Raise your hand if you saw that coming.
These are two of the best teams not just in the AFC—their showdown in the AFC Championship Game in 2011 is a testament to that—but also in the NFL, with both teams considered favorites to make it back to the big game.
The Patriots are going to have to come well-prepared, and here's a rough outline of how they could attack the Ravens in the rematch.
Move The Line of Scrimmage with the Running Game
For the past half-decade or longer, the Patriots have been considered one of the league's most pass-oriented offenses. In the first two weeks of the season, though, the Patriots have experimented with a more balanced approach on offense.
It worked well against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, but only because running back Stevan Ridley ran out of his mind; the Patriots didn't create great holes for him in the running game, and most of the time he was doing the hard work, making guys miss and breaking tackles at the line.
He was unable to replicate that performance against the Cardinals, primarily because the Patriots weren't getting any push off the line of scrimmage.
Take this first-down run, for example. With Brady under center, the Patriots were lined up with 11 personnel—one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers.
The running play was designed to go to the left, with the counter play creating a wall of blocks paving the way for Ridley.
One problem: None of the offensive linemen were able to move their defenders, thus collapsing the wall in front of Ridley, who was brought down for a one-yard gain.
Ben Muth of Football Outsiders explained their struggles in a recent post:
The biggest problem by far for New England's running game was their inability to knock anyone off the ball. It isn't that they gave up a lot of penetration, because, with the exception of a couple memorable third-down failures, they didn't. It's just that they weren't moving any defenders off their spots.
...Despite a 2-on-1 advantage, the Patriots were unable to budge either [Cardinals defensive tackles Calais] Campbell or [Darnell] Dockett for most of the game. Left guard Logan Mankins in particular struggled to generate any type of movement.
This play was a prime example of that very thing.
Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder double-team Campbell, but they were unable to get him off the line of scrimmage.
That allowed linebacker Daryl Washington to fly in and jam up the hole where the running play was supposed to go.
Campbell and Dockett are two of the better five-technique defensive ends in the game, and this was the second example of Dockett being a rare game-changer at the position after he did the same to the Seattle Seahawks.
"Dockett...caused a lot of problems," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said last week (per Seahawks.com) during his weekly Monday press conference. "He just was very aggressive and he was hard to handle. He was really the big factor in messing things up quite a bit."
The Ravens have a similar defensive tackle in All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata. They might have a hard time knocking him off the ball, but former Patriots linebacker and ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi says there's a way to do it:
There isn't a player along the offensive line, even Logan Mankins, who can block Haloti Ngata right now on a consistent basis one-on-one. ...So you attack Ngata with angles. Let him come up the field a little bit, and then have tight end Rob Gronkowski attack him from the Y off position, the U position—inside run, inside trap, the wham block, something like that. When you have a stud defensive lineman that's like that, who is tough to block one-on-one and even on the backside will escape that cut block, you have to attack him with angles.
The Patriots tried this unsuccessfully against the Cardinals, so they'll have to execute better if they want to create any openings in the running game.
Brady has not played well against the Ravens in recent years, so the Patriots will likely have to rely on the running game to make things manageable and keep the Ravens defense honest. The last thing the Patriots want against this defense is to become one-dimensional.
Stop the Run From Cover 2
When a defense comes out in the Cover 2, they are preparing for the pass and inviting the run. Thus, the ability to stop the run from Cover 2 could be big against a Ravens offense that is becoming much more dynamic.
The Patriots did this successfully against the Tennessee Titans, but as we've learned in recent years, Chris Johnson is no Ray Rice.
On an early 3rd-and-2 from the Patriots 38-yard line, the Titans lined up with quarterback Jake Locker under center and running back Chris Johnson behind him. Fielding the 11 personnel package, the Titans ran the ball right up the middle of the Patriots defense, which was in the 4-2-5 nickel package.
It looks like this is a well-blocked run, but the Patriots have athletic linebackers in Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower, and they are completely free in the middle of the field.
The Titans fullback gets out in front for a lead block, but Mayo is able to avoid it and comes free on Johnson, stopping the run short of the marker.
This will be key on Sunday for the Patriots, as they will not only be asked to stop Ray Rice, but also to mitigate the damage from wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.
But against a tough running team like the Ravens, the Patriots may not have as much success executing that game plan as they did against the Titans. If they are struggling against the run, they'll have to devote more attention, especially at the safety position, to stopping it.
Many will remember the 83-yard touchdown run that opened the 2009 playoff game and determine that Ray Rice has had his way with the Patriots. Over the past two games, though, the Patriots have had relative success not just containing him, but shutting him down.
And sure enough, that's even come in the form of Cover 2.
This first-quarter run only gained two yards, and helped the Patriots defense hold the Ravens to a field goal on their first drive.
The Patriots put a lot of pressure on the front seven by devoting their safeties to deep coverage.
The front seven responded by sucking up the blocks, freeing who else but Mayo to float across the second level and find the ball carrier at the hole.
The Patriots' relative success defending the run from a Cover 2 shell will be tested once again by the Ravens offense.
Something tells me the Patriots don't need a whole lot of my advice on how to stop Ray Rice. He has gained more than 10 yards on just three plays in the past two games, two of which were receptions.
If the Ravens are going to try to get him going in the passing game, the Patriots may have to put a spy on him.
One more caveat: The fact that the Ravens have been running a lot of no-huddle indicates that the Patriots may be forced into some vanilla defensive looks from time to time.
One of those vanilla looks? Cover 2.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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