the Ravens can combat that if they can move the chains consistently with their ground game.

Hightower and Spikes need to negate what the Ravens are most comfortable doing (and most successful) which is running behind Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda, and fullback Vonta Leach. Hightower and Spikes need to be prepared for a physical test, especially early on as the Ravens will likely be looking to establish their running game in the first half.

I will stay with linebackers for the Ravens X-factor. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are going to get the pub, and we get that, but linebackers Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw, and Dannell Ellerbe are their X-factors. Kruger and Ellerbe are as good as the Ravens have for pass rushers, especially Kruger, who entered 2012 with 5.5 career sacks – but, he also dropped the opposing quarterback 9.0 times this season. Ellerbe and Upshaw are excellent vs the run, especially Upshaw.

I would imagine that all of these linebackers will be in position numerous times in this game where they need to make a tackle immediately on a Pats pass catcher who has caught a quick-hitter over the middle (most likely a Wes Welker or an Aaron Hernandez) and they will draw assignments to contain guys like Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley out of the backfield (perhaps a Danny Woodhead as well).

Tom Terrific and the Brady Bunch are going to make plays, but the Ravens linebackers have to tackle any quick passes, as the Pats are great with using the quick pass as an aggressive weapon, plus they will need to make sure that the Pats running game does not add to their offense (Ridley in particular).

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All of my articles as the 2013 Rant Sports NFL Playoffs Insider are RIGHT HERE – @craigballard77

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