AFC Championship Game 2013: Key Players, Injuries and Team vs Team Analysis
For the first time in 25 years, it's time for a grudge match of sorts in the AFC Championship game, as for the second consecutive season the Baltimore Ravens will travel to face the New England Patriots with a trip to Super Bowl XLVII on the line.
A year ago, the New England Patriots survived a 23-20 thriller when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal, but earlier this season it was a different story, with the Ravens downing the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore.
This week's contest promises to be another closely contested affair, and as we gear up for what should be an exciting game here's a look at some key players, significant injuries, and how the two teams match up.
Key Player: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
It may seem like a cop-out to call a quarterback one of the key players in a playoff game, but in the case of the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco that's very much the case.
Baltimore linebacker Brandon Ayanbedejo may think that the New England Patriots offense is a "gimmick", but that gimmick offense racked up nearly 35 points a game in the regular season, and while that places a great deal of pressure on the Ravens defense, it also puts a considerable amount on the offense to move the football.
Much of that pressure will fall squarely on the shoulders of Flacco, who has been erratic at times this season, especially on the road.
Luckily for the Ravens, Flacco is coming off one of his best games of the season in Baltimore's win over the Denver Broncos, and Flacco's quarterback rating of 120 leads all signal-callers in the postseason.
Key Player: Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots
One of the keys to a Ravens victory will be getting running back Ray Rice going, as not only does Rice and the running game open things up offensively for the Ravens but if Baltimore can move the ball on the ground they can control time of possession and keep the ball out of Tom Brady's hand.
However, while the New England Patriots aren't exactly a defensive juggernaut, the team was fairly stout against the run in 2012, ranking ninth in the NFL at just under 102 yards a game.
The key to that run defense is defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, whose 48 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles don't accurately reflect the disruptive force that the ninth year pro can be on the interior of the defensive line.
If the Ravens' 11th-ranked rushing attack is going to be a factor in this game then that means making sure that Wilfork isn't one, as if he spends all day in the Baltimore backfield Rice is going to be in trouble.
The Baltimore Ravens were relatively lucky in their matchup with the Broncos, coming out of the game just about as healthy as they were going in.
However, reserve running back Bernard Pierce did not return to the game after tweaking his knee in the third quarter, and were he to miss the game that would mean a heavier workload for Ray Rice.
The Ravens are also dealing with something of a patchwork offensive line, although the shuffling that took place last week, including shifting tackle Michael Oher to the right side, seemed to actually stabilize the line somewhat.
The Patriots were not so fortunate in their tilt with the Houston Texans.
Running back Danny Woodhead left the game early with a thumb injury and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones hurt his ankle, but by far the biggest injury suffered in Sunday's win was that of star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski was forced from the game in the first quarter after appearing to re-injure his previously broken forearm, and sure enough Marc Sessler of NFL.com reports that the third-year pro re-fractured the bone and will require season-ending surgery.
Ravens Offense vs. Patriots Defense
Even if the Baltimore Ravens put forth one of their best defensive efforts of the season the fact is that the offense is going to have to follow suit.
Simply put, if you're going to beat the New England Patriots you have to score points. Lots of points.
The Ravens were able to do that earlier this year in Baltimore, riding 382 passing yards from Joe Flacco, 150 total yards from Ray Rice, and two touchdown catches by wide receiver Torrey Smith to victory.
Even then, they won by all of one point.
Establish the running game early with Rice, and use that to set up play action down the field that will allow Flacco to take advantage of New England's 29th-ranked pass defense.
For the Patriots defense it will all start with putting the clamps on Rice, something the Denver Broncos struggled with, as well as limiting the long pass plays that were ultimately the Broncos undoing.
Unfortunately the potential loss of Jones puts a cramp in a a pass rush that was middle of the pack in harassing quarterbacks in 2012, an area in which the Patriots need to make a dent lest Flacco pick apart that porous secondary.
Ravens Defense vs. Patriots Offense
Buckle up Baltimore, because the ride's about to get bumpy.
That "gimmick" offense that the New England Patriots employ led the NFL in both yardage and points per game in 2012, and once quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots get into a rhythm offensively and start firing off no-huddle snaps the team is a buzzsaw, Gronkowski or no Gronkowski.
It's going to be a tall order for a team that, much like New England, was average in pressuring the quarterback this season, but the Ravens have to disrupt that rhythm on offense, even if it means taking some chances defensively.
Run the risk of getting torched in single coverage or run the risk of Tom Brady sitting in the pocket and picking you to shreds. Pick your poison.
For the Patriots, the key is as simple as it is boring.
Play your game. Get things going. Settle back into the same groove that has helped you shred defenses all season long and just start firing away.
If New England can accomplish that they're going to be very tough to beat.