The trip to Sunday's AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium started last summer for both the Patriots and Ravens. Two of the AFC's more consistent franchises worked through the strange offseason and training camp, with an eye on Super Bowl XLVI. Now, that goal is 60 minutes of football away. Can Tom Brady tie John Elway as the only quarterbacks to lead a team to five Super Bowls? Can Joe Flacco make leap from much criticized to a Super Bowl participant? Will the game be decided by team strengths - the Patriots offense and the Ravens defense - or by weaknesses - the Patriots defense and the Ravens offense? Until all those questions and more can be answered at 3 on Sunday, enjoy this revenge-inspired Ravens edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
2. Deep coverage - In some ways, there are some similarities between what the Ravens do on offense and what Denver wants to do. Run the ball and throw it deep. Obviously Flacco is better suited to get the ball down the field than Tim Tebow. Torrey Smith, Anquan Bolden (Could he actually be matched up with Antwaun Molden in this game?!), Ed Dickson and even Lee Evans could stretch the Patriots defense apart. Will we see Devin McCourty at safety yet again? Will Cam Cameron take a Steelers approach and come out to throw the ball 50 times? Is the Patriots secondary really playing better, making more plays and building confidence? The 16-game schedule saw a lot of less talented offenses make plays against the Patriots pass defense. But none of that matters now, it's about what is done against Flacco and the Ravens. If Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots pass rush can build off last week's effort - Flacco was sacked five times by an impressive Texans pass rush last week - it would go a long way to helping the coverage out. On the other hand if the Patriots can't cover the deep part of the field, it could be a long day.
3. Football with the Stars - Big players make big plays in big games. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski proved that last week. They'll be expected to do the same this time around with the AFC title on the line. Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Light and Mankins will also be in the spotlight for the Patriots offense. On the other side, most of Baltimore's stars are on defense. That's future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and Pro Bowlers like Ngata and Suggs. There will be a lot of Hall of Fame-type resumes on the field when Brady is throwing toward Reed and Lewis. Legends on one side or the other could be added to. Can Reed show that he's still the elite player in terms of making plays on the ball down the field? Is Lewis still capable of owning the middle of the field? Or, will Brady prove yet again that he rules the postseason air? My guess is that all the players in question will have reasonably impressive days and this game turns into a star-driven dogfight. But nothing can be taken for granted. There is no better time to see stars shine than a chilly January afternoon.
4. Rice - He may not have wowed people with his effort in the divisional round against a very good Houston defense, but Ray Rice is indeed one of the best all-around offensive players in the game today. He led the Ravens with 1,364 yards rushing during the regular season with a dozen touchdowns. He also led the team with 76 catches - 19 more than Boldin - and another three touchdowns through the air. Many of Cameron's offenses over the years have utilized the running back as the centerpiece. That's certainly the case in Baltimore. The Ravens want to get Rice involved early. That worked well on his 83-yard touchdown in his last playoff trip to Gillette when he ran for 159 yards and two scores. The Patriots run defense has been suspect over the last month-plus. It was better last week against Tebow's option attack, but still allowed 144 yards on the ground. Rice is better than Willis McGahee and all the other backs the Patriots have struggled with at times down the stretch. If he gets going early, it opens up the passing game and could make for a long day for the Patriots defense. It will be interesting to see if Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes can continue to energize the New England run defense and fuel the defensive fire. Spikes in particular seems to have a contagious playing style. But it will also obviously be imperative for Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and the rest of the guys up front to have solid run fits and get the job done. Mayo may be the most athletically suited to run with Rice, especially in dump-off passes. Regardless of who gets the job done, and how, keeping Rice in check has to be atop the To-Do list for the Patriots defense.
5. Special occasion - There's been two levels of focus this week. Plenty of talk has revolved around the strengths of both these teams - the Patriots offense and the Ravens defense. Others have looked at the matchup of the teams' perceived weaknesses - New England's defense and the Baltimore offense. But what about the kicking game? Plays in the third phase could swing the field. Baltimore and New England both had a single punt return for a touchdown. Neither team has hit a touchdown in the kicking game, although Baltimore has allowed one. And theoretically Stephen Gostkowski gets the kicking nod in his home stadium. Bad plays in the kicking game can cost you big time - see the Patriots failed fake punt a year ago - but positive plays can also give a team a boost that could be the difference in the game. This matchup could have the makings of a tight fight that could come down to a big play in the undervalued third phase.
6. Start to finish - The old adage says that you can't win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it. The Patriots proved that true last time they face the Ravens in the postseason. Denver proved it true last week in New England. And the Patriots failed to take advantage of some early chances a year ago against the Jets. Setting the tone could be key on Sunday. If the game is played on the Patriots terms in regards to tempo and the scoreboard, it will be a big first step toward winning. If the Ravens slow it down, make it a more physical battle and keep things close early on then the visitors will be confident they can get the job done. The home crowd is also greatly fueled by a positive start, as they should be. Put it all together and it would be wise for fans to be in their seat or in front of the TV from the get go, as plays that could affect the entire game could unfold in the first few minutes. Will the Ravens defer, like Denver, if they win the toss and allow Brady a chance to strike first? Stay tuned.
This is the hardest Patriots game I've had to break down all year, maybe the hardest in recent memory. Early in the week I was all in on the Patriots, like so many I was probably swayed by last weekend's action for both teams. But the more you break the teams down, the more you realize that either squad could easily win on Sunday. In the end, I expect a tight, physical game that will be decided in the fourth quarter. All the simple football stats like turnovers, third down and red zone will be critical. I expect the Patriots offense and Ravens defense to live up to the hype at various points. So, really, it comes down to whether you think Flacco is ready to take the next step and make enough plays to take his team to the Super Bowl. Despite Reed trying to light a fire under his quarterback this week, I thought Flacco's own insecure comments told the story of a guy not ready to go toe-to-toe with Brady. Therefore, I'm going to stick with the home field advantage, Belichick and Brady. It's an overly simple formula, but it seems to make sense in a game that's this close. So I'll predict a Patriots win, something in the range of 28-24. But I'm still very much scared to death that Flacco will do to this secondary what so many passers have done before him this fall. If that happens, then things could really fall apart for New England. Hard as it is for me to say given all that we've seen from the secondary this year, but I'm putting my faith in McCourty and company to get the job done.