In the end, with another Super Bowl berth on the line, was there really ever any doubt?
That the Patriots will have to take down the Baltimore Ravens once again if they want to reach their sixth Super Bowl in 12 years feels, in hindsight, hardly like a surprise. These two teams are arguably each others biggest rival at this point.
Sure, the Ravens will always be engaged in an ongoing dance with their AFC North division nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the Pats will always be intertwined with the Jets, as laughable as that franchise has become, more than any other team.
But look at the recent history and it's tough to argue that the Patriots/Ravens is not the biggest, most high stakes rivalry in the AFC.
Sunday will mark the seventh meeting between these two teams since 2007, the last season the Ravens weren't in the playoffs. The Pats are 4-2 in the previous six games, every one of which but one, even in '07 when Baltimore was 5-11, has been decided by six points or less (the one that wasn't was that Wild Card game in 2009 when the Ravens came into Foxborough and annihilated the Pats 33-14). Sunday will also mark the third time in four seasons that these two teams have met in the playoffs and, as everyone knows, the second consecutive time that a title shot was at stake.
The point is that it just feels at this point like these two teams should be playing in another game like this. Forget about the Ray Lewis inspirational farewell carnival for a second (hey did you guys know that this game could be the last one of his career???) and look at the history. Five years isn't that long, but it represents a big enough sample size to prove that in the AFC, it's the Pats and it's the Ravens and then, it's everyone else.
So with that, let's get into some of the key matchups in this AFC Championship tilt, sure to be as fierce a battle as the rest.
When the Patriots run the ball.
Here's the biggest key for the Pats, folks. If they can run the ball effectively and get into their hurry-up, quick snap approach, they will score in the 30s and win this game. It's not going to be easy at all, however. Baltimore's defense, old as it may be, has been resurgent of late, holding the Broncos, who are pretty good on the ground, to barely three yards per attempt in more than five quarters last week. In the Week 3 meeting between the Pats and the Ravens, won by Baltimore 31-30, the Pats managed just 2.3 yards a pop on the ground. Both teams were very different all of those weeks ago but the point is if there's a real strength to this Ravens' D, it's stopping the run. Right up the middle for the Ravens are Haloti Ngata, Lewis and Ed Reed. None of those guys are spring chickens by any measure, but they are grizzled and experienced and extremely hungry. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbee has played the well lately too, and don't forget about tackling machine/Pats' killer Bernard Pollard, who is back from injury and starting again at safety opposite Reed. These are all players who play the run very well which means Bill Belichick and his offensive staff had better be ready to bring it with the "bitchassness" or whatever it was Ravens' backup linebacker/buffoon Brendan Ayanbadejo called it on Twitter last weekend. The Pats ran the ball down the Texans' throats last week, achieving most of their success running left behind Logan Mankins and Nate Solder. This keeps the play away from Ngata, who will be tougher to move on runs up the middle than anyone who plays fro Houston, even on the quick snaps the Pats love so much. Both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were terrific last week, but can they bring the same kind of production again? The Ravens are more vulnerable against the pass even with lineman Paul Kruger and a healthy Terrell Suggs getting after opposing QBs the way they have. It will be incumbent on the Pats, who found a variety of different ways to use their backs against the Texans to positive effect, to run the ball well and mix things up in order to have more success targeting the Ravens' shaky secondary. The way the Pats have improved in this phase of the game over the course of the season and the power they showed last week even in hurry up mode counteracts how well the Ravens have looked against the run. This match up could go either way.
When the Ravens pass the ball.
