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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: Six Story Lines and Six Predictions

I'm going to start this off in a similar manner to Alec's most recent "Fan Notes" post- WOW.

No time to look back this week. I predicted the Patriots would crush the Broncos, but I could have never asked that they would look so good. There's a lot going on this week, so here are the top 6 things from my perspective. Feel free to add you own in the comment section.

1. Concussion Watch

The most disconcerting aspect of the Patriots victory last weekend was obviously Aaron Hernandez leaving the game with a head injury in the fourth quarter. I'll get to Aaron's unique abilities later in this list, but if his concussion is severe enough to keep him from playing, it's a huge detriment to New England's offensive capabilities- especially the no huddle package. I know that Aaron has said multiple times that he is going to be ready to go this weekend, but I wouldn't put it completely past Bill Belichick to have Aaron fib to the media so that the Ravens will have to prepare for him.

Nate Solder was also listed on Wednesday's injury report with a concussion, which is surprising because I don't remember seeing him exit the game due to injury at any point. Solder's health is as important as Hernandez's, because he is the better and more experienced of our two rookies tackles (the other being Marcus Cannon) and Sebastian Vollmer was still not able to play this past weekend. With much of the focus on this game being on the success of the Ravens' pass rush in rattling Tom Brady, the Patriots need every offensive lineman healthy and in the game.

2. No Huddle vs. Raven's pressure

As shown by Christopher Price earlier this week, the Patriots matched a season high percentage of snaps run in their no huddle package in the divisional playoff round against Denver. The no-huddle will be equally as important against the Ravens this week, because of Baltimore's greatest asset being their strong defense. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have expounded all week on how disguising blitz packages is of the upmost importance against Brady, who has an uncanny ability to process fronts and remember pressure packages. If the Patriots are executing early on offense, and have the chance to push the tempo, this will keep the Ravens from setting up and disguising their defensive looks. For this to happen however, they will need a complimentary effort from the defense. If New England allows Baltimore to sustain long drives, the Patriots will be less likely to run a no huddle, because they will be risking putting a tired defense back on the field immediately. Keeping the intensity out of Ray Lewis and his defense is the number one concern this week.

The no huddle is also important because of New England's unique personnel. With Hernandez capable of lining up at running back, the Patriots have an unbelievable amount of looks they can execute with Branch, Welker, Gronk, Herndo, and Underwood/Edelman as the fifth option. They have the ability to spread the field 5-wide, but Gronkowski and Hernandez are still capable of lining up as traditional tight ends. Julian has had experience this season carrying the ball out of the backfield as well, so if the Ravens substitute into a dime package to counter the Patriots' passing personnel, New England has the option of running the ball down Baltimore's gut. I'd hate to be reviewing tape and trying to establish a game plan to combat against this offense, because there are just too many looks.

One other thing that will be very important for the Patriots is pre-snap motion. This will allow Brady to read defensive assignments and also keep the Ravens from jamming Welker, Hernandez, and Gronkowski off of the line (not that anyone can really jam Gronk).

3. The Boston TE Party

I just can't even say enough how much I enjoy watching New England's tight ends in action, and it upsets me that some day New England may have to let one of the two leave for free agency (although that's a topic for a different day). Obviously, Rob Gronkowski is one of the greatest receiving weapons that has ever been in the NFL, and I say that without hesitation. The fact that a defense witnessed firsthand his ability four weeks prior, and still gave him 140 yards and 3 TDs is a testament to how unstoppable Rob is. I think that even know the Ravens can see his skills on tape, there just hasn't been a single defense in the second half of the season that has been able to silence Gronkowski (without letting other offensive options run wild).

On the other hand, we have the burner in Aaron Hernandez- who's now shown that he is not only a receiving tight end, but he can take the ball out of the backfield and burn the defense for 40 yards. Hernandez completely exploded once he was given open field, and set up the Patriots' first touchdown. I'm not sure if, given his concussion, Bill Belichick will be willing to let Aaron carry the ball this week- but one thing is for sure- he'll be lined up in the backfield at some point in this game, whether he carries it or not. Belichick putting that look on tape will force the Baltimore defense to prepare for a completely new foil to his offense, one that was already considered a juggernaut.

