In Week 3 of the regular season, the New England Patriots traveled to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Baltimore Ravens. As has been the case for the past few matchups between the two teams, that game came down to a Justin Tucker last-second field goal, giving Baltimore a 31-30 victory.
When the Patriots and Ravens square off Sunday for the AFC Championship, it will be nearly four months since the regular season meeting in Week 3. Since then, a lot has changed for both teams.
Here are five of the biggest differences for both the Ravens and Patriots heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
When the Patriots and Ravens met in Week 3, Rob Gronkowski and Lardarius Webb were healthy. That will not be the case Sunday, as both are out with injuries.
Webb, Baltimore’s top corner, was lost for the season in Week 6 against the Cowboys when he tore his ACL in his left knee. Gronkowski, the All-Pro tight end for the Patriots, broke his left arm during the Patriots playoff win last Sunday.
With the emergence of Corey Graham at cornerback over the last few months, Baltimore’s secondary play has been better than many expected after the injury to Webb. What Baltimore will miss on Saturday is Webb’s ability to cover Wes Welker at the slot receiver position.
Graham, who had two interceptions last week, will likely draw the assignment of shadowing Welker.
While losing Gronkowski is a blow to the New England offense, the Patriots still feature a number of other weapons, ensuring Tom Brady has plenty of options in the passing game. What will hurt the Patriots most about Gronkowski's absence is the red zone presence a healthy Gronk provides.
Look for New England to run a lot of screens inside the red zone to offset the loss of the big-bodied tight end.
On Sunday, the New England defense will face a much different looking offensive line then it faced in the regular season.
Back in September, Baltimore started Michael Oher at left guard, Ramon Harewood at left guard, Matt Birk at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Kelechi Osemele at right tackle.
This weekend the offensive line will look like this: Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, Osemele at left guard, Birk at center, Yanda at right guard and Oher at right tackle.
Over the past two weeks with this set of linemen, the Baltimore offense has averaged 459 total yards. Opening up holes in the run game and giving Flacco ample time to throw, the offensive line has been the backbone of Baltimore’s success in its first two playoff games.
Early on in the regular season, the Patriots were trying to find the right combination of players in their secondary. After giving up 382 passing yards to Joe Flacco in the regular season, the Patriots are hoping the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib will help slow down Flacco.
At 6'1, 205 lbs., Talib is a physical corner that specializes in man coverage. In the regular season, Torrey Smith torched the New England secondary for 127 yards and two touchdowns. On Sunday, look for Talib to be matched up against either Smith or Anquan Boldin, who logged four catches for 48 yards in the previous matchup.
The Patriots will hope the addition of Talib will help slow down the Ravens explosive down field passing attack.
Without Terrell Suggs in the first meeting, Baltimore managed to sack Brady two times. Since then, the Ravens pass rushed has picked up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
With the emergence of Paul Kruger as the Ravens best pass rusher and the return of Suggs from an Achilles injury, Baltimore has been generating a more consistent pass rush, as of late.
Last time when these two teams met, New England really didn’t have to worry about one player who could really get after a quarterback. Now, with both Suggs and Kruger bringing the heat off the edge, New England will have to keep a tight end or running back in the backfield to help keep the pressure off Brady, which will take away one of his receiving options.
Back in Week 3, New England struggled to mount any rushing attack against the Ravens, producing only 77 yards on 34 carries. Stevan Ridley gained only 37 yards on 13 carries while Danny Woodhead rushed for 34 yards on 15 carries and Brandon Bolden carried twice for four yards.
On the year, Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, giving the Patriots a presence in the run game that they have not had for some time. Because New England is no longer one-dimensional on offense, it will be harder for the Ravens to stop the Patriots in short-yardage situations.
In the past games between Baltimore and New England, the Ravens were not forced to put an extra defender in the box to help against the run. If the Patriots continue to run the ball effectively, the Ravens may be forced to adjust their defensive scheme.