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NFL Baltimore RavensNew England Patriots

Ravens vs. Patriots AFC Championship Preview

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Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It will be a clash of AFC titans on Sunday, as the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship for the second straight season.

The Patriots escaped with a 23-20 victory in the AFC Championship last season after Lee Evans dropped what would have been the go-ahead score with under a minute left in the game. Billy Cundiff promptly missed a game-tying 31-yard field goal as time expired to propel the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

Joe Flacco severely outplayed Tom Brady, but the Ravens’ miscues cost them a spot in the Super Bowl. However, the Ravens got a little bit of revenge this regular season as they defeated the Patriots 31-30 on a last-second field goal by Justin Tucker in Week 3. That game was marred with penalties, as it was the incompetent replacement refs who presided over that game, so this match-up should be a cleaner affair in regards to the officials.

Torrey Smith put up a Herculean effort in the Ravens’ Week 3 victory, as he took the field less than 24 hours after his younger brother was killed in a car accident. Smith went off in that game playing with a heavy heart as he went for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

There will be no shortage of drama this time around, as there are some interesting story lines to keep an eye on.

First off, it will be the last time Ray Lewis opposes Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots offense. Lewis has been an animal in the playoffs since returning from a torn triceps. Similar to last week after tangling with Peyton Manning for the final time in his career, Lewis will be hounding Brady for the final time as well. Lewis is the most feared and respected defender of his area, so it will be a treat to see the chess game between Lewis and Brady one final time on Sunday.

Another big story line is the injury to Rob Gronkowski. The Gronk broke his forearm Week 11 and made his return to the field last week. However, Gronkowski re-broke the same forearm early in the Patriots’ victory over the Houston Texans and is done for the rest of the playoffs.

Thus, with numerous story lines leading into the game, the following slides will thoroughly breakdown each aspect of the game

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Offensive Edge: Patriots

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots own the NFL’s most potent regular season offense in both yards and points. Brady had another masterful season racking up stats while taking care of the football and picked apart the Texans’ defense last week.

Brady and Belichick have been almost unbeatable at home in the months of December and January. However, the Ravens came razor close to winning the AFC Championship game last season in Foxborough, so they won’t be intimidated like some teams would.

The marquee offensive match-up will be between Brady and postseason stud Joe Flacco. Flacco leads the postseason with a passer rating of 125, while Brady checks in second with a 115 rating. Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and is coming off a game where he severely outplayed Peyton Manning. Flacco and Eli Manning are tied for the most road postseason wins in NFL history with five, so Flacco’s confidence will be very high.

Flacco beat Brady during the regular season as well as in the playoffs in 2010, so if there is any quarterback to beat the Patriots, it is Smokin’ Joe.

However, Flacco has yet to appear in a Super Bowl and Brady is the golden boy with three Super Bowl rings, so the edge in the passing game goes to Brady and the Pats.

The Ravens do own an advantage in the rushing game, as Ray Rice had a big day against the Denver Broncos’ stout defense last week. Rice had over 100 yards rushing and a touchdown a week after losing two fumbles against the Indianapolis Colts the previous week, so Rice is coming on strong at the right time. Bernard Pierce left last week’s game with an ankle injury, but had over 100 yards rushing against the Colts, so the Ravens two-headed attack will need to be on point to keep drives alive and keep Brady off the field.

The Patriots have their own two-headed rushing attack, as both Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen had big games against the Texans last week. Playoff veteran running back Danny Woodhead injured his ankle early in the game against the Texans and did not return, but Ridley and Vereen carried the rushing load without missing a beat.

Ridley had 82 yards rushing on 15 carries with a touchdown, while Vereen chipped in with 41 yards on seven carries with a rushing touchdown. However, Vereen’s biggest impact came in the passing game, as he had five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Thus, with four combined touchdowns between the two backs, the Patriots have a potent rushing attack of their own.

The reason the Ravens have the slight edge in the running game is that they have the best back between both teams in Rice, as well as the Ravens facing a mediocre Patriots’ defense. The Pats’ defense was 25th in yards allowed so there is plenty of yards to be had by the Ravens’ offense. Rice is second in the playoffs with 199 rushing yards and ran for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Pats during the regular season, so another 100-yard day from Rice seems feasible.

In regards to pass catchers, the Ravens’ twosome of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith has been electric. The cagey playoff vet Boldin leads the NFL in postseason receiving yards this season with 216 yards, as he has been Flacco’s security blanket both on deep passes and shorter conversions. Smith meanwhile abused Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey all game last week, as he pulled in two deep bombs for touchdowns against the Broncos. Smith burned Bailey more than just those two touchdowns, but missed a couple of slightly overthrown balls from Flacco.

