AFC Championship Game: Baltimore Ravens At New England Patriots
- QuarterbackThe Ravens were able to come back from a seven-point deficit in the final 31 seconds when quarterback Joe Flacco hit Jacoby Jones with a 70-yard TD pass that tied the game. While the Broncos’ coverage was pitiful, Flacco made a beautiful throw when his team needed it most and he goes into the AFC championship game with full confidence.Tom Brady appeared to have an advantage against Houston’s vulnerable secondary and he took full advantage of it in the divisional playoff game. He threw for 344 yards with 3 TDs and no interceptions. While the Ravens are more experienced and nastier, they will not be able to intimidate the accurate throwing Brady.
- OffenseThe Ravens can hit the explosive plays with Torrey Smith and Jones catching the ball deep down field, but the running attack of Ray Rice is probably their best offensive attribute. New England’s run defense will challenge him, but Rice should be able to cause damage. Anquan Boldin can make the tough catches, while tight end Dennis Pitta (7 TDs) is a solid red zone target.Rob Gronkowski re-broke his left forearm and will not play, but the Patriots are loaded with offensive weapons. Start off with Wes Welker, who caught 118 passes for 1,354 yards. Tight end Aaron Hernandez and speedy wide receiver Brandon Lloyd combined for 9 TD catches and can help make up for the loss of Gronkowski. Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 TDs.
- DefenseThe Ravens struggled on defense most of the year, finishing 17th overall and against the pass. However, the return of linebacker Ray Lewis has given the defense a lift. He has 30 tackles in the Ravens’ two playoff victories. Free safety Ed Reed (4 interceptions, 1 for TD) is a big-play specialist who should be at his best in this game. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is one of the surest tacklers in the NFL.The Patriots are a much better defensive team than they were earlier in the year when it seemed like they could not cover any receiver. When they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay, the pass defense tightened up considerably. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork had 48 tackles and can shut down the interior run. Outside linebacker Jerod Mayo had a team-high 147 tackles and 4 forced fumbles.
- Special TeamsThe Ravens gave up both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown in their victory over the Broncos, but no team was better at kick coverage than the Ravens during the regular season. Jones had two kickoff and one punt return for touchdowns this season. Placekicker Justin Tucker made 30-of-33 FG attempts this season.The Patriots gave up two long kickoff returns to the Texans, but they ranked fourth in kickoff and punt return differential this season. Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko are both dependable. Gostkowski made 29-of-35 FG attempts this season, while Mesko dropped 28-of-62 punts inside the opponents’ 20.
The Patriots are 10-point favorites over the opponent they defeated by three points in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Don’t buy into the hype because the Ravens are playing much improved football after struggling in the regular season. While the Patriots’ defense is playing better, it may have a difficult time containing the Ravens’ passing game.