AFC Championship Preview
This Sunday at 6:30 p.m ET the Baltimore Ravens want to take revenge against the New England Patriots for the heartbreaking loss they suffered one year ago in the exact same stadium, playing for the exact same stakes. This year the Ravens are playing without Billy Cundiff and Lee Evans, the two players blamed for last year’s loss.
Patriots Run Offense vs. Ravens Run Defense
Underrated: Dannell Ellerbe. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots ability to run the football is going to be a major key for them in winning this game. In their first meeting in week three the Patriots running backs combined for a total of 75 yards on 30 touches, averaging only 2.5 yards per carry. This healthy Ravens run defense is a very good run defense. The two middle linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are extremely skilled run defenders. Ellerbe began the year as one of the most underrated linebackers in the game and now is finally getting some recognition. Every Ravens game I watch, Ellerbe´s speed stands out to me. If you add those two middle-linebackers to Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Terrence Cody and the rest of the defensive linemen that gets substituted in and out of the game, the Ravens have a very talented run defense. The Patriots do have very strong run-blockers to answer that run defense. Logan Mankins is known to be an exceptional run blocker and Ryan Wendell has stepped up ever since Dan Koppen was released. Dan Connelly also played a very solid season this year and really completed an offensive line that raised a lot of questions before the season. I also expect the Patriots to extensively use Michael Hoomanawanuii as a run blocker since that is the part of the tight end position he really masters.
Overall, this is a key matchup for the game and is very difficult to give either team an edge. The Patriots ability to run opens up the field and especially play action. I think Belichick and McDaniels will give Ridley the most touches like every week but might change their approach mid game by going with whoever has the hot hand. Shane Vereen was the only running back who did not play in the week three game and after his break out game last week, he will probably be built into the offense more this week.
Patriots Pass Offense vs. Ravens Pass Defense
Aaron Hernandez: He missed the week three game against the ravens due to injury Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
I do not think any pass defense really matches up well against the New England Patriots. The most impressive part about the Ravens pass defense in the week three game was their ability to shut down Rob Gronkowski and the other tight ends. This week the Ravens pass defense will have to shut down Aaron Hernandez. Michael Hoomanawanuii is expected to continue to play most of the game as well, but I do Daniel Fells to come into the mix as well, especially since he is the better receiving tight end. I expect Dannell Ellerbe to be the main linebacker to line up with Aaron Hernandez because he somewhat has the speed to keep up with him. Otherwise the Patriots have a big advantage on the outside. Week three both Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker had huge games and that was against a Ravens secondary that still had Lardarius Webb. Now they are without their best corner and again are going up again two very talented wide receivers. I am very much looking forward to seeing if the Patriots will frequently line up Shane Vereen on the outside. That would create tough matchups and give Tom Brady another option to throw to and put up points.
One doesn´t really have to talk about Tom Brady too much, especially when he is playing in the postseason and at home. One pretty much knows that he will make the plays if they are there and often even when they are not there. The one thing that can bring him out of his rhythm is getting hit. Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder will be under enormous pressure facing Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger. Paul Kruger has been playing exceptionally well these last two games. The entire offensive line has been very good protecting Tom Brady this entire season, as they have given up the 5th least sacks this year. I don´t think that will change on Sunday and the Patriots high paced offense will run very smoothly and put up 30 to 40 points.
Ravens Run Offense vs. Patriots Run Defense
Vince Wilfork: Key part of the Patriots Defense. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
The Ravens running game had very large success against the Patriots in their first meeting in week three. Ray Rice is the only running back to run for over 100 yards against the Patriots this year. The Run defense is the part of the defense that has seen a huge improvement in comparison to last year. Both first round draft picks, Dont´a Hightower and Chandler Jones, have had large impacts this season. The front seven is built perfectly to play against the run. Vince Wilfork is one of the best defensive tackles in the game and both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick have complimented him very well. Both defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich also play the run very well. Chandler Jones seems to be the only Patriot who is questionable for Sunday´s game. If he does not play the Patriots will have Justin Francis and Trevor Scott jump in whom both have been playing well. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont´a Hightower complete one of the most solid run defenses in the league. On the other side of the football the Ravens also have a very talented offensive line led by Six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk and this year Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda. This offensive line has been very solid throughout the year and will be called upon to open some lanes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Bernard Pierce´s health is still in question for Sunday as he did not Practice Thursday. A key factor often overlooked for this ravens running game is Vonta Leach. The big fullback was limited in participation on Thursday but is expected to play on Sunday. The Patriots must keep Ray Rice in check this Sunday and cannot allow him to run all over them, like he did in their previous meeting this season.
Ravens Pass Offense vs. Patriots Pass Defense
Joe Flacco dissected this Patriots secondary early in the season. The secondary has come a long way from there. The acquisition of Aqib Talib has made a large impact because it allowed Belichick to move Devin McCourty to Safety where he has done a terrific job. Plus Alfonzo Dennard has become a starter and has really lived up to the potential that was seen in him. This defense will be put under a lot of pressure since Joe Flacco does throw the deep ball frequently and has a very talented deep threat in Torrey Smith to make the big catches. The Patriots have been susceptible to the deep ball throughout the season, but that problem has faded towards the end. Torrey Smith, who had a huge game in their first meeting, will have to have another one Sunday. A problem for the patriots has been their linebackers’ ability to cover. As mentioned earlier, all three of these linebackers are extremely good against the run, but they also lack a bit of skill in pass coverage. Ray Rice will create a lot of problems coming out of the backfield as he is one of the best receiving backs in the league. Also two players one should not overlook are the skilled tight end´s, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. If the Ravens can get their running game going play-action could become deadly. An important factor for the Patriots will be to get pressure to Joe Flacco and force him to make some mistakes. A healthy Chandler Jones would definitely increase the Patriots ability to rush Joe Flacco. Michael Oher will have his hands full against Rob Ninkovich who has been forcing significant turnovers for the Patriots this entire season. If the Patriots are able to stop the big gains through the air they will be a huge step closer to winning this game.
The winner gets the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
I predict that the Patriots will win this game. It will be a closely contested game and could come down right to wire but at the end I think the Patriots will throw Ray Lewis his retirement party two weeks earlier than he hoped.
1. Running Game: Whichever team can rush the ball well, will be able to set up play action and will have a big advantage.
2. Special Teams: After both teams just had atrocious Special teams games last week, I bet both Harbaugh and Belichick put some emphasis on them in practice. Kickers will also have a big role as I believe this will be an extremely tight game.
3.Turnovers: Turnovers are always a key factor in game against the Patriots. This team does not turn the football over too often and does force a lot of them. Joe Flacco will have to play smart and take care of the football.