The Baltimore Ravens have been here before.
They know what it feels like to be one play away—to be knocking on the door of immortality and have it slammed in their face.
It was close to exactly one year ago in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Baltimore took the field in a balmy Foxboro, Massachusetts, looking to topple the perennial favorite in the NFL, the New England Patriots.
And for much of that game, Baltimore did exactly that. Their defense held All-World Quarterback Tom Brady scoreless through the air, even forcing two interceptions from the Patriot elite. And despite allowing Brady to scamper for a 1-yard score early in the 4th, the Ravens found themselves in position to send the game to overtime on the leg of Billy Cundiff from 32 yards out.
The problem? Cundiff shanked his attempt, a kick he has by his own admission "kicked probably a thousand times in my career." The Patriots went on to win the game 23-20 and advance to Super Bowl XLVI.
Baltimore has its chance at redemption this Sunday at Gillette Stadium. A chance to vanquish the ghosts of seasons past and a chance to prolong the career of their emotional leader Ray Lewis.
What's becoming apparent, however, is not many outside of Baltimore suspect the Ravens can win this game.
It wasn't enough to push Belichick and Brady to the brink in last year's post-season. And all that a win earlier in the season (a 31-30 Week 3 victory in Baltimore) proved was that Justin Tucker could do what Billy Cundiff could not.
What did a gutsy victory against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time garner the Ravens? An installment as a 9 point underdog, in a Championship Game no less.
Even the Boston media casted an unbelievable level of doubt on the Ravens with this article from the Boston Herald.
But enough about the doubts. Baltimore can win this game. As we've seen in the past, blitzing can be counter-productive against the Pats. Success has come by dropping more defenders into coverage and disrupting Tom Brady's rhythm.
Baltimore will certainly have their hands full on the defensive front, but it's on offense where this game will be decided. Defensive schemes aside, the best way to defeat Tom Brady is to keep him off of the football field. With a weapon like Ray Rice, the Ravens can attempt to do so.
In their meeting earlier this year, Rice rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, coupled with a sturdy 5.1 yards per carry and 49 yards receiving. Last week against Denver, a team ranked 3rd in rushing defense, Rice was able to produce 131 yards on the ground.
If Baltimore feeds their workhorse early in the game, it should open things up for quarterback Joe Flacco who, to his own credit, is coming off of a career game in Denver last week.
A successful running attack will force New England to move their safeties up into the box early in the game, allowing for vulnerability in the secondary via play action either to Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin on the outside. The Patriots have also showed a vulnerability in tight end coverage, a fact the Ravens will surely look to exploit with Dennis Pitta.
Whatever the final score may be, one thing is clear. The Ravens certainly deserve more respect than they've been getting. But Sunday night at Foxboro, actions will speak far louder than words.
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