Ravens vs. Patriots: Biggest X-Factors in AFC Title Game
Joe Flacco must shake off Ed Reed's comments, and Rob Gronkowski is the unstoppable giant. The AFC Championship will be decided by the team that can succeed in executing their game plan and stopping the other team's X-factors.
The New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens this afternoon to decide who will be representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
The Patriots will be vying for the chance to win their fourth Super Bowl in a decade. Baltimore will be looking to win their second ring in franchise history in the same city that roots for the team that left Maryland in the dark of night.
Baltimore beat New England two years ago on the road and will be looking to accomplish the same feat. The Patriots are out for a bit of retribution from that very loss in 2010.
There will be plenty of storylines and things to watch in this afternoon's game, but there's more to the AFC Championship than simply New England's offense versus Baltimore's defense.
Collapsing the Pocket
The Baltimore Ravens notched 48 sacks during the 2011 regular season, but zero sacks last week against the Houston Texans.
Brady is the quintessential pocket passer. He likes to sit in the pocket and pick out his target.
The New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers all got after Brady. The Giants, Cowboys and Steelers all held the vaunted Patriots offense to 20 points or less.
Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody and Cory Redding have to be able to create pressure on their own and collapse the pocket. Chuck Pagano will likely be far more aggressive this week with bringing the heat with different blitz packages.
Baltimore must rattle Tom Brady and force him to make throws outside of the pocket.
New England Must Keep Ray Rice Silent
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Ray Rice went off. He took the first play to the house and it was all downhill from there.
Rice ran for 159 yards on 22 carries. He walked into the end zone twice and helped the Baltimore Ravens upset the New England Patriots 33-14 in 2010.
When Rice runs over the 100-yard mark, the Ravens are 6-0 this season. In their four losses, No. 27 was held to 57 yards or less on the ground.
Baltimore's offense feeds off of Rice's production and requires their Pro Bowl running back to have a productive game. The Patriots will look to keep Rice quiet and force Joe Flacco to beat them.
Stop Rice, and the Ravens offense sputters to a screeching halt.
The Tight Ends
Chuck Pagano has his hands full today. The Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator has been scheming for New England's weapons of choice in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Bill Belichick has been ahead of the curve yet again in 2011. He has used both his tight ends in a variety of sets to unlock opposing defenses and keep them off balanced.
The two tight ends have combined for a total of 169 catches, 2,237 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns during the regular season.
Defenses throughout the NFL have game planned for the enormous 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski and the versatile 6'1", 245-pound Hernandez, but have not enjoyed much success.
Pagano must find a way to keep Gronkowski and Hernandez limited. Baltimore won't be able to shut both tight ends out completely, but they can force someone else to step up for the Patriots.
This X-factor applies to both teams.
The New England Patriots will look to score early and run up the score like they did last week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots offense has single-handedly won the majority of New England's games throughout the season.
New England runs up the score and forces teams to outscore them, which is easier said than done. The Patriots have averaged 32.1 points during the regular season and scored 45 points last week against the Broncos.
Scoring early would put Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens offense under duress.
The Ravens will also look to score early and provide their defense with a lead to play with. When Baltimore waltzed into Foxborough two years ago in the Wild Card Round, Ray Rice took the first play from scrimmage for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Baltimore would love nothing more than to have a repeat from 2010 and score on the opening drive to silence Gillette Stadium. Either way, both teams will look to set the tone early and take the first lead.
Third Down Conversions
The numbers for the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens on third down are stark in contrast when it comes to one side of the ball. Being able to keep drives alive or kill opposing drives will play a large part into how the game ebbs and flows.
The New England Patriots have completed 45.88 percent (89/194) of third downs on offense, which was the league's fourth best. New England's opponents completed 43.07 percent (87/202) of third downs during the regular season, which was the NFL's 26th best.
The Ravens offense also came in the league's top 10 on third-down completions with a 41.22 completion percentage (97/229). However, their defense flexed their muscle on third down. Baltimore's defense boasted the second best rate in the NFL holding opponents to 32.20 percent (71/221).
New England will look to stay on the field and continue to put the pressure on Baltimore's offense to score. The Ravens will try to keep Tom Brady on the sideline as long and as often as possible.
Whomever can win the third-down battle will have one more small victory towards stamping their ticket to Indianapolis.
Ravens Play to Their Opponent
The Baltimore Ravens had a somewhat mystifying regular season. They lost on the road to the 2-6 Seattle Seahawks and the 1-5 Jacksonville Jaguars.
However, the Ravens were also 7-0 versus teams that made it to the playoffs this season. Baltimore swept the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. They also defeated the Houston Texans twice and the San Francisco 49ers, who were 9-1 and on an eight-game winning streak.
Impressive results for a team that suffered losses to sub-par teams.
The Ravens play up—and down-—to their opponent. No opponent this season will present as many challenges on the offensive side of the ball as the New England Patriots.
Baltimore has plenty of veteran leadership headlined by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They will have their teammates primed, readied and focused for their biggest game and toughest opponent of the season.
Don't expect a let down like in Seattle or Jacksonville from the Ravens.
Joe Flacco's Psyche
Joe Flacco has been front and center during this week's conversation leading up to the AFC Championship. Not because he's the better quarterback than Tom Brady, but because Ed Reed went on a radio show and voiced his ill-timed opinions on his quarterback's wild-card performance.
Reed commented, saying:
I think Joe was kind of rattled a little bit by that defense...I think a couple times he needed to get rid of the ball. I don’t know how much of the play calling, he could have made audibles or anything like that, checks or whatnot, man, but it just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense, you know, of times past.
Reed also provided Flacco with a back-handed criticism of his offensive line.
You know, they gotta communicate better, gotta pick up blocks, Joe’s gotta get the ball out of his hand. We gotta do a good job of using our weapons.
The Ravens' All-Pro safety may have been candid with his comments, but the pressure and the cameras will be fixated on Flacco today. Whether or not he can step up to the challenge could be the deciding factor in the AFC Championship.
Flacco and Reed quickly put the safety's words behind them by staging a fake scuffle in front of a throng of media members. Baltimore's fans will be hoping they too can laugh about the whole thing after a win in Foxborough and a Super Bowl berth.
Justin Sparks is an NFL Columnist for Bleacher Report.