The Ravens are an interesting team to analyze.
Year after year, they pose a serious threat to every team in the league. They’re loaded with future Hall of Fame players, they’re feared, they’re respected, and they continue to have one of the best defensive units in NFL history.
But here’s the hiccup: They usually don't go very far in the playoffs.
Ed Reed is the greatest free safety in the history of the NFL. He’s been the star of one of the most dominant teams in the league for 10 years, and he doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring.
Ray Lewis is one of the finest linebackers to ever play the game. He’s been playing at an elite level for 16 years, he’s been on 13 Pro Bowl teams, but he only has one single Super Bowl ring.
The Steelers, the Colts and the Patriots have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl for a combined nine times since 2000. If you add the Ravens to the group, the total number of Super Bowl appearances only goes up to 10.
This is the unspoken truth about Baltimore.
The Ravens are always a threat, but that threat has historically been more existential than literal. They don’t get to the Super Bowl themselves, they just prevent other teams from getting to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens and the Jets play a similar role in the AFC. Ray Lewis and Rex Ryan make waves every season, but they don’t actually surf those waves.
I’m certainly not dismissing the Ravens or belittling their toughness. This is a fantastic football team. They've beaten the Patriots in the playoffs before, and they're capable of doing it again.
But I wonder how much of a threat they pose to the 49ers or the Giants.
The 49ers, the Giants and the Ravens can only win by hitting harder than their opponents. Crushing bones, attacking the quarterback and defensively causing mayhem is the only way these three teams know how to win.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are the only team left in the playoffs who can win by outsmarting their opponents. They're also the only team left who can win through offense.
Baltimore probably likes this AFC championship matchup as the Patriots are the physically weakest team left in the playoffs. The Ravens can’t beat the Giants, and they probably can't beat the 49ers again, but they can beat the Patriots.
If the Ravens win on Sunday, it would most likely be their last win of the season. A showdown with the 49ers or the Giants would be nothing more than muscle versus muscle. They don't have the youth or the bodies to intimidate either team, and they won't score enough points to win.
The Ravens already beat the 49ers earlier this season in Week 12, but the 49ers are a different team now. They're riding high on strength and momentum. If they can beat Drew Brees, they can beat Joe Flacco.
Baltimore's success can only go so far. That’s the storyline of this AFC championship game.
The Ravens aren't playing for a second Super Bowl ring; they’re playing to keep Tom Brady from getting his fourth.
It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots respond to this dilemma. The Ravens will do everything in their power to keep Brady out of the Super Bowl. But between these two AFC teams, only the Patriots can beat the 49ers or the Giants.
This is an existential crisis for New England to overcome. Baltimore's only chance for winning is to viciously attack Brady, and we know its game plan already.
The good news for New England is that the 49ers and the Giants will have the exact same game plan in the Super Bowl. For the Patriots, this AFC Championship Game is perfect practice. If they can protect Brady against the Ravens, they can protect Brady against anybody.