Baltimore Ravens (13-4) @ New England Patriots (14-3), Sunday @ 8pm
The AFC Championship Game pits great offense against great defense; Tom Brady and his dynamic passing game against the staunch resistance of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed et al.
The two teams fared differently last weekend. The Patriots easily swept aside a weak Denver Broncos team, with Tom Brady throwing a record breaking five first-half touchdowns on the way to a 35-7 interval lead. The Ravens, conversely, struggled offensively against the Houston Texans defense. Two big turnovers gave the Ravens a 17-3 lead, but the Texans rebounded and might have won if they still had starting quarterback Matt Schaub in the line-up. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates had a decent day despite facing one of the NFL’s best offenses, but three poor throws led to three costly interceptions.
The Ravens will be a completely different beast this week, however. Baltimore have no reason to fear facing the Patriots at Foxboro, despite the Patriots’ 23-1 record there in the past three seasons. In the last playoff match between the sides in 2009, Ray Rice ran 83 yards for a score on the first play and Tom Brady fumbled on the Patriots first series. The Ravens completely dominated the Patriots, who were reeling from the loss of Wes Welker the previous week, en route to a 33-14 rout.
Little can be taken out of that match to help predict this encounter, however. Tom Brady was one year removed from a serious knee injury, his favourite target Wes Welker was absent and the Patriots leading tight ends were Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker. Since then, the Patriots have undergone a complete regeneration and the offense is now based around the unique abilities of their tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined for 261 total yards and four touchdowns against the Broncos. The pair have helped Brady dissect numerous defences this season, but the Ravens only conceded 659 yards (2nd NFL) and allowed three touchdowns (Joint 2nd NFL) to tight ends in the regular season.
The key for the Ravens will be to pressurise Brady and neutralise the tight end options. The Patriots’ rushing attack has been inconsistent throughout the season, meaning the Ravens will likely concentrate all their efforts on disrupting Brady. Unfortunately for Baltimore, Brady looked like a man possessed last weekend.
The Ravens will also need decent production out of quarterback Joe Flacco. Ray Rice should be able to run on the Patriots run defense, but Flacco will have to keep up with Brady’s scoring prowess.
Numerous quarterbacks have had big days against the 31st ranked passing defense, but the Patriots firmly shut down the weak armed Tim Tebow. Flacco will be hoping the Patriots defense of the regular season turns up on Sunday, as the Ravens’ quarterback only ranked 12th in yards, 13th in touchdowns, 25th in pass completion percentage and 18th in quarterback rating.
The Patriots will be relying on their offense to generate over 30 points, but their defense must make positive plays. New England was the third best team in terms of turnover differential (+17) and good ball retention on offense and opportunistic defense will be paramount if they are to win on Sunday.
The other key is to disrupt Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat you through the air. In the Ravens four losses this season, Ray Rice has averaged a paltry 38.75 yards per game and scored zero touchdowns, while Joe Flacco threw a total of five touchdowns and six interceptions.
If the sides play like they did last week, the Patriots should win comfortably. The more likely scenario, however, is a tough, gritty match that is close until the dying minutes. One big turnover could decide the match, but the Patriots offense should just see them into the Super Bowl.
Brady AFC Championships Games: 6 appearances in 10 years starting.
Points Scored: Patriots Offense (3rd) vs Ravens Defense (3rd)
Points Scored: Ravens Offense (12th) vs Patriots Defense (12th)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Patriots Offense (2nd) vs Ravens Defense (1st)
Third Down Success Rate: Patriots Offense (45.9% – 5th) vs Ravens Defense (32.1% – 2nd)
Third Down Success Rate: Ravens Offense (42.4% – 7th) vs Patriots Defense (43.1% – 28th)
Turnover Differential: Patriots (+17 – 3rd), Ravens (+2 – Joint 11th)
The Odds: Patriots (-7)
Prediction: A tough, evenly-fought match is won by the Patriots in the dying minutes.