New England Patriots: 4 Keys to Victory over Ravens in AFC Championship

Joshua MayContributor IJanuary 21, 2012

New England Patriots: 4 Keys to Victory over Ravens in AFC Championship

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    The New England Patriots are seeking their fifth Super Bowl berth in the last 11 seasons. They'll need to defeat a physical and hungry Baltimore Ravens team to get there.

    The Ravens enter this game as an underdog, but they are an elite group, and it will take a complete effort by the Pats to win and advance on Sunday. The last time these teams met in the playoffs—in the 2009 Wild Card round—the Patriots were embarrassed 33-14. Another performance like that one and they'll be on the outside looking in come Super Bowl Sunday.

    But this year's incarnation of the Patriots are much improved over 2009's team. If they stick to the way they've been playing all season, the AFC Championship will be theirs.

    Here are the four keys to a Pats victory and another appearance in the NFL's biggest game:

Set the Pace of the Game

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    The Patriots made a habit late in the regular season of starting off slow and picking up pace in the second half.

    New England can't afford to do that against this Baltimore Ravens team.

    That's what happened with Rice's 83-yard touchdown run in 2009, getting the Patriots off balance from the first play of the game. Baltimore quickly jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

    Forced to play from behind against a highly talented defense, Brady was intercepted twice in the first quarter and three times total—marking one of his worst games in years. The game almost seemed over in a matter of minutes.

    But if the Pats can contain the Ravens offense and work their defense early, they can take some of the fight out of their opponents. Just look at last week's game against the Denver Broncos.

    Utilizing the no-huddle offense will play the New England's strengths against the Ravens' weaknesses, particularly the age of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Brady has a number of weapons who can work the middle of the field for quick drives that can wear down even a great defense like the Ravens.

Limit the Ravens' Field Position

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    Some of the Pats' most important defensive tools in this game might just be P Zoltan Mesko and PK Stephen Gostkowski.

    Pinning the Ravens deep in their own territory will put extra pressure on Joe Flacco. That's what Belichick wants; the Ravens aren't going to win this game on Flacco's drive management. Even Ed Reed agrees, commenting earlier this week on his performance against the Texans, saying "it just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense."

    Tom Zbikowski and Lardarius Webb aren't big weapons for the Ravens' return game, so Flacco could be playing with a long field all day.

    Limiting field position also means that the Patriots must avoid turning the ball over. That's what Baltimore's defense has thrived on for years. Reed's sore ankle could limit him in this game, but Brady and the entire Patriots offense have to be mindful of ball control from start to finish.

Restrain Ray Rice

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    This Patriots team can't really count on stopping Ray Rice altogether, but they don't have to completely shut him down to win this game.

    They just can't let him have a game like he did in 2009, rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns—including that 83-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage.

    The Patriots can allow him to get plenty of yards here and there, as long as they stop him from getting big plays and giving the Ravens any momentum. Last week, Denver gained 144 yards on the Pats, but were kept from making big scoring plays. The same winning formula applies against the Ravens.

    The defense will have to be a bit more honest against the pass with Flacco than they had to be with Tebow last week, but they can still stack the box to work on Flacco and Rice.

    Getting a quick start on offense will also help the team work against Baltimore's running game. If the Ravens fall behind in the first half, they'll have to try and rely much more on Flacco than Rice late in the game.

Protect Tom Brady

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    Tom Brady is clearly the franchise's most valuable asset, and the Patriots' offensive line must keep him off the ground to win this game. He's also had recent issues with his left shoulder and can't afford further injury heading into the Super Bowl should the Patriots win this week.

    This all comes down to stopping Terrell Suggs, who collected 14 sacks during the regular season. LT Matt Light will have to play big and don't be surprised to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Rob Gronkowski assisting in protection.

    With time to work in the pocket, Brady is practically unstoppable. If he's not getting continually hassled by the Ravens' front-seven he'll be able to pick apart their coverages and get the ball to his menagerie of receivers.

    Then expect him to do the same two weeks from now in Indianapolis.