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Patriots vs. Ravens: 5 AFC Championship Thoughts

Five thoughts as the Patriots prepare to play the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship at 3:00 PM this afternoon:

1. Fast Start is Key for Patriots. The Patriots closed out the regular season by starting slow on offense, but in the Divisional Playoffs against the Broncos, came out on fire, jumping to a 14-0 lead within minutes. In the Ravens' playoff opener, they looked lethargic coming out of the gates. If it hadn't been for a first quarter muffed punt by Jacoby Jones of the Texans, Baltimore may not have won the game. 2009 showed us what a slow start can mean against the Ravens. The Patriots know they need to get off to a quick start, and the eventual outcome may in fact be determined by how quickly the Patriots come out today.

2. The Patriots should disrupt the timing of Baltimore's pass rush by using play action and no-huddle. There's no question that the key to New England's offensive success against the Ravens will be beating the vaunted Baltimore pass rush. To do this, I would expect the Patriots to run a fair amount of play action, but even more importantly, use the no-huddle at a frequent rate, similar to what the team did against the Broncos last week. Put it this way, I the Patriots line up five wide on one play, then on the next (no huddle), run the ball with Aaron Hernandez, there's no knowing what to expect for Terrell Suggs and Balitmore's pass rushers, who struggled against the Texans.

3. Can Mark Anderson set the edge? Last week against the Broncos, the Patriots turned to the 3-4 base defense for the majority of the game. Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich did a good job setting the edge against Denver, but if the Patriots turn to the 3-4 yet again, which I believe they will do, then there's going to be continued pressure for the two outside linebackers, particularly the lighter Anderson, to set the edge. The Patriots could also go to a "big" 4-3, with Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick as the defensive ends, but I think that the success the Patriots have had with the 3-4 is too hard to ignore.

4. Big moment for Brady, Belichick's legacy. Say what you want about this Patriots team, but they're now hosting an AFC Championship game as the #1 seed in the AFC. For Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, it will be the duo's sixth championship appearance. Of the first five, the Patriots have won four, most recently with their 23-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in 2007. In fact, a win today would mean the fifth Super Bowl appearance in the Brady / Belichick era, which would be an NFL record for a quarterback / head coach combo. This Patriots team has faced doubters all year, and playing a tough Ravens team today, they will continue to face them. Nonetheless, a win for the Patriots today will go even further towards cementing the legacy of Brady and Belichick and will undoubtedly make the duo the front-runner for the "best ever."

5. Greg's Prediction: Patriots 31 Ravens 20. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Tom Brady is a man on a mission in 2011, and I think he helps will his way to a Patriots AFC Championship victory again today. If the Patriots get off to a quick start, focus their defensive game plan on Ray Rice, and force Joe Flacco to throw the football, they can win this game - and decisively. But don't get me wrong, the Ravens are the best team the Patriots have faced this year, and in order to win, the Patriots will have to avoid making costly mistakes and playing from behind. But as I said, if the Patriots come out and execute early, they can win decisively. But if they stall early on offense, or fall victim to a couple of turnovers, it could be a long day.