AFC Wild Card Weekend: Keys to a Baltimore Victory at New England

Todd McGregor@@mcgregor_toddCorrespondent IJanuary 6, 2010

BALTIMORE - SEPTEMBER 23:  Tailgaters take down their teams banners as the prepare to go in to watch the NFL game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Arizona Cardinals on September 23, 2007 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland.Born and bred into American sporting culture the act of tailgating is a tradition practiced unlike anywhere else in the world. Tailgating by definition is the act of partying or picnicking around a vehicle in a car park prior to the start of a sporting event. At any major sporting event in the United States you will find die hard fans, all settling into car parks surrounding the stadium, hours before the event even begins. Tailgaters, young and old drink, play games, barbeque and party, rain, hail or snow and often in unusual places, just about anywhere it?s possible to park a car and setup a barbeque. What started as a small pre-game picnic held out of the back of a pickup truck has now evolved into a multibillion-dollar business, with participant numbers estimated at over 50 mi
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Last Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens (9-7) punched their playoff ticket by defeating the Oakland Raiders (5-11) 21-13 in Oakland. 

The game plan they followed to secure the AFC's final playoff spot looked eerily similar to the blueprint used a year ago, when Baltimore reached the AFC Championship Game—limit the amount of time an opposing offense has the ball by putting together a successful running attack. 

Ravens fans all over the country were hoping Baltimore would return to this proven formula that worked so well, especially during the Brian Billick era.

Now it looks like the team finally listened to their toughest critics, as the Ravens have ranked second in the NFL in rushing over the past six weeks.

As Baltimore clinches their second consecutive playoff berth, they will head back to New England to face the 10-6 Patriots, where in Week 4, the Ravens came up 10 yards short of what could've been a game-winning touchdown. 

Baltimore dropped that contest 27-21 in what turned out to be one of their more bitter defeats of the season.

In order for the Ravens to topple the Patriots for the first time in franchise history and move on to the divisional round of the playoffs, they must stick to their roots in the running game. 

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Baltimore's third-ranked defense, which has improved vastly during the second part of the season, must limit penalties and mental errors if they want to slow down Tom Brady and company and ultimately limit the time the Patriots' offense is on the field.

Everyone knows the Ravens become a very dangerous team when they make it to the postseason. The last two teams that defeated Baltimore in the playoffs, ended up being crowned Super Bowl champions; Pittsburgh in 2008 and Indianapolis in 2006.

Let's examine some other key things the Ravens must do in order to be successful this Sunday against one of the toughest teams in the playoffs this year.

Revisiting Baltimore's running attack, they need to duplicate what they did last week against Oakland. Both Ray Rice and Willis McGahee need to carry the load behind an offensive line that's finally healthy again with the return of Jared Gaither. 

Le'Ron McClain might be the best blocking fullback in the NFL, which is why he's headed back to the Pro Bowl this year. If McClain can repeat the success he's had this season against the Patriots on Sunday, both Rice and McGahee should get the opportunity to spring loose for some big gains on the ground.

Depending on how the Ravens running attack fares will ultimately dictate how much Cam Cameron decides to utilize Joe Flacco. Baltimore's passing game has been an entirely different story throughout the regular season. 

Flacco started the 2009 season on fire, but eventually his role in running the offense was reduced, due to the fact that the Ravens were labeled as a "pass-happy" team. 

Opponents started to figure out that Derrick Mason was Flacco's favorite target nearly 70 percent of the time, so John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron had to draw up new schemes on offense.

One player that came on strong during the last six games was Todd Heap. As the Ravens' offensive line started to heal, Heap returned to a more traditional role. 

Heap has racked up four touchdowns in just three games averaging more than 11 yards a catch.

Heap must be utilized as a traditional tight end in order to create more mismatches with the Patriots' defense. 

With Jared Gaither healthy, the probability of Heap making a few key catches in this game is highly likely. 

Heap is always a threat to score inside the red zone, and Flacco needs to go through his progressions in order to find Heap, who does a great job of creating separation from defenders inside the end zone.

When it comes to the Ravens' third-ranked defense, they just need to come out and play penalty-free football. 

If Haloti Ngata and the rest of the Ravens' front four can apply pressure on future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady, the improved Baltimore secondary should be able to successfully play their zone coverages.

However, with the injuries to Fabian Washington and star rookie Lardarius Webb, Baltimore must find a way to put two bodies on Randy Moss, the Patriots' main deep threat.

Dawan Landry and Domonique Foxworth have stepped up their game, but they will need to play as close to perfect as humanly possible to slow down the Brady-to-Moss connection.

Ed Reed, back from a groin injury and a neck problem that has plagued him for two years, looks primed to help Landry and Foxworth over the top. Reed hasn't played as sharp as in recent years due to injuries, but he always poses the threat of making a game-changing play. 

If Reed is up to task, Tom Brady won't be throwing in his direction.

If Sunday's game turns out to be a close one, as all indicators point to it being one, special teams might be the difference once again.

The Ravens have a solid punter in Sam Koch, but the place-kicking game has been atrocious this season. The virtual carousel of kickers Baltimore played this season cost them a few wins in 2009.

So with that said, the utter lack of consistency from Billy Cundiff has to have the Ravens a little worried, especially in a game that could come down to three points or less.

John Harbaugh, being a special teams coach for so many years with Philadelphia, has to be disappointed with the play of Cundiff. And quite frankly, Harbaugh has failed to address the issue to the satisfaction of Ravens fans.

If there's one area that Baltimore can't match the Patriots in, it's the kicking game, so let's hope the Ravens don't have to rely on a clutch kick to win the game.

With all of the above taken into consideration, the Ravens do match up well with New England. 

And, with Week 4 maybe still on the team's mind, they'll be looking to redeem themselves for the mistakes that cost them a close game last time in Foxboro.

One more noteworthy tidbit of information Baltimore must take into consideration—Tom Brady, although dealing with rib and finger injuries, will be at his best in the playoffs. You can't take a player like Brady lightly, no matter what condition he's playing in. 

So John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens' coaching staff must convey this message to the defense. 

I'm sure Ray Lewis will do his part to get this prideful squad fired up and prepared for what Brady and the rest of the Patriots' offense will do.

This matchup Sunday has the potential of being one of the best playoff games in many years. 

No predictions will be made on my part, out of respect for my fellow friends who happen to be Patriots fans and all-around good people.

All I can say is get excited about the game, and make every effort to watch it on TV, or attend it in person. 

It could be one for the record books!

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