The AFC Championship Game will be a rematch of a regular season matchup, but not the one many people expected to see. The inspired Baltimore Ravens have pushed their way to this point with wins over the Indianapolis Colts and the top-seeded Denver Broncos.
No one is surprised the New England Patriots are here, though.
They won nine of their last 10 regular season games, and that included a 42-14 rout over the Houston Texans. Seeing them defeat the Texans again was no shock.
The Ravens and Patriots clashed in Week 3 of the regular season. We can only hope their playoff matchup is as exciting as that game was.
Baltimore won 31-30 behind 381 passing yards and three touchdowns from Joe Flacco. Ray Rice also rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown in the win.
That game took place nearly four months ago, but the Ravens will draw from the positive reference. Here is a look at the specifics and a deeper analysis of the matchup.
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. ET
There are several Ravens listed with injuries, but as of now, CBS Sports lists them all as probable.
Rob Gronkowski looked to re-aggravate his arm injury in the first half against the Texans. He didn't return to the lineup, but the Pats didn't need him:
NFL (@nfl) January 13, 2013
This tweet from Pro Football Talk confirms the Pats will have to get it done without Gronk for the rest of the postseason:
Per source, Rob Gronkowski is done for the rest of the postseason.Re-injured forearm and needs another surgery.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 14, 2013
Danny Woodhead also left with an injury, but the depth at running back made the loss inconsequential.
What Ravens Must Do to Win
Stay Committed to the Run Game
The Ravens have a solid aerial attack with Flacco throwing to Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, but they must maintain balance.
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell did a good job creating a play-calling balance against the Broncos—even though he became a little predictable on first downs.
The 30 rushing attempts from Ray Rice kept the defense honest.
Including the two Ravens' playoff games, the team is 6-1 when Rice gets at least 20 carries; they are only 6-5 when he doesn't.
Stay Away From Silly Penalties
This means you, Bernard Pollard.
The Ravens' safety has made his name with his physicality, but he must keep his emotions in check. The potentially catastrophic personal fouls he is assessed will kill his team against the Patriots.
Per NFLPenalties.com, no team has been penalized for personal fouls more than the Ravens. The team has lost a league-high 162 yards to that penalty alone. Pollard has two such penalties, which is the most on the team.
Tom Brady and Co. are effective enough on their own; the Ravens can't afford to give up free yardage.
What Patriots Must Do to Win
Pound the Ravens Front Seven on the Ground
The best thing about the Patriots' offense this season is the balance. New England was fourth in the NFL in passing, but it was also seventh in the league in rushing.
The Ravens' defense still hasn't shown the ability to stop the run consistently. They did make some key stops against the Broncos on Saturday, but Denver still ran for 125 yards in a losing effort.
That is consistent with what the Ravens did during the regular season. They were ranked 20th in the NFL against the run with 122.8 yards allowed per game.
Baltimore's defense was tired in the second half against the Broncos, but they dug deep. The Pats will happily take the same scenario, though.
Don't Get Beat Deep
Thanks to Vince Wilfork, the Pats' run defense is generally solid, but the pass defense hasn't been as good.
They are ranked just 29th against the pass this season. Some of that is due to leading most games late; thus teams are in pass-only mode, and the Pats are allowing short throws.
However, the secondary and the coverage skills of the Pats' linebackers are the weakest aspect of their defense. They must be aware of the Ravens' ability to hurt teams deep.
Champ Bailey was burnt by Smith so often on Saturday that he is probably still scraping the char off his face mask. New England can't allow that to be a major aspect of the Ravens' attack.
Who wins the AFC Championship game?
With Wilfork leading a run-stuffing defensive line, the Patriots should be able to commit safeties to support the corners on deep routes.
I'd love to see Ray Lewis retire with a Super Bowl experience, and I'm certainly more of a believer that the Ravens can make that a reality now, but the Pats' offense will score points.
In addition to that, their ability to control the run will make it difficult for the Ravens to employ the play-action pass and keep up with Pats' scoring pace.
The Patriots will win 34-24 and punch their ticket to Super Bowl XLVII.
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