AFC Championship: New England Patriots vs Baltimore Ravens

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The Patriots sure do seem to play the Ravens a lot, don’t they? If these two teams can keep up their winning seasons, the Ravens might become the rivals to the Patriots that the Colts once were. There’s a lot on the line in this game – just like last week, it’s win or go home. These two teams are very different from how they played in Week 3 earlier this season. Do the Patriots have the mettle to pull off another victory against a strong playoff team? Let’s go to the matchup-o-meter to find out!

1. The New England receivers vs the Baltimore defensive backs

This is the most significant difference from earlier in the year. Lardarius Webb, the all-star corner, and Jimmy Smith, the not-so-all-star corner, are both gone. Instead, they’ve got world-renowned terrible corner Cary Williams, special teamer Corey Graham, and no-his-name-is-not-a-slur Chykie Brown. While these are all corners that are ripe for abuse, last week Dean Pees did something intelligent for the first time in his career: he utilized press coverage. Williams and Graham may be bad, but they can play press coverage. Press is something that works very well against the Patriots receivers, and Baltimore will have to use it if they want to slow down the Patriots passing attack. Bernard Pollard and Edward Earl “Daddy Dog” Reed are an underrated safety duo, but Pollard is susceptible to deep throws while Reed has clearly lost a step and can’t play the run anymore.

Rob Gronkowski is out yet again; it seems like every analyst is calling this a major loss – and it is – but the Patriots have found ways to win without him, and I don’t think they’ll miss him terribly in this outing. Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd are all smaller receivers that could be thrown off their routes if pressed, but I still trust them over the Ravens defensive backs. Aaron Hernandez should have a good game, and Danny Woodhead will likely see time against the slower Baltimore linebackers.

Advantage: New England

2. The New England offensive line vs the Baltimore defensive line

Haloti Ngata is still a force, but it appears his injury has slowed his game somewhat. Still, this is where Gronkowski will be missed the most; expect to see a tight end help chip him. Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones are rotated, and each are capable of exploiting mismatches; however, I do not feel there are mismatches to be found against the Patriots tackles. Ma’ake Kemoeatu is not good.

I love this Patriots offensive line. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are having breakout seasons, Logan Mankins is playing decently even though he’s coming off an injury, Ryan Wendell is the most pleasant surprise of the season, and even though Dan Connolly would be much better off sitting behind Donald Thomas, he’s performed almost serviceably. They can block Terrell Suggs, they can block Haloti Ngata, they can get Stevan Ridley his yards, and they can protect Tom Brady.

Advantage: New England

3. The New England runningbacks vs the Baltimore linebackers

I’m a bigger fan of Courtney Upshaw than most (though I do think Dont’a Hightower is easily the better linebacker – sorry, Skip Bayless). Upshaw’s strength is stuffing the run, so expect to see a fair amount of runs away from his side. Ray Lewis, in my mind the greatest defensive player of all time, is clearly hobbled. Don’t let his tackle statistics fool you – he is clearly not the player he once was, and he doesn’t belong on a football field. The only thing he currently adds to this Ravens defense is motivation. Paul Kruger is the real linebacker to watch out for – he’s comparable to Rob Ninkovich in a way, able to make clutch sacks.

On the Patriots side, it’s an interesting dilemma. Who’s going to get the ball? Ridley played less than Shane Vereen did last week, yet got more carries. Shane Vereen, however, was the star of the show. Woodhead has the elusiveness to abuse these linebackers in space. If you’re noticing a trend, it isn’t the Ravens defense that worries me.

Advantage: New England

4. The New England defensive backs vs the Baltimore receivers

It’s the Baltimore offense that worries me. Conditions in Foxboro are extremely windy, and that works in Joe Flacco’s favor. He’s got the stronger arm and the faster receivers in Torrey Smith, who has developed extremely well, and Jacoby Jones, who’s vastly outperforming Lee Evans’ last campaign. I’m not saying Jim Caldwell is a genius, but he’s finally stopped using Anquan Boldin on go routes, making him infinitely more intelligent than Cam Cameron. Dennis Pitta will likely see more work over the middle, and don’t be surprised if they try to give it to Ray Rice in space against the slow New England linebackers.

The New England defensive backs are wildly different from what they were last year, and even from what they were earlier in the season. Aqib Talib is here, Alfonzo Dennard is starting, Sterling Moore is gone, Devin McCourty is playing safety and we’re sadly going to see less and less of Pat Chung. You can’t judge this game based on Week 3. Unfortunately, I still think Talib will get burned more than a couple times, but he’ll make key plays on third down. Alfonzo Dennard ought to cover Boldin, but Jacoby Jones is going to have favorable matchups all day.

Advantage: Baltimore

5. The New England defensive line vs the Baltimore offensive line

This is a lineup that New England ought to be more familiar with – it’s only got one change from last year’s AFC Championship: left guard Kelechi Osemele (who I believe is a better fit at right tackle). Michael Oher is still the most overrated tackle in today’s NFL and Matt Birk is showing signs of age. On the other hand, Bryant McKinnie is passblocking very well, and Marshal Yanda is still a top tier right guard.

In order for the Patriots to win this game, Vince Wilfork absolutely must have a stellar game. He was far more important to this team last year than Sterling Moore was, and he needs to perform like that again. Chandler Jones is still – STILL – hurting, and I don’t think he’ll pick up more than two hurries tonight. Rob Ninkovich has to take advantage of the matchup with Michael Oher.

Advantage: Baltimore

6. The New England linebackers vs the Baltimore runningbacks

Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo comprise my favorite trio in the NFL. They bring a swagger to the team that has been sorely missed since the dynasty era. I still want to see Hightower utilized more in the passing game, whether it’s dropping into coverage or rushing the quarterback.

Ray Rice is one of the best backs in the league – especially when it comes to blocking – but I think he’ll be bottled up decently. The Patriots do a good job of plugging up holes and taking down runningbacks when they try to cut back. Pierce is a promising back as well, but I think they’ll abandon the run in the fourth quarter. The only thing the linebackers need to watch out for is the screen game.

Advantage: New England

This is an extremely difficult game to call. I’m going to make this as blunt as possible: Ray Lewis isn’t good anymore. Not that good, not as good as he used to be; *not good*. Just because he got a lot of tackles recently doesn’t mean he’s good. He’s the leader of the defense emotionally, not physically. He can’t cover Aaron Hernandez and he can’t tackle Stevan Ridley by himself. I know it’s a bold statement, but these are my observations based on his last two games. This isn’t about Tom Brady’s offense vs Ray Lewis’ defense. It’s closer to Tom Brady’s offense vs Joe Flacco’s offense, but even then, it’s selling the Patriots defense short. The way that Aqib Talib and Vince Wilfork perform will be crucial. I expect some big plays, and what might briefly look like an easy victory for one team. The other team will charge back and this game will end within three points. Overally, when I look at these rosters and the way these teams have played over the entire season, I think the Patriots are the better team six ways to Sunday.

W: New England L: Baltimore

You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.

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