Not long ago the Patriots and Colts developed a nice rivalry through yearly meetings that seemed to always have playoff implications or a Super Bowl hanging in the balance. Of late it's been the Ravens that have taken over that role, as New England once again faces Baltimore with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It's a rematch of last year's AFC title contest. The Ravens, who beat the Patriots in Baltimore in Week 3 of the regular season, will be looking for playoff revenge. New England is looking to go to a sixth Super Bowl in the Bill Belichick era, and for a chance to get back over the championship hump. Like the old games with the Colts, these matchups between the Ravens and Patriots always seem to live up to the hype and provide plenty of entertainment. Until the 6:30 kickoff on Sunday night finally rolls around, enjoy this Poe-inspired, crab cake-fed Ravens Edition AFC Championship Six-Pack!
1. Deep thinking - There is little doubt that one of the big story lines leading up to this game has been the deep ball. The Ravens have been one of the best in the NFL this year at throwing it and the Patriots have been one of the worst in the NFL this year defending it. But it goes beyond that. New England's secondary has been better against the deep ball later in the season, thanks to the arrival of Aqib Talib, the evolution of Alfonzo Dennard and, maybe most importantly, Devin McCourty settling in at safety. Torrey Smith had his way the Patriots in the Week 3 meeting in Baltimore, including beating McCourty regularly down the right side. He had 120 yards and two scores in that game. He had another two scores and a couple big plays last weekend in torching Champ Bailey. Smith averaged 17 yards a catch during the season and seems to be blossoming before our eyes. It will be up to McCourty and Co. to stop him. Joe Flacco does a very good job getting the ball down the field and making plays, while not throwing too many picks. He has confidence in his receivers to make plays on the ball. He has the arm to throw it a mile. He picks his spots and makes it work. And with the rest of the targets he has - tight end Dennis Pitta in the middle, Ray Rice out of the backfield, Anquan Boldin as a possession guy - Flacco doesn't just force the ball to his big-play target. You have to defend the whole field, but the deep part is the most dangerous. Maybe the biggest fear of the deep ball isn't the Patriots inability to cover it, it's the questions about the New England pass rush. The group has been too inconsistent, and Chandler Jones is still battling an ankle injury. If he's limited and the group doesn't make Flacco a little uncomfortable it could be a long day for the Patriot secondary - literally and figuratively.
2. No Gronk, no... - Rob Gronkowski has missed time this year and the Patriots were able to score plenty of points and win games in his absence. But there is little question that he's a major loss for a what is expected to be such a physical, hard fought game with the season on the line. There is no arguing Gronkowski's value to Tom Brady in the red zone and in key situations. He's the only Patriots target with the ability to physically dominate just about any coverage matchup he's in. That makes him a real comfort for Brady and a go-to guy in the most important spots. With him out of action there is far less room for error with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Neither can afford the drops that have been an issue at times this year. Those two guys will have to be the heart of the attack, and they should find room to work in the middle of the field against some of Baltimore's aging and slowing defenders like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. But when those guys are slowed, bumped around and taken out of the game a little bit, will anyone else be able to step up in Gronk's void? Shane Vereen is a new option in some spread sets after last week's breakout. Brandon Lloyd has been a disappointment as a playmaker in his first season in New England, but he will have the chance to improve his reputation on Sunday if he can make key plays on the outside and down the field to help the Patriots advance. Maybe even backup tight ends like Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells will make an impact. The going will be more difficult in this battle without Gronk, but the Patriots certainly have the overall potential to get the job done.
3. Steam Rice - While the defense has to be quite aware of defending Flacco's deep passing game, that doesn't mean they can forget about Rice. The back is still at the core of the Ravens offense as both a ball carrier and pass catcher. He's ruined games in the past for the Patriots. He has a solid 199 yards and 4.4-yard average in two postseason games this January. He also has a 47-yard catch. If there is too much focus on the passing game, Rice will take advantage on the ground. The Patriots have been solid against the run most of the season, but that needs to continue. Making the Ravens one-dimensional would be a huge first step in this one. Even if that happens, the group will have to take care of rice in the passing game. With all the focus down the field, the linebackers need to keep him in check on check-downs and screens in the passing game. Rice is a star and stars often shine in the postseason.
