If you were looking for an AFC Championship Game that would provide as many stories before the game as it would after the final score, it is hard to imagine one better than the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots locking horns for the second straight season.
Sure, the intrigue of another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning matchup would have provided CBS with record ratings. But instead we are "stuck" with Brady going up against someone he will actually have to plan for, Ray Lewis.
There are specific moments that will define a player and a franchise forever. This battle between the Ravens and Patriots is one of those moments. As the days slowly go by, and we count the hours to kickoff, here are the questions both teams have to answer in order to play in Super Bowl XLVII.
Will the Big Plays Be There Again?
The reason the Ravens were able to stay in the game early against Denver was because of big plays. Torrey Smith had a field day against Champ Bailey, who still has no idea where the Ravens wide receiver is at.
Four of the Ravens' five touchdowns against the Broncos came on plays that were at least 32 yards, including the 39-yard interception return for a touchdown. The other touchdown was a one-yard run by Ray Rice that was set up by his 32-yard run three plays earlier.
In a game against a team like the Patriots, who can put up a lot of points in a hurry, the Ravens will have to take chances down the field. But taking chances down the field and having them work out are two different things entirely.
It's hard to envision the Patriots making as many mental mistakes as the Broncos did in that loss last week.
Do the Ravens Have Enough Defense to Stop the Patriots?
Which Team Has Bigger Question Marks Entering the AFC Championship Game?
Even though we still like to think that the foundation of the Ravens is on defense, they have clearly turned into a team that needs to win with their offense.
The defense is old and not nearly as physically imposing as it once was. They have given up 817 yards in their first two playoff games. They have forced five turnovers, though.
Unlike Manning, Brady is not going to scramble and make an idiotic throw back across his body that can be picked off.
They are going to have to create stops against this offense just to get off the field and have enough energy in the fourth quarter to keep up with the Patriots' relentless pace. Based on what we have seen in these playoffs, it is doubtful.
But we thought the same thing last year when these two teams met, and the Ravens were a botched field goal away from winning.
New England Patriots
How Big Is the Loss of Rob Gronkowski?
All the excitement about seeing the Patriots back at full strength for the first time in months lasted about five minutes, as star tight end Rob Gronkowski went down after re-breaking his forearm.
Despite the presence that Gronkowski has in the offense, the Patriots have shown no signs that they suffer on offense when he isn't able to play. They put up 41 points and 457 yards against Houston.
Going back to the regular season, in the five games that Gronkowski didn't play, the Patriots averaged 34.6 points per game.
Brady is so good at distributing the ball, not to mention the fact that the Patriots also have Aaron Hernandez at tight end, that they can stomach the loss of a player as talented as Gronkowski without suffering a significant drop in production.
How Have the Patriots Changed Since the Week 3 Loss at Baltimore?
Remember, the Ravens have already defeated the Patriots this season. It was at the start of the season, so whether you can really take too much away from that performance is debatable.
The Patriots did hold a 13-0 lead after the first quarter before letting a late lead slip away and losing 31-30.
Neither team has really changed all that much since that game, at least in terms of personnel. Gronkowski did play, but he was barely a factor with just two catches for 21 yards.
They have gotten better at defending the pass in the time since that game. They do give up a lot of yards through the air, which they always seem to do, but they forced the most turnovers (41) in the AFC.
Joe Flacco can be mistake prone at times, though he has been clean this postseason with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Patriots have to force turnovers in order to be successful on defense.