The AFC Championship Game pits the same two teams from last year's contest. The Baltimore Ravens avenged their 23-20 loss from last postseason in Week 3, but will have to pull off a road upset on Sunday when they take on the New England Patriots in Foxboro.
Obvious anticipation will build ahead of this unique rematch between two remarkably consistent franchises, but both teams have much different makeups than a season ago.
In a high-scoring affair with the Denver Broncos, Baltimore and QB Joe Flacco proved that the offense could put tons of points on the board in a big game rather than relying so heavily on the defense. The Ravens were able to overcome two special teams touchdowns to pull out a 38-35, double-overtime victory.
Meanwhile, New England held down its home-field advantage in a 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans.
Despite losing Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injury in the game, quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were still able to put together another brilliant performance, as the Pats racked up 457 yards of offense.
Quarterbacks will be the headliners on Sunday—Brady because of his perpetual brilliance and Flacco for his unprecedented number of postseason wins to start his career.
Whoever has the ball last may very well win, but the big determining factor leading up to that moment will be the success of each team's running games. Should the Patriots be able to establish the run and become balanced, the Ravens have nearly zero chance of winning.
But if Baltimore can shorten the game by keeping the ball away from Brady with its formidable combination of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in the backfield, its chances of victory are greatly enhanced.
The emergence of Shane Vereen last week is a great sign for the Patriots, especially if Woodhead is unable to go or is limited. Vereen ran for 41 yards and a score and had five receptions for 83 yards and two TDs.
It might be surprising, but the Patriots have a top-10 rush defense, while the Ravens ranked just 20th in the league during the regular season.
However, Rice and Pierce are both extremely dangerous once they reach the second level, and should utilize the strong right side with C Matt Birk, guard Marshal Yanda and RT Michael Oher to find success on the edge.
Additionally, the return of Ray Lewis—who racked up a whopping 17 total tackles in the divisional round—has given Baltimore an extra edge on defense.
Lewis is in his final season, and has anchored many outstanding defensive units that are Super Bowl-caliber. Nevertheless, he only has one championship to show for it, and seems as determined as ever to get it done this time around.
As amazing as the Patriots' track record has been at home, this should be yet another barn burner that will rival the conference championship game from a season ago.
In the end, expect the Ravens to make the Pats pass-heavy and one-dimensional and for Flacco to take advantage of a suspect New England secondary.
It won't be enough, though.
Many of Flacco's plays have come in huge chunks, and the Patriots will be sure to drop deep enough to not get beat over the top. That sort of bend-but-don't-break style will result in big numbers for Flacco, but not enough touchdowns to keep pace.
The ball will be in Brady's hands at the end, and he will key his team to a sixth Super Bowl appearance in his starting tenure and defend the AFC crown in a last-minute thriller.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 23