The Patriots (12-4) spent the last two weeks recuperating, resting and preparing to kick off a potential Super Bowl run as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Ravens (11-6) spent last weekend in rivalry battle on the road in Pittsburgh, fighting their way through to the next round and earning a trip to Gillette Stadium in the postseason for the fourth time since the 2009 campaign. New England and Baltimore have built a nice playoff rivalry as two of the more consistent, competitive organizations in football. Tom Brady and Joe Flacco bring Super Bowl rings to the game, two of the five Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks playing this weekend. The teams may be as balanced as they've been in quite some time heading into this matchup. Each finished the regular season ranking in the top 10 in the league in both points scored and points allowed. Each is better than the last time they went to war in January. There are plenty of matchups within the game, but clearly there should be impressive playmaking and coaching put forth on both sides of the field. The Ravens are looking to return to the AFC title game a year after failing to defend their Super Bowl title. The Patriots look to advance to the AFC title game for the fourth straight year, with the hope of going much further than that. As you finish out the work week and try to contain your playoff excitement until the Saturday evening (4:35 p.m. ET) kickoff, day drink responsibly on this cold-brewed, Northeast-Corridor crafted Ravens at Patriots Divisional Playoff Pregame Six-Pack!
- Block party** - The course of the 2014 regular season saw the Patriots establish many strengths and ease fans' fears in a variety of areas. Safety play, pass rush, run defense and rushing game were all concerns along the way that have been deemed unfounded. That's left many believing that the offensive line is the lone remaining potentially fatal flaw on Bill Belichick's latest championship caliber squad. The line opened the season in shambles but worked through curious lineup changes to settle on a starting five that seemingly settled into success in the middle of the year. But concerns up front reared their ugly head yet against in the final month-plus. That was especially true at left tackle with Nate Solder struggling down the stretch. The fourth-year left pass protector and former first-round pick has been in a bit of a slump that saw him beaten with speed and power, inside and out. Health wise the line should get Dan Connolly back at left guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Bryan Stork has proven an impressive rookie at center. And Ryan Wendell has done the job at right guard. Solder, who should probably be the rock of the line at this point, has actually been the biggest question mark. The challenge this weekend for Solder and the rest of this group is huge. Terrell Suggs (12 sacks) leads a talented, deep Ravens front that finished second in the league with 49 sacks during the regular season. Elvis Dumervil set a franchise record with 17 sacks as a rotational sub rusher. Haloti Ngata has fresh legs after a four-game suspension to close out the regular season and can collapse the pocket in addition to stuffing the run. Brandon Williams and Chris Canty are also forces to be dealt with in the middle. The Ravens defense is heavily weighted toward the impressive front end that must cover up for a susceptible secondary. But Suggs and company are certainly capable of doing just that. When the Patriots have been bounced from the postseason in the past one of the common threads of those losses was New England losing the battle in the trenches and Tom Brady feeling pressure from the opposing front. Suggs, a well-known Brady-hater, would like nothing more than to lead the way and continue that trend. If the Patriots, most notably maybe Solder and Wendell, can get the job done up front it should be the first step toward a successful day. If Baltimore's ravenous front gets things going early and gets after Brady it could be a long day for No. 12 and the Patriots.
- Gronk-ination** - Stop me if you've heard this before. Rob Gronkowski is the most unique, dominant, indefensible force in this game. He's well rested after sitting out the postseason finale. He's probably heard some of the chatter surrounding the Patriots offense that struggled a bit down the stretch. Remember when he decided he was going to turn around a struggling Patriots offense after the first month of the regular season? Ask the Bengals how that worked out in Week 5. Maybe Daryl Smith will get the call to try to deal with Gronk. Maybe it will be impressive Alabama rookie C.J. Mosley. Maybe it will be one of the four different safeties the Ravens list as either/or starters in the back end. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees - who ran the Patriots defense from 2006-09 before he landed with the Ravens - will probably throw a few different looks at Gronkowski. None is likely to do much to shut down big No. 87. The Patriots have come up short in the postseason in recent years in large part because Gronkowski was hurt. That's not the case this winter. When the Patriots offense is dominating it's usually led by Gronkowski's domination - or Gronk-ination. There is no reason to believe that won't be the case this Saturday evening in front of the energetic home crowd. 3. Take 2 - The Ravens have two clear top targets in the passing game in Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith. The Patriots have two clear top cover men in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. How those four players interact on the evening, though, is very much in question. Torrey Smith said this week he expects to be matched up with Browner most of the day. That would leave the veteran Smith Sr. and Revis in a matchup of aggressive, physical playmakers. But there is the chance that the Patriots might prefer Revis on the younger, faster Torrey Smith who can, as many New England defenders put it, take the top off the defense. Browner might get a battle with Smith Sr., who's more than willing to mix it up at the line of scrimmage. Regardless, Flacco will be looking to get his playmaking Smith's involved. Belichick called Flacco one of the best deep ball throwers in the game today. Smith Sr. had six catches of 40 yards or longer this year. Torrey Smith had another two, while averaging 15.7 yards per catch. But Revis and Browner spent the second half of the season proving themselves a formidable tandem for plenty of other talented passing attacks. They'll be expected to do the same in this contest, regardless of the specific matchups, as the New England defense will be counted on to carry as bigger a share of the playoff load for the Patriots than it has in more than a decade.
