For the second consecutive year, the Baltimore Ravens will meet the New England Patriots for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Last year's game ended with a 23-20 Ravens loss thanks to a batted-down touchdown to Lee Evans and a missed field goal by Billy Cundiff.
Baltimore's emotions are running even higher than last year—there's revenge to contend with, after all, as well as the added pressure of trying to take Ray Lewis to his final Super Bowl before his expected retirement—and while that emotion has helped the team make it to this game, it's not the only reason the Ravens been playing well.
Nor is it enough to dispatch the Patriots this week.
To defeat the dangerous Patriots—who are averaging the most yards per game of any team on offense this year and whose defense has been transformed since they faced the Ravens in Week 3 of the regular season—the Ravens will have to outplay and outsmart them through all four quarters of Sunday's game.
Here's how they can do it.
Pressure and Joe Flacco
As we've seen all season—and as discussed on Thursday by The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel—Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is at his best when defenses don't bring pressure, particularly the blitz.
With the help of Pro Football Focus, Vensel took a look at the Week 3 meeting between the Ravens and Patriots and came away with one interesting conclusion: The Pats blitzed Flacco just three times, with him completing two of those three passes for 37 yards, while he had 345 yards and three scores when they did not blitz (even if they sent pressure in other ways).
If one is to assume the Patriots will be approaching Flacco in a way similar to how they did earlier this season, then of course Flacco should have a successful day when it comes to having a clean pocket from which to throw comfortably.
However, that's not likely to be the case.
The Patriots defense has been retooled since that first meeting (much as the Ravens defense has seen multiple changes in the intervening weeks), with the most notable difference being the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib.
With Talib in the fold, there will likely be more blitzing and Baltimore's offensive line will have a lot on its plate to keep Flacco protected.
Against the blitz, Flacco has completed just 50 percent of his passes this season, compared to 63.4 percent when he's not been blitzed. In the playoffs, he saw a blitz on nine dropbacks against the Indianapolis Colts and he completed just two of his eight attempted passes. Against the Denver Broncos, he faced the blitz 16 times, with eight completions.
Though those 25 total dropbacks produced just a single sack and no interceptions, it's clear that the blitz is the one situation that rattles Flacco the most and confounds his protection.
While Talib will have his hands full, likely assigned to Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, there will be times when he's part of the Patriots' pressure package. Baltimore's offensive line has been all over the place this season, and though it's been way more solid in the playoffs, it'll need to anticipate the blitz, which means it'll require additional help in pass-blocking from the Ravens running backs.
Between the three most integral parts of the Ravens' ground game—fullback Vonta Leach and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce—Rice played the most passing-down snaps during this year, with 529. Leach has done so on 182 snaps and Pierce on 100.
In total, the trio has given up 22 total pressures on the year—five sacks, six hits and 11 hurries.
Boiling that down to just the two playoff games, Rice again leads the three in passing downs, with 49. They've given up just one pressure, however—one hit, attributable to Leach.
Clearly, the Ravens' offensive backfield is strong when it comes to picking up the blitz, which should only help Flacco in his task on Sunday.
Flacco's postseason performances have been quite excellent thus far when it comes to yards, touchdowns and turnovers, with little evidence of his oft-unpredictable play.
However, his completion percentage over the last two weeks has been in the low-50s. The Ravens will therefore need to use every offensive possession to their advantage—in their last two games, they've managed to do more with less when it comes to how many plays they've run and how long they've held onto the ball.
Flacco himself is only partially responsible for this, as his offensive line has also stepped up its game in kind over the past two weeks. This needs to continue on Sunday if he's going to have the time to get accurate passes out.
This game—much like the two before it—is going to be an emotionally charged event for the Ravens and successful channeling of that emotion into physical on-field play will likely yield some positive outcomes for the Ravens on Sunday.
Getting physical with the Patriots certainly includes bringing pressure to Tom Brady, but it goes beyond just the pass rush.
It means that their defenders in coverage need to stick to their assignments, play close and shut down their routes. It means that Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin—in particular—will need to literally throw his weight around and again sneak in as the team's most dangerous receiving weapon.
Last week, Baltimore's secondary effectively cut off Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's ability to throw deep. In staying close with receivers Brandon Stokley, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Manning connected on only one pass of 20 or more yards and attempted only two.
Though coverage was weaker in the 10-to-19-yard range (Manning completed 10 of his 13 passes of 10 to 19 yards, for 135 yards and a touchdown), it did effectively send the message that no big plays are to be found when facing Baltimore's corners and safeties.
The same must happen on Sunday against the Patriots.
Though Brady can beat any defense in any part of the field, the threat of a quick score on a deep throw is very real when Brady's under center. Playing physical man coverage in the deep end of the field will limit Brady's options as well as the yards picked up from completions.
When it comes to Boldin, the Ravens have a decided advantage. Though not the fastest receiver on the field, Boldin's veteran status, sharp route running and sheer size—6'1" and 220 pounds—give fits to defenders tasked with covering him. Linebackers cannot match his footwork while corners cannot manhandle him.
Though Smith is the deep-ball scoring threat, Boldin continues to lead the Ravens in receiving yards. He had 921 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season and 216 more yards and an additional touchdown in the last two weeks. He can line up both in the slot and outside with equal success.
With Talib likely tied up with Smith (and sometimes with blitzing), Boldin will be matched up with Patriots corner Kyle Arrington for most downs (unless he slips inside, putting the onus on New England's safeties and linebackers). Arrington has given up receptions on 65.7 passes thrown his way for 659 yards, 240 yards after the catch and five touchdowns, with no interceptions on the year.
Boldin should be able to manhandle Arrington easily.
Physical play must also extend to the run game—both on offense and on defense. Leach must be used not just as a lead blocker for Rice and Pierce, but also as a battering ram. Meanwhile, Baltimore's front seven needs to step up its tackling game and keep Patriots backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley from putting up the combined 123 rushing yards they did last week against the Houston Texans.
Sometimes, the game of football can be about finesse. However, the Ravens need to be more about sheer physicality this week to defeat New England.
They must accomplish this and do so without sacrificing technique. Baltimore's defense needs to find some counter to the Patriots' no-huddle. Physical play could shave off speed from New England's offense.
All the rhetoric leading up to this game definitely indicates that the Ravens mean business. Now the goal must be matching those words with equally fierce action on Sunday.