For the second year in a row, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Last year, the Ravens had a chance to take the lead with under a minute remaining, but Lee Evans dropped a sure touchdown pass. Baltimore was then unable to send the game into overtime when Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal.
The team will look to avenge that loss and make its first trip to the Super Bowl since the 2000 season.
Here is everything you need to know about the upcoming battle between the two best teams in the AFC.
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
When: January 20 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL.com
Spread (via Vegas Insider): Patriots -9
Injuries as of Jan. 16 (via USA Today):
RB Danny Woodhead (Thumb) Probable
DE Chandler Jones (Ankle) Questionable
OT Markus Zusevics (Illness) Questionable
TE Rob Gronkowski (Arm) Out
T Jah Reid (Toe) Out
What They're Saying
New England gets a lot of jokes about the poor defense, but the unit actually finished ninth in the NFL in points allowed. A big reason for that is the recent play of Devin McCourty at safety, according to Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe:
McCourty is main reason why the Patriots are better on defense. No matter how many times Phil Talib, I mean Simms, tells you otherwise— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) January 16, 2013
The former cornerback moved to safety this season and has been doing very well in his new position.
As for the Ravens, the postseason has been focused on Ray Lewis, but Joe Flacco has a lot on the line in this game. When Sports Illustrated put the quarterback on its cover (h/t @Ravens), it said everything necessary to describe this situation:
It read, "Dear Joe, Last weekend you took down Peyton. On Sunday you get Brady—and the chance once and for all, to rewrite your legacy."
Flacco has not gotten much respect as a top-level quarterback, even though he has a 7-4 postseason record and has at least one postseason win in every year of his career.
However, a trip to the Super Bowl would go a long way toward changing that narrative.
Players to Watch
While it seems very obvious to look for an elite quarterback on the football field, Tom Brady is looking to reach historic levels with a win on Sunday.
The quarterback is looking to reach his sixth Super Bowl, which would put him one ahead of John Elway for the most all time for a quarterback. A win in that game would tie him for the most Super Bowl wins with four.
Combine that with his two MVP awards and a bunch of NFL records, and we might be witnessing the best quarterback ever to play the game.
Of course, he should also have learned by this point not to get ahead of himself and focus on the Ravens first.
Speaking of one of the best players ever to step on a football field, Ray Lewis is making at least one more stop on his retirement tour this week.
The veteran linebacker returned from a triceps injury that kept him out for most of the season and has been outstanding in the playoffs so far. In two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, Lewis has 30 total tackles.
New England is much more reliant on the running game than it has been in past years. This plays right into the linebacker's strength as someone who is a great tackler in the middle of the field.
If Lewis can shut down the rushing attack, it will make things much harder on Brady and the rest of the offense.
Key Matchup: WR Torrey Smith vs. CB Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib came over to the Patriots from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a trade during the season, and the former first-round pick has been solid with his new team.
The cornerback will have a tough task on Sunday as he will likely be asked to cover Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. The speedster is coming off a huge game against the Broncos when he finished with 98 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
When he faced New England in Week 3, Smith had 127 yards and two touchdowns in an emotional victory.
Talib must be able to stay with the receiver and prevent him from getting open on deep routes. If he is able to make big plays, the Ravens offense will have a big day.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Ravens 35
Baltimore's defense has the great reputation, but it is the offense that has been carrying this team throughout the season. The Patriots have a tendency to give up big plays through the air, and that should help the Ravens put up a lot of points.
On the other hand, the defense will struggle to even slow down Brady and the Patriots offense. Stevan Ridley and recently Shane Vereen have been very impressive on the ground, and the extra attention frees up space for Wes Welker and the receivers.
The Ravens know how to keep this game close, but New England has more experience in these big games and will be able to come out victorious once again.
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