The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens return to Foxboro for a rematch of the AFC Championship game on Sunday evening for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots (13-4) hosted and beat the Ravens (12-6) last year in Gillette 23-20 after a late miss on a tying field goal by Billy Cundiff left the Ravens with a bad taste in their mouth where they also had a chance to win in regulation but came up short.
This season during Week 3, the Ravens turned the tables on the Patriots 31-30 where they kicked a field goal at the end of regulation for the win. Joe Flacco passed for 382 yards and the Ravens rolled up over 500 yards of offense in that one.
Both teams are vastly different from that early season matchup, the Ravens were without Terrell Suggs and made big changes to their offensive line, fired their offensive coordinator. Since then both Ray Lewis and Suggs have been playing with injuries and after seeming to struggle down the stretch, theyâ€™ve hit their stride in the playoffs playing extremely well.
The Patriots also are very different, back in September; they were still searching for their offensive identity, seeking the balance between their running and passing games. The running game now is a position of strength, but the team has lost TE Rob Gronkowski, while welcoming back Aaron Hernandez who missed the first game.
The defense is now playing much better and after changing starters on three positions in the secondary, it has a much different feel from the unit that was torched badly in September. Aqib Talib was brought in and Alfonzo Dennard was promoted to the other cornerback position, while Devin McCourty was moved to safety. The result has been a vastly improved, aggressive defense.
Sunday will also be the last game in Foxboro for not only Ray Lewis but for long-time Patriots radio announcer Gil Santos who both are retiring after the season. For one, the game will mark the end of the line. Both have been stellar performers for a long time. Who goes to New Orleans? Letâ€™s take a look at the matchups:
Patriots Running Game:
The Ravens rush defense suffered through the many injuries they had this season and was not the usual stout unit they field. However in both the earlier game against New England where the Patriots only rushed for 77 yards on 34 attempts and down the stretch and into the playoffs theyâ€™ve been much better.
The guy to watch is Haloti Ngata who is playing with a knee injury but is Baltimoreâ€™s big run stuffer in the middle, while Ray Lewis while still solid isnâ€™t quite the same player he was last year, playing through a serious injury himself.
Look for the Patriots, now that their offensive line is playing better and the Ravens to battle here all game. The Patriots should try to spread them out a bit and with Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead giving them a bit more speed outside and Stevan Ridley inside, the Patriots should run the ball much more effectively this time around.
Ravens Running Game:
In the first meeting in September, the Ravens offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and Ray Rice had 101 yards rushing and averaged 5 yards per carry. The Baltimore unit has been revamped and is playing extremely well now, theyâ€™ve flipped Bryant McKinnie over to LT and Michael Oher to RT and Rice torched Denver for 130 yards. Bernard Pierceâ€™s availability is still a question mark for this one for the Ravens.
The Patriots front seven has been very good against the run all season and it starts with Vince Wilfork inside. Wilfork has been outstanding against the run and will be looking to set the tone early with Brandon Spikes in slowing down the run in this one.
Rice has given the Patriots fits through the games between the two teams and this one should be a tough battle. Baltimore will stay patient with the run all game and may opt to pass early to run late as they did in Denver last week.
Patriots Passing Game:
The Ravens have always given Tom Brady a tough matchup as they are a very physical bunch and can jam the receivers at the line and disrupt the timing of the plays which is a must in the Patriots offense.
They blitz or send extra pass rushers on a fair amount of plays and picking up the blitzes will be paramount for the Patriots offensive line. Cary Williams and Corey Graham (replacing Ladarius Webb) have played very well down the stretch. Expect the Ravens to put Chykie Brown in on nickel situations and possibly match him up with Wes Welker. But Webb is a big loss for them and Brady will test them early.
With Rob Gronkowski out, the onus will fall on Aaron Hernandez who should have an advantage in working on the Ravens LBs. In September Brady threw for 334 yards using Welker and Brandon Lloyd very effectively. Expect to see Hernandez in the backfield and go in motion if the chips and jams become an issue.
