The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots are two of the preeminent franchises in the NFL. The level of consistency with which they play each season is something the 30 other teams aspire to; so it is no surprise that they are meeting in the AFC Championship Game for the second straight season.
While neither team is perfect, both have a variety of strengths that have brought them to this moment and will carry one of them to the Super Bowl in two weeks.
These two teams know each other very well, having met three times (including this game) in the last 12 months, so it is going to be a case where both teams put their best foot forward and tell the other to try to stop them.
Here is a look at the biggest strength for both the Ravens and Patriots heading into the AFC Championship Game.
Protecting the Football
The Ravens have proved over the first two playoff games that they can be an explosive team. In fact, the only reason they are still playing is because of their ability to make big plays (or take advantage of a safety out of position).
What will play a bigger role in the outcome of the AFC Championship?
But what this postseason has shown above all else is that the Ravens don't give the ball away. For all the criticism levied at Joe Flacco—most of it deserved—they are very good at protecting the ball. They tied New England with just 16 turnovers in the regular season, fewest in the AFC.
In addition to not turning the ball over, the Patriots led the AFC with 41 takeaways and led the NFL with a plus-25 turnover margin.
We all know how quick the Patriots offense can strike, so making sure they don't get extra possessions is paramount to defeating them.
Ray Rice is one of the most sure-handed players in the NFL, though he did have two fumbles in the Wild Card Round against Indianapolis that were cause for some concern. He had just one fumble in the regular season.
All of those fears were alleviated last week when Rice had 131 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Not turning the ball over will also allow the Ravens to control the clock and keep the Patriots off the field. Tom Brady and Co. don't need a lot of time to score, so minimizing the number of chances and amount of time they can move the ball is the easiest way to defeat them.
New England Patriots
Volume of Plays
As much as we talk about the points that the Patriots can score, and it is a lot, what makes them so successful is the way the offense operates.
In 2007, the Patriots used the big-play ability of Randy Moss to put up points in a hurry. That is a good strategy as long as it works. But as the New York Giants proved in the Super Bowl, if you can contain the big plays, the offense loses something along the way.
This year's offense is better than that unit and any group they have had in the past five years, because there is more balance to what they are doing.
Brady is still fantastic at what he does, but the fact that the Patriots have a running game makes him even more dangerous. Teams are forced to prepare to stop the run, making it easier for the middle of the field to be open for those intermediate passes that turn into big plays.
The Patriots averaged 136.5 rushing yards per game, their best total since 2008. Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen all averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry.
Being able to move the ball on the ground also allows the Patriots to run an exorbitant amount of plays, thereby wearing down an opposing defense.
The Patriots ran 1,191 plays on offense this season. That level of volume makes it impossible for teams to keep up with what this team wants to do, and is the reason they were able to score 557 points.
This team doesn't just score points. They methodically wear you down and beat you into submission like no other team in the NFL right now. The Ravens have already been on the field a lot this postseason, having 174 plays run against them in their first two games.
If the Patriots are on the field as much as Indianapolis and Denver were, we will be talking about another Super Bowl appearance for Bill Belichick.