If the Pats' rushing attack is the most important match up in the game, how they defend the pass may be the most fascinating. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco shredded them back in Week 3, completing 72 percent of his passes for 382 yards and three TDs. The Pats' were hideous on defense that night at all three levels, getting zero pressure on Flacco and leaving their yet-to-be reconfigured secondary out to dry. Flacco loves to go deep; you could argue that his high-arcing parabolas, usually to the right side of the field, constitute the best aspect of his game. But take that deep ball away from him, force him to throw to the sticks, complete mid-range throws with consistent accuracy to anyone but running back Ray Rice and play a more traditional game and his productivity plummets. Last week against Denver, he registered TD passes of 32, 59 and, most famously, 70 yards. But he also only completed 18 of his 34 pass attempts and is just 30-of-57 in his two playoff games thus far. That's not very good. And while Flacco has had some of his best games against the Pats, this is the best defense the Pats have had since he's been in the league. The secondary has cut down on giving up the big play significantly (seven plays of 40 yards or more before Aqib Talib arrived, one since and it was a screen pass) while the pass rush and the use of blitzes have become more liberal and well executed. If the Pats can get pressure on Flacco, get him on the move or at least out of the pocket, that will be a huge plus. Chandler Jones' health will be key as he can be a game changer from his defensive end position. But even if Jones can't go or is at less than 100 percent, the area in which the Pats have the most depth and talent on defense is on the D-line. Trevor Scott and Justin Francis have each stepped up in a big way over the past few weeks and Rob Ninkovich has become a player who needs to be accounted for at all times. The Ravens have a huge, physical offensive line, but they've always had trouble with Vince Wilfork, often having to double-team him. The Pats are capable of taking advantage of a situation like that. Control the deep passing game and get pressure on Flacco. Those are the goals for this game for the Pats' pass defense. They should be able to achieve both.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
The Ravens know how the Pats' passing game operates. They've seen it before, many times. Their defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, used to be the Pats' defensive coordinator. They've forced Tom Brady into some of his worst performances. And they've done it when the Pats have been at full strength and not missing arguably the best, most dynamic, important skill player on the roster (referring here to Gonk, as Mayor Menino would call him). That being said, this week will be a big one for Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd had one of his best games of the season in Week 3, catching nine passes for 108 yards. You have to figure that the Ravens will throw the kitchen sink at slowing down the Pats' intermediate routes in the middle of the field between the numbers, where Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are at their best. If they are even moderately successful doing that, it will be up to Lloyd, on the outside, sometimes deep down the field and as much as is possible against man coverage, to replicate what he did in the first meeting between these two teams. Brady also has to stay upright, which with Kruger and Suggs, only the defending Defensive Player of the Year, playing as well as they have, is not necessarily a slam dunk. Still, it's tough to bet against the Pats' offensive line, which survived a rough patch in December and is operating at near peak efficiency right now, it's almost complete elimination of Houston's J.J. Watt last week as evidence of that. And even if the Ravens are able to slow down the mid-range stuff to Welker and Hernandez (who was as explosive and dynamic as at any point since Week 1 against the Texans), those two will still get theirs. Of course, if Gronk was healthy and his normal self, this discussion would be mostly a moot point. And the Ravens will have to account for how effective the Pats' running backs were in the passing game last week. As it stands, it's not the certain match up win it usually is for the Pats. But if Lloyd steps up, it could well be anyway.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 24
Make no mistake, these are the two best teams in the AFC. Sunday will mark each team's third conference championship appearance in the past five years. That's consistent excellence. They are are as evenly matched as it gets but on this occasion, the Pats have the slight upper hand. Despite being outplayed by Flacco more than once head-to-head, Brady has the upper hand at QB. And this year, unlike in so many instances before, the Pats are at an advantage on defense as well. As well as the Ravens have played on that side of the ball lately, their collective age and mileage will be too much for them to overcome on Sunday and that would be the case even if they hadn't just played five-plus quarters in the altitude of Denver last weekend. The Pats are too diverse on offense for this edition of the Ravens' once vaunted D to keep up, regardless of how inspired that group is by Lewis' impending retirement. It will be close, as nearly every game between these two teams is. But the Pats will prevail and return to the site of their first glory for their sixth Super Bowl in 12 years.