But in this game, expect the Patriots to attack Baltimore more with the running backs. Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen will split out wide and force the linebackers into covering them, which are mismatches for the Patriots.
With Brady, it all comes down to protection and if the New England offensive line can keep Ngata, Paul Kruger and Suggs off long enough, then theyâ€™ll find success.
Ravens Passing Game:
Joe Flacco is lighting it up this post-season with 5 TDs, 0 INTs and 120 passer rating. He torched Denver repeatedly with the deep ball, which he throws among the best in the NFL. The Ravens OL has given him outstanding protection; Denverâ€™s vaunted defense rarely caught a sniff of the QB last week.
Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones along with Rice and Dennis Pitta give Flacco outstanding weapons in the passing game. The Ravens like to stretch the field and test teams deep and this game will be no different.
The keys from a Patriots perspective is to take away the deep ball, especially to the right, where Flacco likes to throw (4-7,185 yards and 3 TDs last week) and get pressure on Flacco which they werenâ€™t able to do in September.
But the New England defense is vastly different than that matchup. They traded a 4th round pick for CB Aqib Talib and promoted rookie Alfonzo Dennard to the starting lineup. That allowed them to move Devin McCourty to safety and the results have been a much improved defense that allows them to be much more aggressive. This is the biggest key of the game here, how this plays out will have a huge factor in who wins and who goes home.
Both teams must have had a few sleepless nights watching film from last week as two normally solid coverage units were gashed badly on returns in the divisional round. Trindon Holliday scored on both a punt and kickoff return in Denver against the Broncos and Danieal Manning averaged over 50 yards per kick return with three big returns for the Texans against the Patriots last week.
Justin Tucker has been excellent this season going 30-for-32 on field goals, adding the 47 yard boot in overtime to beat the Broncos last week. Sam Koch is an outstanding punter with a 47 yard average with only 8 touchbacks this season.
The Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko are both extremely solid in their own right and Mesko in particular has really turned it up as the season has wound down. While they with the experience give the Pats a slight edge in the kicking game, the dangerous Jones gets the nod here in the return game.
Home field advantage is huge here especially for the Patriots offense as they can run their offense and call the plays at the line much more effectively at home than they can from the road. It wonâ€™t have much an effect on the Ravens however; Gillette Stadium with the open end just isnâ€™t that loud a place.
One has to wonder how much Baltimore has left in the tank physically, theyâ€™re playing with a myriad of injuries and the defense, the heart and soul of this team has played a lot of snaps the last two weeks. With Brady and Belichick at home, this is an added plus for the Patriots.
The Patriots â€“ Ravens rivalry has been growing in recent years, as the teams seem to play each other every year, in this case twice this season. Since the end of the 2007 season when the Ravens gave the Patriots all they could handle that year, it has gotten intense, this game for the right to go to New Orleans will ratchet it up even more.
This should be a really close game as they usually are between the two teams and I expect it to be a physically tough, demanding game. Each team will attempt to utilize mismatches in the passing game to free up the running game.
I think with Baltimore playing close to 190 snaps on defense the last two weeks, the Patriots will try to speed up the game and use their up-tempo offense to wear them down. Donâ€™t be shocked to see â€śinjuredâ€ť players get stoppages especially in the red-zone if they hit a big play to slow the pace down.
I think the Patriots running game should really help this time around, as theyâ€™ll attempt to keep things balanced and not allow the defense to tee off and dictate the matchups. Rice and Flacco are always the keys to stopping Baltimore, if they are allowed to have big games, the deep balls to Smith, and Jones can break a teamâ€™s back.
This one will go down to the wire, but I think the Patriots will prevail at home, spreading them out and using the RBs speed to the outside wear down the Ravens defense just enough to get the job done. Brady will have a big game for a change against the Ravens in this one. Patriots 31-24