- Brady or not?** - Brady is 37. He's entering yet another postseason run. He's as comfortable playing the 20-something temperatures that are expected Saturday night as any quarterback. No. 12 had another impressive year as a Pro Bowler. He put up big numbers even after the slow start. But the offense was a bit stagnant down the stretch. Brady seemed to, as was the case early in the year, really be adversely affected by the pass rush. Others will point out that Brady hasn't been as consistently effective in the postseason in the second half of his career as was the case in his 10-0 start to his championship runs. And unlike last January in Denver, Brady has a seemingly full cast of healthy weapons to deal with. Gronkowski is ready. Julian Edelman is expected back after missing two games with a concussion. Brandon LaFell is practicing and deemed himself ready despite a toe injury. Brady has battled Baltimore in the past. He's gone at it with Suggs. He knows the type of environment and opposition he'll face Saturday evening. There really are no excuses for him to do anything other than come out and put together a strong offensive performance against a team with a less-than-impressive secondary that allowed opponents at combined 90.6 passer rating on the year and to complete 64 percent of their passes. If Brady gets good protection, he should have an easy time of it. If he doesn't, Brady needs to battle through the pressure and find ways to make things happen as the leader of an offense that's expected to be more than good enough to advance to the next round. Brady's legacy doesn't need anything to boost it at this point, but he's certainly expected to get the job done in this one. Flacco has a ring. Brady has three. He's the better, more consistent quarterback in this battle leading the better most consistent team. It's a good time for Brady to remind people of that.
- Especially now** - The Patriots have had the advantage in the kicking game on seemingly a weekly basis all season. New England got big plays on special teams including big returns, blocked punts, blocked field goals and consistently impressive coverage. But the Ravens also have a very impressive corps of special teams players. Justin Tucker is a strong-legged kicker who can match Stephen Gostkowski in many ways. Julian Edelman can flip a field with punt returns. But Jacoby Jones is one of the best punt/kickoff returners in the game. He'll return just about any kick he can catch, evidenced by his 108-yard touchdown. He's made big plays in the postseason in the past. So many times in the postseason we see big plays in the kicking game sway momentum and even the outcome. It was a hallmark of the Patriots Super Bowl teams of the past. It was a hallmark of Baltimore's own Super Bowl run in 2012. There is a very good chance there will be a big play in this battle in the third phase of the game. Special teams may not actually be a full third of the game, but it can certainly help make or break a team's season. It's been an area of advantage for Scott O'Brien's troops all year. If that continues it will be a big boost to the Patriots chances of victory.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.
- Play time** - In the 10 years since the Patriots last won the Super Bowl, fruitless postseason trips were seemingly highlighted (lowlighted!?) by a lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball. Winning in the playoffs is often about individuals coming up big and making big plays at big times. The players expected to be the heart of a Patriots title run this season are healthy and playing like potential postseason stars. Brady is ready. Gronkowski and Revis are hungry for their first rings. Jamie Collins is a budding defensive star whose versatility in the run and pass are becoming more evident with each week. Chandler Jones has his own fresh legs. Browner has an infectious energy and competitive nature. The list is endless in terms of New England's cast of would-be weapons. That hasn't always been the case in recent Januarys. Of course the Ravens have a pretty impressive rundown of would-be stars as well. Flacco is at home in the postseason. Smith Sr. and Smith are ready. Justin Forsett is coming off a 1,200-yard season in which he averaged 5.4 yards a carry. Suggs, Ngata, Dumervil, Mosley and others appear poised on defense. Over the years we've seen the likes of postseason heroes like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Bolden, James Harrison, and others turn one weekend into another of January playmaking on legend-building playoff runs. Guys on both sides of the ball will be looking to give themselves a chance at such a stretch on Saturday evening.
It's clearly going to be cold Saturday evening. But the only people likely to be affected by those 20-something temperatures are the fans at Gillette Stadium. The Ravens and Patriots are both very comfortable playing in the cold weather. Brady and Flacco won't wilt in the face of a little cold and possible slight wind. So that means this game will come down to the matchups and plays on the field. Which is the way it should be. The Patriots have proven themselves against AFC elite teams this season and in the divisional round in recent years. New England scored 43, 43 and 42 points against the Bengals, Broncos and Colts this regular season in blowout wins. Belichick's team has scored 43, 41, and 45 points in the last three divisional round blowouts in Foxborough over the Colts, Texans and Broncos. Of course the Ravens have won two of three trips to Gillette in the postseason since 2009 and could have won all three games were it not for a Lee Evans drop and Billy Cundiff missed field goal. So the history could probably be thrown out. Which of these teams was better this year? The Patriots. And if the New England offensive line can play a competitive game up front, that should play itself out on the field. With that in mind, I expect the Patriots to come out looking to throw the ball out of some spread sets, using an up-tempo approach and quick, high-percentage throws to get things rolling through the air. The Ravens may try to bunch things up at the line and take away those short throws, but that's easier said than done, especially against Gronkowski. The Patriots have heard all the questions about the struggling offense and slow starts down the stretch. I see Brady coming out fired up and firing on all cylinders to get an early lead. Defensively I just don't see the Ravens running the ball with much success and that puts all the pressure on Flacco and the Smith boys to make plays. The Patriots new-look pass defense appears poised to make sure that doesn't happen. New England had the better turnover differential during the regular season (plus-12 to plus-2), so it's not expected that the turnover battle should go dramatically to the visitor. Without that, the home team would appear poised to take care of business in a game in which it is a solid favorite and very much expected to win. That's exactly what I expect to happen, with New England taking the 40-20 victory to advance to another AFC title game. If the Ravens don't come out and dominate the game in the trenches from the very first snap I think they will go home for good after the final gun, leaving the Patriots to pursue that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.