The Baltimore Ravens may come into the AFC Championship game as the No. 4 seed, but they haven't been playing like a team that is about to play its third game of the postseason.
And the New England Patriots know they have their work cut out for them.
In some ways—despite the fact that Mile High is their personal House of Horrors—the Patriots would probably have rather played top-seeded Denver in the conference championship. They know the Ravens play them hard, maybe harder than any other team in the AFC. And they know the Ravens are out for blood after last year's missed field goal kept them from tying the AFC Championship in the game's waning seconds.
But just because the Ravens are a tough opponent doesn't mean New England is definitely going down.
Here are the keys to Sunday's game for each side.
Patriots: Avoid Early Miscues
New England may be a cerebral team, and it may overemphasize preparation above all else, but it is also a team that lives and dies by momentum. When the Patriots let the other team start off strong, they have a hard time coming back, and when they start out strong, they are excellent at setting the tone.
Last week, when New England allowed a 94-yard kickoff return to Danieal Manning to begin the game, some Patriots fans gulped and prepared for the worst. It brought to mind the other instances in which the Patriots blew it right out of the gate. Think back, for instance, to last year's Super Bowl, and to Tom Brady's intentional grounding call on the first drive.
That buried New England, right then and there.
But when the Patriots get out to a hot start—like they did against Denver in last year's playoffs, or like they did against Houston earlier in this regular season—they keep on rolling and can't be caught.
If the Texans had a better, more dynamic offense, they would have made New England pay for that early gaffe. The Ravens are the kind of team that will make them pay, so this team needs to be as close to perfection as possible on Sunday.
In the Wild Card round of the playoffs against Indianapolis, the Ravens were excellent defensively, holding Andrew Luck & Co. to just three field goals and rolling to a 24-9 win. In the divisional round against Denver, they were less effective defensively—but they were effective when it counted.
Baltimore's D came up with some key stops in both overtime periods, and it came up with a huge interception that led to the game-winning field goal. Let's not kid ourselves—some lucky bounces played into the outcome of Saturday's game—but for the most part, Joe Flacco's offense got the job done, and defense kept Baltimore in it in crunch time.
New England's league-leading offense isn't going to be easy to contend with. When Tom Brady gets going, he is very difficult to stop, and even without tight end Rob Gronkowski, he has so many weapons at his disposal that defensive miscues are not an option.
Trading touchdowns isn't going to work this week like it did in Denver. If you can't keep Tom Brady out of the end zone, you're in trouble. Defense is going to be the name of the game for the Ravens this weekend.
Patriots: Fix the Special Teams Issues
Take Danieal Manning out of the equation last Sunday, and you have a totally different football game. He gained 216 yards on kickoff returns alone, which was the third most ever in a postseason game, according to ESPN.com—and clearly points to some deficiencies on New England's side.
Virtually the only reason the Texans were able to hang in there against New England was because of their return work and the Patriots simply cannot afford to have another disastrous performance like that. Houston got 17 points off drives that started with those monster kickoff returns, and there's no excuse for that.
During the regular season, special teams weren't an issue for the Patriots. They allowed 20.7 yards per kickoff return, the third-lowest mark in the league. Obviously, there was some kind of breakdown on Sunday that needs to be fixed ASAP before the Ravens hit New England where it hurts.
Ravens: Win It For Ray
Are the Baltimore Ravens really this year's team of destiny?
They have certainly shown more character than any other team this postseason. It took some serious mental fortitude to do what they did in Denver over the weekend, and the confidence that this team gleaned from that huge win is going to be very dangerous for their opponents going forward.
Baltimore was not a good team at the tail end of the 2012 season. It lost four of five games down the stretch, but it was like as soon as Ray Lewis announced his retirement, the composure of this team changed entirely. They found a reason to win, and so far it's working.
Of course, there is the danger of the Ravens getting a bit too wrapped up in the emotional aspect of this playoff run and falling victim to the feelings against New England. It's a delicate balance; Baltimore needs to feel it, but it can't feel it too much.
If there is one thing we learned on Saturday, it is that this team doesn't give up—not when it is down by a touchdown with two quarters left, not when it is down by a touchdown with 30 seconds left. Knowing they can pull out a win when all the odds are stacked against them is a substantial benefit, and if they utilize that emotion properly, it could be their X-factor.
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