The Patriots’ pass defense ranked 29th during the regular season, so more big plays from the Ravens’ top two receivers could be in order.

The big news for the Patriots offense is the loss of Gronkowski, as their Pro Bowl tight end will miss the remainder of the postseason. The Pats still have Aaron Hernandez at tight end, so it isn’t like the cupboard is bare in regards to tight ends for Brady. Hernandez stepped up during Gronk’s absence in the regular season and reeled in six passes for 85 yards last week against Houston.

Brady’s favorite target Wes Welker had a big day against the Texans as he led the Pats with eight catches for 131 yards. Welker led all pass catchers in yards when these teams met back in Week 3, so he will be active as usual, especially with Gronkowski missing the game. The Ravens will have to keep tabs on Welker all game, as the possession receiver will be lined up all over the field and is threat at all times.

With a potent rushing attack and Flacco being a postseason stud, the Ravens have what it takes to outplay Brady and the Pats’ offense, but betting against Brady at home in the playoffs is borderline insane. Thus, the Patriots own the slight advantage in the battle of the offenses.

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Defensive Edge: Ravens

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens have been a team defined by defense since their inception into the league in 1996, with Ray Lewis being the Ravens’ second draft pick in franchise history behind Jonathan Ogden. Lewis has been a menace since coming back from his triceps injury, as he led both teams in tackles in both games this postseason. Lewis’ 30 tackles lead the NFL in the postseason and are 12 ahead of the next closest defender.

The Ravens’ allowed 35 points points last week to the Broncos, but the Ravens’ defense allowed only 21 of those 35 points. The previous week the Ravens’ defense held Andrew Luck and the Colts to nine points and no touchdowns, so the Ravens beleaguered defense is coming on at the right time.

The Ravens have gotten their big four defenders of Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed together on the field at the same time just twice this season, both times coming in the playoffs. The results have been excellent after an injury-plagued and underwhelming season from the defense, as they are rounding into form at the right time.

Cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are tied for the second most tackles in the postseason with 18, and Williams had a big interception of Luck in the first postseason game.

Another bright spot for the defense has been the play of cornerback Corey Graham. Graham has helped ease the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Lardarius Webb who was lost for the season back in Week 6. Graham had two huge interceptions against Manning last week, as he returned one for a touchdown, while the other came in overtime and set up the eventual game-winning field goal. Graham, Williams and Jimmy Smith will have to be on their game if they are to slow down Brady.

The Patriots’ defense meanwhile looked pretty good against the Texans. Arian Foster did have a decent game with 90 yards and a touchdown, but it was pretty inconsequential as the Patriots coasted to a pretty easy victory.

The Patriots’ defense gave up plenty of yards this season, but those yards didn’t always translate into points. The Patriots ranked 25th in yards allowed, but ranked tied for ninth in points allowed, yielding 20.7 points per game. Thus, the Pats’ have been great at bending without breaking as they get gashed yardage-wise, but limit points allowed like championship defenses tend to do.

Despite allowing less points per game than the Ravens during the regular season, the Ravens defense is stronger than it was throughout most of the regular season and is hot at the right time. Throw in the fact that it could be Lewis’ last game of his career, and you know the defense will be revved up to give their leader a chance to go out on top

Thus, with a hotter defense playing to prolong their captain’s career, the Ravens hold the advantage in the battle of the defenses.

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Special Teams Edge: Ravens

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This may seem questionable off the bat, as the Ravens allowed both the longest punt return and kickoff return in NFL postseason history last week to Trindon Holliday.

However, I’m looking at that as more of a fluke as the Ravens had a fantastic season in regards to special teams. The Ravens did not allow a punt return or kickoff return for a touchdown through their first 17 games, so last week’s catastrophic special teams play seems like more of an aberration.

The Ravens also have All Pro returner Jacoby Jones, who led the NFL in returns for touchdowns with three during the regular season. Jones is a game-breaker in the return game and is a better option than anyone on the Patriots.

In regards to kickers, the Ravens hold a slight advantage. Stephen Gostkowski is a playoff veteran who has kicked in some huge games, but Gostkowski had a below average season for his standards. Ravens’ rookie kicker Justin Tucker meanwhile has converted both of his postseason field goals, including the clutch overtime 47-yard field goal to win the game against the Broncos last week.

Tucker has been a stud all season, as he made more field goals, had a higher conversion rate and kicked a longer long field goal than Gostkowski this season. Gostkowski has kicked in more big games, but Tucker has looked like veteran all season and his game-winner last week only adds to his confidence. Thus, despite being greener than Gostkowski, Tucker still gets the edge.

