Sunday's AFC Championship Game rematch in New England hinges on one battle: The quarterback duel between Tom Brady and Joe Flacco.
Brady and Flacco will meet for the third time in a year. It will be the second time they will play the AFC Championship on a Sunday evening inside Gillette Stadium.
But while the obvious choice for who will win the battle would seem to be Brady, it's likely to be the wrong one.
The often-criticized Flacco has outplayed the three-time Super Bowl champion twice since last January. The last time the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots met in Week 3, he played superbly at home and his team emerged with a narrow victory, 31-30.
Before then, Flacco outperformed Brady in the 2012 AFC Championship Game in Foxborough, but his team lost by a narrow 23-20 margin because of one key drop in the end zone by wide receiver Lee Evans (a late play that would have given Baltimore a four-point lead with seconds left).
Therefore this weekend's high-stakes matchup will be determined by the two gunslingers.
Whichever signal-caller can be most effective this weekend will lead his team to Super Bowl XLVII. Both defenses obviously play a key role in that, but in the last two matchups, it's been Brady, not Flacco who has struggled and looked far from elite.
Over the last two meetings, Flacco has significantly outplayed Brady from a statistical standpoint, averaging 344 passing yards in those two games, compared to Brady's 287. And while both have tossed two interceptions over the course of their last two meetings, Flacco has five passing touchdowns (six if Evans holds onto the ball) to Brady's one.
Flacco has also made more plays downfield than Brady, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt over their last two matchups, compared to Brady's 7.4 YPA.
Brady defenders will point to the Ravens' stout defense and the Patriots' porous D as to the reason why Flacco has gotten the better of the former Super Bowl MVP in recent meetings. But either way, Brady, who is considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, must figure out a way to become more of a threat to Baltimore's defense.
Although the 13-year veteran threw for 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns more than Flacco during the regular season, he'll have to replicate that overall performance in the postseason against the playoffs' leading passer.
No quarterback this postseason has been more lethal through the air than Flacco, who has thrown for 633 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions in two playoff wins. His 120 passer rating is also the best among all quarterbacks in the postseason.
For Baltimore, Sunday's game hinges on the play of Flacco, a five-year veteran with seven playoff wins to his name already. For New England, the hope for a second straight Super Bowl appearance rests on the shoulders of the quarterback with the most wins in playoff history, Brady. While Flacco has never led his team to a Super Bowl, the trend points to him outplaying Brady once again Sunday, which bodes well for the Ravens.
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