The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are two evenly matched teams—their last two tilts have been decided by four points total. The AFC Championship Game will come down to who makes the big plays in crucial situations. More often than not big plays come from an unlikely source.
It is to this end that I give you my X-factors for the Patriots vs. Ravens game.
Patriots Offensive X-Factor: Brandon Lloyd
The prevailing wisdom on stopping the Patriots is to force them to throw deep. Since the Patriots lack anyone with explosive speed, their opponents must attempt to take away the middle of the field from them.
There are two ways to go about this: having your defensive backs play press coverage or sitting back in the middle of the field playing zone. Regardless, the best way to beat this defense is to loosen it up by going deep.
To combat this strategy against the Houston Texans, the Patriots threw deep to Wes Welker, Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski. While the two remaining healthy players from that trio might be able to run some deep routes against Baltimore, the main deep threat on the Patriots is Brandon Lloyd. If Lloyd can get deep at least once, it will open up the field and allow the Patriots to run their full complement of plays.
With the Ravens defense stretched deep, defenders will have trouble covering the middle of the field. If that happens the Patriots score 40-plus.
Ravens Offensive X-Factor: Torrey Smith
The Denver Broncos defensive scheme revolved around having one of the best corners in the league single cover the other team’s best receiver and shut him down. Well, this defensive game plan when out the window when Torrey Smith torched Champ Bailey to the tune of three receptions for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
The Patriots will be under no such illusion. However, if they dedicate too much safety help to stop Smith they will leave Ray Rice (Baltimore’s best offensive player) free to run wild.
There will be a point in the game when the Patriots bring the safeties up in the box to stop Rice. The Ravens will counter with play-action, leaving Smith one on one with Aqib Talib. If Torrey Smith can make plays in these situations, expect it to be a long day for the Patriots defense.
Patriots Defensive X-Factor: Brandon Spikes
Ray Rice is the Ravens best offensive player. If the Patriots are unable to stop him, they will lose—and by a considerable margin.
Brandon Spikes is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the league, and it will be his main responsibility to stop Rice. If Spikes is able to shoot gaps and limit Rice like he did Houston's Arian Foster in the first half, it will allow the Patriots to keep their safeties back. This means, that if Spikes can shut down Rice, the safeties will be in position to help out their corners on Torrey Smith.
In this scenario, both Smith and Rice would be non-factors, which would render the Raven’s offense useless.
Ravens Defensive X-Factor: Ma’ake Kemoeatu
This year the Patriots are known for their frenetic offense, running more plays than any team at 73.9 a game (via teamrankings.com). By contrast, Baltimore only runs 65.1 per game.
By running plays at this pace, the Patriots offense exhausts opposing defenses by preventing them from substituting. Of all the players on defense, the most easily fatigable are the enormous defensive lineman.
And no lineman is more important to a team’s run defense than the nose tackle. If the Patriots are able to tire out Kemoeatu, they should be able to impose their will on the Ravens and score easily. If Ma’ake can stand his ground, the Patriots will have trouble moving the ball consistently.