4. Mediocre and dangerous - These aren't the Ravens on defense from a few years back. Lewis isn't nearly his old self, even with all his pile-jumping tackles this postseason. He's an emotional force and his pending retirement is a big story, but will it really motivate his teammates anymore than they normally would be? Not so sure. Reed isn't what he once was. Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are playing hurt. Baltimore's best corner is on IR. Baltimore gave up more points than the Patriots did during the regular season. They gave up 31-plus in back-to-back December losses. That was part of losing four of the last five games of the regular season. The unit ranked 17th in total yards on defense, including 20th against the run and 17th against the pass. They do however get off the field on third down, ranking 7th in third-down D during the regular season. They also ranked No. 2 in the league in red zone defense. (Did I mention it would be nice to have Gronkowski on the field in the red zone this week?) The Ravens aren't a great defense, but they are very much dangerous in a few areas. And while guys like Lewis and Reed can't play with the consistent dominance that the former Defensive Players of the Year once did, they can still make game-changing efforts on a short term basis. If the Ravens defense plays up to its potential on third down and in the red zone, it will make for a long difficult day for Brady and the Patriots offense.
5. Clutch effort - Unlike Houston a week earlier, Flacco, Lewis, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens believe they have what it takes to come into Foxborough and pull the upset. They've done it before and they've been close to doing more often than not. These two teams have played games that have gone down to the wire and been decided by a field goal or less each of the last three times. Aside from Baltimore's blowout upset after the 2009 season, five of the last six games between these two teams have been by six points or less. So that means this one has a very good chance to come down to the wire in the fourth quarter (or beyond). Which team will be more ready, more poised, more set to make the plays that need to be made when they need to be made? Could a random star of the game develop like Sterling Moore did a year ago? Will the fact that the Ravens played a tremendously long, trying, physical game a week ago in Denver catch up to them down the stretch against the Patriots? Which team's kicker will be ready to make a clutch kick with the game on the line? Will one team's special teams make plays that swing the game, as was the case a week ago? The postseason is a breeding ground for stars to be born and goats to be banished. We saw that with these two teams last January. We'll probably see it again on Sunday night.
- Weather or not** - Unlike last week's mild weather at Gillette, Sunday night promises to be chilly and potentially windy. While it's always dangerous to project the weather a couple days ahead in the winter in New England, it looks like there could be at least 15mph wind and maybe higher. If it's a bit more windy, that could be an issue for both passing games and both kicking games. That certainly could cut down on what Flacco is able to do down the field, although he still has a very strong arm. Brady remains arguably the best bad weather quarterback in history. But if this game is tight and does come down to a kicker, Stephen Gostkowski will still have to prove himself worthy of the spot. And even if the Ravens can't throw like they want to, they still have a pretty formidable back in Rice to turn to, although an injury to backup Bernard Pierce could limit his contributions and might be an issue of it's more of a ground game. Both teams will play in the same weather and both have played in poor conditions in the past in the northeast. But as is so often the case this time of year, weather could once again be a factor in Foxborough.
While I usually have very strong feelings in picking games, these Patriots/Ravens games confound me. I can talk myself into either team winning. That was the case a year ago, and the game was a toss-up to the very end. The beginning and end of this matchup could be huge. Will Baltimore come out ready to fight and be able to take any opening punches that Brady and company throw? Then, which team can create the momentum and make plays late. The loss of Gronk worries me. The Ravens red zone and third down defense worries me. It worries me that Brady really hasn't played consecutive strong postseason games since 2004. But even with all those worries, I still think the Patriots at home are the pick here. I think the offense will be a balanced attack, with Brady spreading things out and taking advantage of room to work in the secondary. I think the Patriots defense is ready to take care of the deep ball and then will probably get a couple turnovers, although the Ravens are pretty tight with the football with just 16 giveaways on the year, tied with New England and other for second-fewest in the NFL. Unlike many New England fans, I'm not nearly as confident in the outcome as I was a week ago against Houston. But, I do expect the Patriots to make enough plays to pull out a 27-24 victory that will be a fight to the finish and require plays to be made by New England in all three phases of the game to earn a trip to New Orleans.