This is the big game, until the next big game. One game at a time.
1. Stopping Rice - Baltimore running back Ray Rice is the engine that powers the Ravens offense. If he can be stopped, then the Patriots' chances of winning skyrocket. However, stopping Rice is no easy task and very few teams have managed to slow him down this season. Rice has the ability to see cutback lanes and is quick to hit them to break for additional yardage. It's imperative that the Patriots try to contain Rice in the backfield and not allow him to get to the edge and turn the corner- or receive any passes in the flat. As long as Rice is given special attention and forced out of the play, then Flacco will lose his checkdown target and will be forced to scan the field for another target- and in that time, he's likely to be sacked.
Play Ravens. Stop Rice. ????. Profit.
2. Protecting Brady - It's a generally accepted fact on how teams can stop the Patriots offense; send four rushers, get to Brady, tight man coverage down the field. The play has no time to develop and Brady has to make a throw that doesn't exist. The Ravens have a host of ferocious pass rushers like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata who are all capable of reaching Brady. My opinion? If Sebastian Vollmer is ready to play, have him play right tackle and have Nate Solder on the field to motion towards whatever side Suggs is on. If Vollmer can't play, I think Marcus Cannon is one of the few offensive linemen in the league with the same weight as Ngata- maybe he can help in protection?
The Patriots offensive line must keep Brady clean and give him the same time they gave him against the Broncos with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
3. Tight Ends - I would argue that the Patriots have the two best tight ends in the AFC, especially with how injured Antonio Gates has been over the past couple of years, as well as how limited Dallas Clark has become. While Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the league, with the most complete balance of receiving and blocking, Aaron Hernandez adds value as one of the most dangerous pure receiving tight ends in the league finishing with 23 missed tackles (10 more than second place: Gronkowski). The Patriots tight ends finished top 5 in the following categories, based of Pro Football Focus' list of players with more than 50% of the team's offensive snaps:
Receptions: (2) Gronkowski, (5) Hernandez
Yards: (1) Gronkowski, (4) Hernandez
Yards After Catch: (1) Gronkowski, (2) Hernandez
YAC/Reception: (2) Gronkowski, (5) Hernandez
Touchdowns: (1) Gronkowski, (4) Hernandez
Missed Tackles (1) Hernandez, (2) Gronkowski
That's impressive and places both Gronkowski and Hernandez firmly in the top 5 of receiving tight ends in the league. Should both players break free against the Ravens and have successful games, it will be hard for the Ravens to keep up with the Patriots offense. The Ravens tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, are often used up the seam as Joe Flacco's first read. If the Patriots can slow the Ravens tight ends, and force Flacco to throw to the outside, the Patriots will have a better chance of winning the game.
4. Discipline - Ray Rice is a dangerous runner who can cut back in the blink of an eye. If he gets to the outside, the Patriots will be in for a long day. Joe Flacco is exceptionally mobile and can get out of the pocket (think: Mark Sanchez) to extend the play and throw down the field. The key is for the Patriots defensive front to capture Flacco inside the pocket and force him to throw off of his back foot. The Patriots must also contain Rice and not open up any cutback lanes for him to wreak havoc. The Patriots defense will have to be disciplined in order to slow the Ravens offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots offense cannot afford any ridiculous penalties to stall drives. They must score 7 on every drive until the game is well within reach. No penalties. No turnovers. The Ravens defense is chippy and they're prone to make boneheaded mistakes if they are frustrated with how the opposing offense is driving. Let them be frustrated because they make more mistakes. Cool heads will prevail.
5. Home Runs - Ray Rice. Torrey Smith. Ed Reed. All players are capable of taking one play and using it to blow the game wide open. Don't let Rice break for an 80 yard touchdown. Don't let Smith free down the sideline for a 70 yard score. Don't let Reed intercept a pass and take it 99 yards to the house. Whichever teams has the most home run plays will win the game. Bank on it.