AFC Championship 2013: Ray Rice vs. Stevan Ridley Key Matchup to Watch

Stephen SheehanCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2013

Ray Rice is a big reason why the Ravens are back in the AFC Championship.
Ray Rice is a big reason why the Ravens are back in the AFC Championship.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC Championship rematch between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots should be a battle for the ages, and Sunday's showdown could come down to one key matchup: Ray Rice vs. Stevan Ridley. 

Rice and Ridley won't be on the field at the same time, but you can bet both backs will have a keen eye on what the other is doing. 

And they won't be the only ones. 

Fans of both teams have been privileged to watch these two powerful backs tear up defenses in 2012. Rice finished the regular season with 1,143 yards and nine scores, while Ridley finished seventh in the league with 1,263 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns. 

While each back has his own running style, both Ridley and Rice know what it's like to enter the league as an underdog. 

Despite rushing for nearly 5,000 yards and scoring 50 total touchdowns at Rutgers, Rice fell to the second round of the 2008 draft because of concerns over his size and his 910 carries in college.

Five years later, the 5'8", 212-pound bowling ball has topped 1,100 yards in four straight seasons and has played in all 16 games in the process. 

Like Rice, Ridley also was undervalued on draft day. With only one productive season at LSU and just 4.65 speed, most people projected the 5'11", 220-pounder to be nothing more than a short-yardage back.

Boy were they wrong. 

After showing flashes as a rookie, Ridley earned the No. 1 spot in New England and took off running in 2012. His ability to pick up yards after contact and get to the edge when necessary has opened up the Patriots' offense. 

Few people, including myself, expected Ridley to have impressive speed, but the second-year back has proven he is definitely fast enough to break off the big run. What makes Ridley such a valuable commodity for New England is his ability to find the end zone. 

BenJarvus Green-Ellis usually handled goal-line duties during his Patriots career, but he isn't a physically imposing back. 

At 220 pounds, Ridley has the power to break through arm tackles and pick up tough yards. 

The future Pro Bowler will have to hold onto the football against the Ravens—something he's had trouble with at the NFL level—but he'll definitely be key in helping the Patriots overcome the loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski. 

Keeping the Ravens defense honest by establishing the run will be key for New England, and Ridley should be the man to do it. 

For the Ravens, it's indisputable: Feed Ray Rice the ball and you win. 

Including the 2013 playoffs, Baltimore is 34-11 when Rice receives at least 20 touches per game. 

When he doesn't? 13-12. 

That's an astounding mark, but for some unknown reason the Ravens don't seem to follow the trend. 

However, after watching Rice go off for 131 yards on 30 carries against the Denver Broncos, Baltimore has to make a concerted effort to get Rice the ball against the Patriots. 

New England does a great job of stopping the run, but Baltimore can't afford to be one-dimensional on Sunday. Rice has a history of success against the Patriots, averaging 97.3 rushing yards per game in three outings against New England. 

It'll be tough to get much going against the trio of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, but Baltimore can't afford to abandon the run too early. 

After all, the numbers speak for themselves.