4. Brady's Shoulder

Tom was listed as a DNP (did not participate) on Wednesday's participation report, but does anyone expect him to miss even a snap of this game? Brady's is as durable as they come, but because he never complains, whines, or limps (I'm looking at you Ben), people rarely list this toughness as an attribute. I'm sure that he's in a considerable amount of pain, but the Brady that I saw is so locked on this postseason that I feel like he may take the first snap, spike the ball, and go tackle Suggs. I'm sure that he's looking forward to shutting the Ravens' team up- because even though the "finesse" label might slide right off his shoulders, a competitor as fiery as Brady does not like being openly disrespected. Suggs can do as much damage control as he wants this week, and heap as many compliments on Brady as he wants, but I'm sure Tom is anticipating this matchup just as much as anyone on Baltimore's team. After coming off a record setting and possibly career-defining postseason performance (depending on how the rest of the postseason goes), I don't think Brady is going to take a step back. He's hitting his stride.

Two more storylines and 6 predictions after the jump!

5. Baltimore's offense

There isn't much to say about the Ravens' offense. Do they have some playmakers? Definitely. Anquan Boldin has a second gear, and Torrey Smith is a true burner at receiver. Ed Dickson has filled in aptly this season with Todd Heap's departure, but receivers aren't the true cornerstone of Baltimore's offense- which is clearly Ray Rice. Rice is the ultimate running back- the size of a bruiser like Michael Turner combined with the speed, agility, and pass catching ability of LeSean McCoy. Rice is simply fantastic, and is basically the Ravens' entire offense. If the Patriots are able to limit him to 150 yards combined receiving and a single touchdown, New England has a great ability to win this game.

6. Patriots defense

This is clearly the ultimate question mark leading into this weekend. The 3-4 look with Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson at outside linebacker was able to generate an unbelievable amount of negative plays against the Broncos- but the Ravens are not Denver. New England had an advantage in that they had faced the Broncos a few weeks earlier, and were able to make adjustments to completely shut down Tim Tebow this time. Brandon Spikes set the tone in the middle, and he'll need to do so again this weekend- especially with Vonta Leach lead blocking for Ray Rice. I think that the Patriots' rush defense won't be an issue in this game, and they'll handle their duties against Rice- obviously, passing defense and the ability to pressure Joe Flacco will define this game. The Texans were able to get 5 sacks last week, but the Patriots don't have the pressure personnel of Houston. Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich will have to stay disciplined in setting the edge and prohibiting Rice from cutting to the outside, but also have the burst off of the line to keep Flacco from getting off deep throws to Torrey Smith.

Ultimately, the Patriots will need to play a completely complimentary game, but they are the better team of the AFC Championship matchup. As long as they win the turnover battle, and limit the big plays on both sides of the ball from Baltimore, I think they take this game.

6 Predix

1. I said Julian Edelman would have his first career sack last week- I'm carrying this over. I think that Belichick will design a few blitzes that Baltimore hasn't seen, because there really isn't a threat of Flacco reading our defense and exploiting holes.
2. Brandon Spikes is going to completely annihilate a Raven at one point- similar to his hit on Jake Ballard when the Pats faced the Giants.
3. The Ravens are going to focus too much on stopping the tight ends, and leave Deion Branch and Wes Welker with single coverage too often. I'm looking for 200 yards combined between the two, along with a couple touchdowns. Wes is going to look spectacular.
4. Nate Solder is going to have his first career touchdown (my roommate and I agree).
5. Mark Anderson is going to have a multiple sack game.
6. The Patriots are going to force 3 or more turnovers.
7. (I know I said 6) Final score: 35-17 Patriots.