NFL Baltimore RavensNew England Patriots

2013 NFL Playoffs: Top 5 Players to Watch in Ravens-Patriots Game

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Top 5 Players to Watch in Ravens-Patriots Game

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Of the two conference championship games this weekend, the matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots may be the more intriguing game. First off, this has become one of the best rivalries in recent history. Furthermore, this will not only be a rematch from Week 3 of this season, but this will also be a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship.

If you can recall, the Ravens were a dropped touchdown pass away from advancing to the Super Bowl, and were a missed field goal away from at least tying the game to go into overtime.

New England escaped with a 23-20 victory and the AFC Championship trophy in hand. Baltimore then returned the favor this season by edging out the Patriots by the score of 31-30 this regular season.

If history is an indicator of what lies before us, this title game should be decided down to the very last possession. These two teams have met in the regular season three of the past four years, and each of those games were decided by six points or less. In addition, this will be the third time in the past four seasons that Baltimore and New England will square off in the playoffs.

It’s safe to say that both of these teams are very familiar with each other. There shouldn’t be anything that either team doesn’t know about the other.

Let’s take a deeper look into which top five players should be worth watching in this conference championship.

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5. Brandon Lloyd/Wes Welker

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With Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski unfortunately re-braking his left forearm in last week’s divisional round, wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd will have to compensate for the loss of New England’s third-leading receiver. In the Week 3 matchup between the Ravens and the Patriots, Welker and Lloyd combined for 17 receptions and 250 receiving yards, while Gronkowski was limited to two catches for only 21 yards in a losing effort. The attention that Gronk brings to New England’s offense will definitely be shifted to Welker and Lloyd on the outside and in the slot. However, they might be able to exploit Baltimore’s cornerbacks.

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4. Joe Flacco

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Raven quarterback Joe Flacco has definitely made a legitimate argument that he should be mentioned among the elite quarterbacks in the league by becoming the first signal caller in league history to win playoff games in each of his first five seasons. What will make his case even stronger is an AFC Championship and an appearance in the Super Bowl. Flacco’s statistics from the regular season weren’t eye-popping, but the numbers he put up against arguably the best defense this season (331 yards and three touchdowns) makes many wonder what could he will do for an encore against New England’s 29th ranked pass defense.

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3. Ray Rice

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The production of Baltimore’s running game lies on the shoulders of Ravens running back Ray Rice. Time of possession will play a major part in this game, and for Baltimore to increase their chance of advancing to the Super Bowl, they must keep the ball out of the hands of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Rice not only will be looked upon to move the chains on the ground, his contribution in the passing game will be a much-needed extension of Baltimore’s ground attack. The Patriots’ run defense is ranked in the top 10 in the league, and may present a problem for Rice and company.

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2. Torry Smith

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the Ravens’ divisional-round victory last week, wide receiver Torry Smith showed up big against one of the best cover corners in the league by racking up 98 receiving yards two touchdowns on just three receptions. Smith’s numbers could have been much greater had he and quarterback Joe Flacco connected on another bomb that was just out of the reach of Smith’s hands. The Patriots’ pass defense was ranked 29th in the league during the regular season, surrendering an average of 271.4 yards per game. Let’s not forget that in Week 3, these two teams met and Smith torched New England’s secondary for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

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1. Aaron Hernandez

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

New England’s tight end Aaron Hernandez has some big shoes to fill in this AFC Championship match. Hernandez will have to take the place of Rob Gronkowski, one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets who led the Patriots in the regular season with 11 receiving touchdowns. In the previous meeting between these two teams, Hernandez didn’t play a factor at all in the game. This time, the Ravens should be more focused on wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, which will leave Hernandez to great opportunity be the X-factor for New England, and their chance to repeat as champions of the AFC.

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