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AFC Championship Preview: Ravens and Patriots in Battle of Speed

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AFC Championship Playoff Preview-Patriots Vs. Ravens

AFC
Evan Habeeb-US Presswire

This Sunday the NFL are going to determine which 2 teams will play in Super Bowl XLVII. The AFC matchup pits the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in a re-match from September that the Ravens squeaked out a 31-30 win in Baltimore. That game was exciting right up until the last moments and football fans are hoping for that level of excitement this Sunday as well.

In the first matchup it was the offenses that shined. Both starting quarterbacks, Joe Flacco for Baltimore and Tom Brady for New England topped 300 yards passing, and there were a total of 3 wide receivers with at least 100 yards receiving. But can we expect more of that this weekend? Or will the difference be which of these defenses decides to step up and make a stop or 2?

The wise guys in Las Vegas are saying that the Patriots are an 8 or 8 and a half point favorite depending on who you ask. That number seems a little high to me, but I'm not a betting man. But after a game going to the wire earlier in the year and ending up being a 1 point difference, a number better than 8 seems excessive.

But regardless of the line, both these teams are going to go ahead and play anyway. I expect the Ravens to come out and play hard and give the Patriots all they want for 4 full quarters. And with that, let's break down the keys to this matchup and what both teams are going to try to do. I might even toss in a prediction sure to go wrong while I am at it. But understand one thing. This game is going to be decided by speed. Either the speed of the Ravens wide outs or the speed of the offensive tempo of the Patriots.

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Curt Popejoy covers the Pittsburgh Steelers, college football and the NFL draft. You can find him on Twitter @nfldraftboard and on Facebook as well.

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When New England has the football.

AFC
Davis Butler II-US Presswire

I don't think it's any secret that the Patriots are going to want to play tempo football. They are going to keep things moving and try and wear down the Ravens defese, linebacker Ray Lewis included. But I think there is a misconception out there that the hurry up and tempo offense means the Patriots are going to be throwing the football. The added demension that the Patriots now have to offer is a bona fide running game. It's not just an extension of the passing game, but with this Patriots offensive line it can easily stand on it's own. So don't be shocked if the Patriots don't come out and mix the pass and run in a fast paced script to try and keep the Ravens defense on their heels.

What can the Ravens do to counter? First they must stop the run. Against the Houston Texans the Patriots gashed them and had the Texans defense in a back pedal. The Ravens really have 2 jobs. First they must be able to stop the run using only the front 7. They cannot commit safetys to the run game if they want to win. Their other job will be to get pressure on Brady without committing a majority of defenders. Some of these Ravens defenders are going to have to beat the one on one and hit Brady. If he has time in the pocket he'll pick any defense apart.

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When Baltimore has the football.

AFC
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY SPORTS

I think we have seen the script for the Ravens. Run the ball with running back Ray Rice, and once those Patriots safetys start to creep up, go bombs away with Flacco throwing it deep to wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Flacco takes a lot of criticism, but you cannot deny that he thrives throwing the deep ball. If his offensive line can protect him, those wide receivers will eventually get open and when they do Flacco can chuck it deep. This is their MO and that won't change. I personally think they should really try and get Rice involved in the offense early to put this Patriots defensive line to the test.

How will the Patriots counter this strategy? They will do 2 things. First they will be sure that Flacco has to throw into very small windows. If you watch the Ravens play, you notice that in most cases the Ravens wide receivers don't get open very well. He's pushing throws into very tight spots. The Patriots want to continue that, especially on his 2nd and 3rd read. If they can force him to check down and still throw to covered receveivers, he could make some mistake. The other thing the Patriots are going to want to do is stop Ray Rice. From a philosophy standpoint, the Patriots are very good about taking away one thing an offense does really well. The choice is whether to take away the deep pass or the running game. With rush linebacker Chandler Jones out, I think the Patriots will lean more toward a physical game to stop the run, and will need to get creative in the pass rush.

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Player to Watch-Ravens

AFC
Evan Habeeb-US Presswire

If I am right that the Patriots are going to do their best to take away the deep ball, it could be up to wide receiver Anquan Boldin to work the short and intermediate middle and give Flacco a familiar face that he can look to when the over the top passes are not there. Boldin is such a strong player, and can work any route at any depth, so I if I am the Ravens I use him to move the chains and pick my shots deep with wide receiver Torrey Smith.

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Player to Watch-Patriots

AFC
Kim Klement-US Presswire

With the injuries the Patriots are dealing with right now, you have to wonder who is the Patriots player that is going to step up in a key moment. In this game, I think that will tight end Aaron Hernandez. Will fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski out again, the middle of the field will belong to Hernandez and while he's no Gronk, he's still a clutch receiver and I am putting him down to be the player to step up and make a huge play that will turn the tide for the Patriots.

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Prediction

AFC
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Once we break everything down, it's clear that these 2 teams are very well matched up. At the start of the season I predicted a Super Bowl that consisted of the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, so I'm going to stick with that this weekend. I think Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and that tempo offense is going to be too much for the Ravens defense to handle. Especially when you consider how well they can run it. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had a tremendous season, but I can't help but think the Patriots defense is going to find a way to cap off those deep balls and force him to make multiple reads and check downs, and he's just not great at those. So give me the Patriots at home 38-24.