Who to keep an eye on when the Ravens take on the Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Last year, the Ravens lost thanks to Patriots defender Sterling Moore knocking a sure-thing touchdown out of the hands of Ravens receiver Lee Evans and Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missing a game-ending field goal that would have sent things into overtime and, perhaps, to a different ending.
It won't be any easier for the Ravens to take on the Patriots this time around; however, this will be their third meeting in two years, so it's safe to say both teams are very well-acquainted with one another. Though it takes a team to win or lose games, here are three Ravens to watch on Sunday. How they fare will likely have a great deal of influence on the game's outcome.
QB Joe Flacco
This year, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been handed more responsibility than ever, having to carry his team while his defense struggled, mainly because of numerous injuries to starters. Though Flacco again had his issues with inconsistency through the 2012 season, the switch in offensive coordinator from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell has produced better, more stable results.
In the playoffs, in particular, Flacco has been excellent. Though his completion percentage has been lower than his regular-season average (52.6 compared to 59.7), he's thrown for a combined 613 yards over the course of the two postseason wins, and scored five touchdowns with a lone fumble his only turnover.
He's presided over both the dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts as well as a high-pressure, double-overtime shootout in Baltimore's defeat of the Denver Broncos. He's clearly more than capable of matching wits with his Patriots counterpart, Tom Brady. In fact, when the two men faced off earlier this season as well as in last year's AFC championship, he outplayed him both times.
Though the run game has gotten more attention with Caldwell calling the plays, the way for the Ravens to defeat the Patriots this week will still be in the air. Though Flacco has been sharp in the postseason, he's had his bad games this season, too. He'll need to stay on his game and keep the pendulum from swinging back on Sunday.
WR Anquan Boldin
One way for Flacco to have a good game is for his receivers to give the necessary help. Nobody has come through in the clutch as much for him this season as Anquan Boldin.
Boldin has 921 regular-season receiving yards, but more importantly, 216 yards and a touchdown in the postseason. His second-half performances over the last two weeks played a significant part in why the Ravens have had such success in the playoffs.
Boldin had no catches on two targets in the first half of the Wild Card Game against the Colts, but then burst out in the second half, with five total catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. The situation was similar against the Broncos last week. He had only 24 yards on three first-half catches but then ended the day with three more catches and 71 yards, making plays at the exact time they were needed.
While Torrey Smith is the scoring threat and tight end Dennis Pitta can smoothly move the chains in his own right, the physical Boldin is Baltimore's most versatile receiving weapon. With Smith likely drawing the attention of Patriots standout cornerback Aqib Talib, Boldin is likely to be shadowed by Kyle Arrington, who has given up five touchdowns this year, pulled down no interceptions and rewarded opposing quarterbacks with a 119.9 rating when throwing his way.
It's a mismatch, to be certain, and one that Flacco and the Ravens need to game-plan for and exploit. In many ways, Flacco is only as good as his receivers, but the opportunity is clearly present for Boldin to have a big game and help his team earn its trip to the Super Bowl. He just needs to take it.
LB Ray Lewis
It wouldn't be entirely off base to say that linebacker Ray Lewis is the ultimate muse for his team's playoff run, with the 17-year veteran set to retire once this postseason journey ends. However, it's more than just the fact that this could be Lewis' last game that he's a Raven to watch on Sunday.
Lewis returned to action in the Wild Card Game against the Colts after missing the final 10 weeks of the regular season after tearing his triceps against the Dallas Cowboys. Prior to his injury, Lewis was a liability against the run as well as in coverage, and he was certainly tested by the Colts and Broncos offenses in the two postseason games.
All told, Lewis performed well. He was the team's leading tackler in both contests, with 30 total. However, both Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning targeted him heavily in the passing game, with nine thrown his way by the former (with six receptions) and eight by the latter (with all eight caught). There's no doubt that Tom Brady will be looking in Lewis' direction numerous times on Sunday.
The Patriots are yet again a team rife with offensive weapons, both in the passing and running games. Lewis will be tasked with stopping running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley on the ground and in the air, as well as handling coverage duties against the likes of tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Considering his age, his time away and the nature of his injury, Lewis has been impressive in the postseason thus far. He'll need to continue that kind of production on Sunday, however, lest the Patriots offense gets the better of Baltimore's defense.