The punting battle is basically a dead heat as both Zoltan Mesko and Sam Koch have been two of the more reliable punters in the AFC. In a game with potent offenses, the punting battle seems to be marginal as neither team has a marked advantage.

Despite last week’s dud by the Ravens’ special teams, they are still the more well rounded unit. Jones is a premier return man, while Tucker is kicking like a 10-year veteran and has outplayed Gostkowski this season. Thus, this aspect of the game favors the Ravens.

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Coaching Edge: Patriots

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There is no coach more successful in the NFL today than Bill Belichick. His three championships and five total trips to the Super Bowl are the litmus test all coaches are measured against. Belichick’s postseason record is 18-7, and has been basically unbeatable at home. Belichick is just two postseason wins away from tying Tom Landry’s 20 victories for the most in NFL history, so another Super Bowl for the Pats would put Belichick in even more rare air.

Belichick is the master at devising game plans and will indeed have a solid plan to penetrate a Ravens’ defense that is gathering steam. Belichick has been battling the Ravens’ defense for 12 years, so his familiarity will help his game plan.

The Ravens meanwhile have a historically great head coach of their own in John Harbaugh. Harbaugh is the only head coach in NFL history to win a postseason game in each of his first five seasons, so the Ravens have been the most consistent franchise in the NFL in regards to postseason consistency under Harbaugh.

He is also one of just five coaches with a .650 winning percentage during the regular season and a .600 winning percentage in the playoffs with a minimum of five postseason games. The other four coaches are Vince Lombardi, George Halas, Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy, so Harbaugh is in some elite company. He is the only coach of the five without a Super Bowl ring, so his time could be coming sooner rather than later.

Harbaugh won’t be intimidated coaching against the legendary Belichick, as his Ravens’ crushed Belichick and the Patriots in the postseason in 2009 in Foxborough, and beat them again this regular season. It would have been the Ravens in the Super Bowl last season had Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff not sabotaged the Ravens’ season with huge gaffes that ultimately cost the Ravens the AFC Championship.

Harbaugh and the Ravens’ success against the Patriots in recent years will give them plenty of confidence. However, like Brady, it isn’t smart to bet against Belichick at home in the playoffs. Harbaugh has become one of the top coaches in the NFL, but he is going against a man who has three Super Bowl rings and is on the verge of becoming the winningest postseason coach in NFL history.

Thus, despite Harbaugh’s impressive postseason resume, Belichick is the quintessential coach of his era and is the top postseason coach until proven otherwise.

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Intangibles Edge: Even

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of moving parts in the battle of intangibles.

The Ravens have the battle cry of playing for Ray Lewis and bookending his career with another Super Bowl championship. Lewis’ impact since his return from injury has been immeasurable, as he has led the Ravens both on and off the field in his “last ride.”

Another factor in the Ravens’ favor is the injury to Rob Gronkowski. Considering the Gronk had 20 touchdowns last season, and made the Pro Bowl again this season despite his injury, his absence will be a big positive for the Ravens.

On the other side, the Patriots playing at home in the playoffs are about as tough a match-up as any team can have. The idea of going to Foxborough and tangling with Brady and Belichick is as intimidating as it gets for AFC teams in the playoffs, so the Patriots’ postseason mystique speaks for itself. No other AFC team has come close to the Patriots five trips to the Super Bowl during the Brady/Belichick era, so an aura of invincibility surrounds the Pats when they host a playoff game.

However, Flacco, Harbaugh and the Ravens have defeated the Patriots in Foxborough in the playoffs and have given the Patriots all they can handle in more recent match-ups. If there is any team in the AFC that isn’t afraid to go into Foxborough, it’s the Ravens.

Thus, with each team having success against each other, neither team seems to have a marked advantage in terms of the intangibles. The Patriots’ advantage playing at home is negated by the fact the Ravens have won there in the playoffs. The Patriots’ mystique is further negated by the Lewis “last ride” ride factor, as the Ravens are unified to send their leader out a champion.

When all the intangibles are weighed against each other, they seem to cancel out. Unlike previous games for both teams, intangibles will play a small role in this game. These teams got to where they are by playing sound football and the team that executes the best will prevail.

When everything is factored together, it seems these teams are pretty evenly matched. However the Patriots have the best playoff pedigree of any NFL team and it looks like they have another Super Bowl run in store. The Patriots will win another close game between these teams, as they will pull out a 31-28 victory and advance to their sixth Super Bowl during the Brady/Belichick era.