WHAT’S AT STAKE: In a rematch of the 2010 AFC Wild Card, the Baltimore Ravens travel to Foxborough to battle the New England Patriots for a berth in Super Bowl XLVI. Baltimore won that game handily, crushing the Patriots 33-14, intercepting Tom Brady three times in the process.
The Ravens, champions of the AFC North, have not reached the big game since 2001 and have come up short in recent years on the big stage. They last reached the AFC Championship in 2009, falling to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
New England had not won a playoff game since the 2008 AFC Championship before last week’s 45-10 trouncing of the Denver Broncos. The Patriots’ offense is as explosive as ever, scoring 32.1 points per game in the regular season, ranking third in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez make life very easy for Brady by getting open on virtually every snap.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Baltimore needs to find some way to slow down this passing attack. Though the Patriots picked Denver apart last week, they primarily did so against zone coverage. The Pats have often struggled to beat press coverage at the line in man-to-man. Aside from Gronkowski, this set of receivers is far from physical. The Ravens, on the other hand, pride themselves as an aggressive, smash-mouth bully of a defense. If they can get a couple of good shots on Brady and/or his wideouts early in the first half, they may have a shot at slowing the Pats down.
For New England, it’s been an absolutely brutal year on defense, particularly against the pass. However, the Ravens’ passing game is average at best, ranking 19th in the league. The Ravens are at their best when Ray Rice gets a heavy workload. If Joe Flacco puts up more than 30 pass attempts in this game, Baltimore will be in deep trouble. Bill Belichick will have to take Rice out of this game, unlike two seasons ago where Rice totaled 159 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The Pats will need to risk Flacco beating them, in spite of all the criticism he faced following last week’s win over Houston.
KEY MATCHUP: Baltimore’s offensive line vs. New England’s front seven. Look, it’s fairly obvious that the buildup surrounding this game will focus on the Pats’ offense and the Ravens’ defense, as it should be. But as mentioned earlier, the Patriots defense will have to stand tall in this game.
Take a look at last week for reference, where the top two offenses in the league, Green Bay and New Orleans, were taken down. Those two teams, much like New England, have been incapable of stopping anyone this season. As cliché as it may sound, defense ultimately wins championships.
The Patriots’ defense will need to get off the field and allow Brady and the offense to have as many opportunities to crack Baltimore’s defense as needed. Ed Reed vocally criticized the play of the offensive line last week for its inability to protect Flacco and open up holes last week. They will need to afford Flacco extra time to make enough throws to keep his team in it.
BREAKOUT PLAYERS: No Raven may want to end New England’s season more than Lee Evans. As a member of the Buffalo Bills, Evans lost all 13 meetings against the Pats. He has struggled to stay on the field this season, starting only three games and catching just four balls for 74 yards. But Evans made his biggest contribution last week, hauling in a one-handed, 30-yard completion. He was brought in this year to become a deep threat but has been overshadowed and eclipsed on the depth chart by rookie Torrey Smith. However, a healthy Evans is a dangerous one. Perhaps this is the week he shows up.
For New England to be successful on defense, Rob Ninkovich will need to play well. Ninkovich has had some of his strongest games against stiffer competition. He registered a sack-fumble last week on Tim Tebow, picked off the Jets’ Mark Sanchez twice and had seven tackles apiece against the Giants and Cowboys. Those four games were arguably the Patriots’ best defensive performances this season, save a 34-3 rout of Tyler Palko and the Kansas City Chiefs [In case you’re interested, he had a sack in that game, too]. Stopping Ray Rice and pressuring Joe Flacco will be the top objectives for the Patriots. Look no further than Ninkovich for the man responsible for those goals.
SURPRISING STAT: Though they finished in a tie for the second-best record in the NFL and are one win away from the Super Bowl, the 13-3 New England Patriots have yet to defeat a team with a winning record.