Today's AFC championship preview: Ravens vs. Patriots
Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
When the Ravens have the ball •
Run, Ray, run.
Catch, Ray, catch.
Those are the top two priorities for the Ravens (13-4), who must get the ball in the hands of RB Ray Rice (27), the league's leader in total yardage with 2,068 (1,364 rushing). Rice was dynamic the last time he faced the Patriots in a playoff game at Foxborough, breaking an 83-yard run on the first Baltimore play from scrimmage. He needs to set the tone again, aided by All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach (44).
Baltimore wants to get Rice open in space as a receiver, putting pressure on LBs Jerod Mayo (51) and Rob Ninkovich (50), and all the defensive backs. The Ravens also want their offensive line, which has been inconsistent, to set the tempo inside for Rice and backup Ricky Williams (34). That is a key, because only guard Marshal Yanda (73) has stood out this season, and the line was outplayed by Houston last week.
Expect Patriots coach Bill Belichick to have something schemed up to neutralize Rice, forcing QB Joe Flacco (5) to beat his team. Flacco isn't spectacular and the Ravens rarely have asked him to be the focal point of the offense. Belichick could force that to happen, especially if superb NT Vince Wilfork (75) has his way in the trenches. Journeyman DE Mark Anderson (95) had 10 sacks in Belichick's defense, and Wilfork and Ninkovich each had 1Â½ against Denver last weekend.
Veteran WR Anquan Boldin (81) joins Rice as the main target for Flacco. New England's secondary has been mediocre for much of the year, but does make big plays, led by CB Kyle Arrington (24), who had a league-leading seven interceptions. The Ravens need rookie Torrey Smith (82) and veteran Lee Evans (83) to contribute, particularly downfield, in matchups with CB Devin McCourty (32) and safeties James Ihedigbo (44) and Patrick Chung (25).
Where the Ravens could surprise New England (14-3) is with tight ends Dennis Pitta (88) and Ed Dickson (84). Each can be dangerous in the red zone and on third downs.
When the Patriots have the ball •
As they showed in last week's rout of Denver, the Patriots will feast on any defense that doesn't challenge them from the outset. Baltimore must be physical and aggressive from the opening play, and that's a staple of the Ravens' defense, which had 48 sacks during the season.
Led by All-Pro NT Haloti Ngata (92) and LB Terrell Suggs (55) plus the ageless LB Ray Lewis (52) and S Ed Reed (20) and using a never-back-down philosophy, the Ravens will get after Tom Brady (12) as best they can. But they managed zero sacks and not a ton of pressure against Houston, whose offense resembles New England's as much as the weather of the two cities matches up.
Given time, as he has proven for more than a decade, Brady will destroy even the best defenses. But he hasn't faced a high-quality one in months, and the best defense the Patriots played in 2011, Pittsburgh's, held them to a season-low 17 points.
Brady will run the no-huddle as often as possible, hoping to gas the Ravens and force their defenders to stay on the field more often than usual. Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who leaves to becomes Penn State's coach when the Patriots are done playing, came up with some nice wrinkles this season. Their use of TE Aaron Hernandez (81) as a running back was effective, and they find ways to isolate All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski (87) in mismatches.
Baltimore needs to blanket Gronkowski as best it can with Reed and fellow S Bernard Pollard (31), or maybe even try getting CB Lardarius Webb (21) involved in coverage. Of course, that could leave All-Pro wideout Wes Welker (83) in single coverage.
Also worrisome for the Ravens is how Houston ran the ball on them a week ago. The Patriots don't rely heavily on the run, but if BenJarvus Green-Ellis (42) and Danny Woodhead (39) are being successful, it sets up Brady for even more big plays.
Ngata will try to disrupt the middle of the Patriots' solid O-line, where C Dan Connolly (63) and guards Logan Mankins (70) and Brian Waters (54) will be tested. If he does so, Baltimore has a far better chance of slowing down Brady's aerial show.
Special Teams •
Coach John Harbaugh has a special teams background, and with PK Billy Cundiff (7) and P Sam Koch (4), he has to feel comfortable. Cundiff missed some games with a calf injury, but has recovered.
Baltimore's coverage and return teams are nothing spectacular, with Webb the most reliable as a punt returner.
New England has no qualms about having Stephen Gostkowski (3) try critical kicks. While he hasn't made them forget Adam Vinatieri, Gostkowski is steady enough to not worry Patriots fans. P Zoltan Mesko (14) is a lefty kicker and the ball can act funky off his foot.
Belichick also has a special teams background and his coverage groups are trustworthy.
Harbaugh has guided the Ravens to the postseason in all four of his years as coach; by contrast, Belichick did that only once in his first four of five seasons as coach of the franchise when it was still the Cleveland Browns. For the first time under Harbaugh, Baltimore won the AFC North and got a home playoff game.
Harbaugh knows his team must push it against Belichick, the game's most successful coach since Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs were on the sideline in their primes. The Ravens have been taught to do what they do best and dare someone to stop them. Belichick and the Patriots can be more devious and more versatile.
While Harbaugh has been this far only once, losing to Pittsburgh for the 2008 AFC crown, Belichick makes a habit of reaching conference title games.