Ravens vs. Patriots: Complete Preview for 2013 AFC Conference Championship

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Ravens vs. Patriots: Complete Preview for 2013 AFC Conference Championship
Al Bello/Getty Images

The last thing Baltimore Ravens fans have wanted to do over the past 358 days or so is relive last year's heartbreaking, 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

Well, they are going to have to face the demons of missed field goals and dropped touchdowns this week, as those two teams will meet for the second-straight year for the chance to go to the Super Bowl.

The good news is that those horrors will be rekindled with the dangling prize of revenge.

That is a revenge few will expect them to exact, but then again, few expected them to make it this far after the Ravens lost four of their last five to end the season. However, the Ravens just got done throwing expectations to the side with their double-overtime win in Denver against the Broncos

The Patriots' march to this game was far more expected. They entered the AFC playoff bracket as the second seed after having won nine of their final 10 games to close out the regular season. The Patriots handled the Texans in the divisional round with relative ease, and this is a team peaking at the right time.  

This game is not just a rematch of last year's AFC championship game, but also of their Week 3 contest from this year. The Ravens took that one 31-30. Suffice to say a lot has transgressed on these two squads since—not the least of which is the Ravens switching offensive play callers. 

Let's tackle the vitals before getting into some of the key points of this game. 

 

Photo Credit: ESPN

When: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

Watch: CBS

Listen: Baltimore Ravens Radio Affiliates; New England Patriots Radio Affiliates

 

Key Storyline

Ray's Last Hurrah 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Unless this is the first moment you've checked in on the NFL playoffs, you've undoubtedly become aware that Ray Lewis will be retiring at the conclusion of this season.  

Lewis, who for my money and many others', is the greatest middle linebacker to ever grace a football field, is on a mission to end his career with a bang. In the win over the Broncos, Lewis finished with 17 total tackles. No other player in the game had more than 10. 

Lewis doesn't cover as much ground as he used to, but his instincts, knowledge and still excellent athletic ability allow him to be a huge factor. 

Lewis' savvy and experience will be especially vital in this game as he lines up his defensive counterparts against Tom Brady on the other side of the line. 

This storyline is not just about Ray's performances, though. Lewis has been the leader of the Ravens in almost every way imaginable over the course of his 17-year career. His teammates have seemingly rallied around him now, as this is a team united in their effort to give Lewis the champion's ending he deserves. 

 

Key Matchups

Patriots' Rush Defense vs. Ravens' Rush Offense

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

One of the big reasons Jim Caldwell now coordinates the Ravens' offense, and not Cam Cameron, is Cameron's odd penchant for forgetting about Ray Rice. 

You can rest assured that Rice will get his carries in this one. Last week he had his highest total of rushes this season with 30. He gained 131 yards and a touchdown with that workload. 

On paper, it would appear the best way to attack the Patriots is through the air. They finished 29th in passing yards allowed and ninth in rushing yards allowed. However, the Patriots' pass defense has made strides to close the season. 

After having allowed 300 or more passing yards over their first 10 games of the season, they have allowed a team to cross that barrier just once in the rest of the regular season. 

The Ravens cannot win by passing alone. They will need Rice, and he certainly helped them pull out the win in Week 3 as he carried the ball 20 times for 101 yards and a touchdown. 

If Rice is cranking out runs at five yards a pop in this one, the Patriots' defense will spend the game on its heels and vulnerable. 

 

Tom Brady vs. Ravens' Defense

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Trying to slow down Tom Brady is a must for any team facing the Patriots; it just doesn't happen very often. 

When these two met in Week 3, Brady went for 331 yards and a touchdown. He certainly isn't slowing down in the playoffs. Against the Texans, Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Brady likely won't have the luxury of throwing to Rob Gronkowski in this game, as NFL.com's Albert Breer let's us know:

Still, Brady has a wealth of weapons to throw to, and this passing offense is clicking. 

The Patriots aren't all about the pass either. They have rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of their last 11 games. The Ravens aren't going to be able to simply gear up to stop Brady. They will have to do this by playing great man coverage and not letting Brady get comfortable in the pocket. 

 

Prediction: Patriots 35, Ravens 27

I expect the Patriots' offense to display its marvelous balance, and get things rolling early. This will force the Ravens to play catch-up. While they proved they can do that successfully against the Broncos last week, the Pats will not allow any 70-yard bombs in the closing seconds of this one. 

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