Ravens vs. Patriots: 6 Keys to Victory in AFC Championship
The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are bound for an absolute slugfest in Foxborough today.
A year ago, Baltimore had the AFC title game won, but a pass breakup and shanked field goal ultimately doomed its opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl.
Here are three keys for each team to emerge victorious in this compelling rematch.
Ravens: Contain Vince Wilfork
Vince Wilfork is an absolutely demonic backfield disruptor.
His sheer mass and deceptive power make him nearly unblockable, especially one-on-one. On power run plays in which Baltimore pulls a guard into the hole, the massive nose tackle will be attacking laterally against the center.
Remember, in the AFC title game a year ago, Wilfork was a major deciding factor, totaling six tackles—three of which came for a loss—along with a sack of Joe Flacco.
While Wilfork's presence will be felt mainly against the run, he is more than capable of penetrating between the shoulders of the Ravens interior offensive linemen and forcing Flacco into an off-balance throw.
Baltimore must get a fantastic game from the trio of Matt Birk, Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda to contain the centerpiece of New England's defensive front.
If they do, Rice and Bernard Pierce should keep the Ravens offense on the field, and Flacco will be able to confidently push the ball down the field.
Ravens: Get the Ball to Ray Rice
Piggybacking off the key of stopping Vince Wilfork, Baltimore must frequently get the ball to Ray Rice.
With the quickness in which Tom Brady's offense operates and can score, the Ravens will be tempted to air it out often, but Rice is the franchise cornerstone who can keep Brady off the field and consistently pick up first downs.
Now, there are a plethora of statistics that state if the Ravens run Ray Rice, they'll win.
Those statistics are slightly skewed, because it's obviously easier to run more often with a lead; but regardless of the situation, Baltimore has to get the ball in Rice's hands.
The Patriots have a fine linebacker corps, however, Rice is extremely dangerous out of the backfield and is a deceptively threatening yards-after-contact guy.
No, he won't gash a strong New England run defense for five or six yards on every run, but like he did last week against the Broncos, Rice and Baltimore's offensive line needs to continue to lean on the opposing run defense so, in crunch time, it will yield a few big gainers.
Ravens: Don't Shy Away from Attempting to Hit the Big Play
While a steady diet of Ray Rice is imperative for Baltimore to control the clock and keep Brady on the sidelines, Joe Flacco and his receivers must continue to threaten the opposition deep.
They hit a variety of huge plays against the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round.
Last week in the upset of the Broncos, Flacco hit Jacoby Jones on a 70-yard bomb, Torrey Smith on a 59-yard touchdown and Dennis Pitta on a huge 24-yarder on a 3rd-and-long from his own end zone.
Remember, he slightly overthrew Smith on another deep ball.
Flacco's most blatant strong suit is his strong arm, and he has two receivers who possess tremendous ball skills, and two receiving tight ends.
Not to mention, Smith is a legitimate burner.
While Baltimore may not hit every deep ball, it must stick to its staple and threaten the Patriots' last line of defense often, especially if Brady is scoring quickly.
Patriots: Exploit the Ravens' Blitz
The Ravens, in all likelihood, will blitz Tom Brady.
Baltimore's diverse blitz packages were relatively successful against the legendary quarterbback in the regular-season win, and although Brady is certainly capable of dicing the blitz, he's much more dangerous standing unscathed in the pocket.
Thankfully for New England, guys like Shane Vereen, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are prime blitz-beaters.
If Brady can detect the weak spots in coverage that materialize once the Ravens blitz, he should be able to hit plenty of short throws to his YAC guys.
Patriots: Creatively Blitz Joe Flacco
Flacco has recently displayed a refined ability to move around in the face of pressure in the pocket to create space for himself to throw the football.
However, it's hard to consider him a master of drifting to keep plays alive.
The Patriots should test his newly developed attribute, because over the course of his career, Flacco hasn't been the most comfortable signal-caller with defenders in his face.
Actually, he's been pretty bad.
Due to that, New England should blitz him from every possible angle to truly get an idea of how improved the Ravens quarterback is against added pressure.
Patriots: Stay Fast-Paced
The Patriots caught the Texans sleeping on a few occasions in the divisional round, and it resulted in New England "stealing" a few big plays.
While Baltimore should be familiar with Brady's uptempo attack—defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who was New England's defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009 should help—the Patriots must continue to run their offense as swiftly as possible.
The Ravens defense has been on the field for 174 total plays in their two postseason games; so, there's a good chance there are some weary legs out there.
Even if Baltimore's defense is totally refreshed, the Patriots should test all of Baltimore's defenders by minimizing the time between plays as much as they can.