As the AFC Championship game Sunday night draws near, both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens practice week is complete, their game plans are in place,and all their preparations are in place as they prepare to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Both teams have been here before, facing off just last year in the AFC Championship. Although not division rivals, the teams have played each frequently enough over the past few years that they are extremely familiar with each other on both sides of the ball. Here are the five important keys to the game that will determine the outcome of the game and who will move on to play the NFC champion in the Super Bowl in two weeks in New Orleans:
Jan 12, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) against the Denver Broncos during the AFC divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
- Baltimore’s Vertical Passing Game
- The Ravens offensive firepower with quarterback Joe Flacco is predicated on big plays downfield. Baltimore has become a vertical threat with deep-threat wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones complemented by receiver Anquan Boldin working the underneath and sidelines. The Ravens sprinkle in tight end Dennis Pitta into the vertical attack on the deep seam like the Patriots do with their tight ends. The Patriots were burned deep at the beginning of the season by Baltimore (and Seattle, and, well, by everyone). Denver, who had to know it was coming, got beat deep repeatedly by the Ravens by Jacoby Jones for a 70 yard touchdown, Torrey Smith for touchdowns of 59 yards and 32 yards.
- If the Ravens replicate their success with the big plays on Sunday, like against Denver the week before, they will be able to stay in the game on the road and give themselves a chance to make a play at the end of the game. The Patriots were in cover-two most of the game, and safeties Steven Gregory and Patrick Chung were not getting deep and taking away the over-the-top pass Look for a different defensive alignment from the Patriots Sunday night, as having Devin McCourty at safety and Aqib Talib at cornerback has allowed them to single Talib on an opponent’s number one receiver and allow McCourty to play deep facing the quarterback and take away the deep pass.
- If the Ravens are able to hit the deep pass and pick-up touchdowns or huge chunks of yardage, they will be in position to stay close and have a chance to pull off an upset.
Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
- Patriots Rushing Attack
- Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made all the news outlets last week by ripping on the Patriots extreme hurry-up offense that they have utilized this season on Twitter. Although Ayanbadejo called the Patriots offense “suspect” and a “gimmick” in his tweets, the truth is that the Patriots used the hurry-up to great success against the Ravens in week three. Ayanbadejo’s comments come off as what coaches call “loser talk”–he’s making up excuses for losing before the game is even played. I cannot imagine that his comments went over well in his locker room. With Oregon’s coach Chip Kelly bringing his warp-speed spread offense to Philadelphia, teams had better get used to the speed of the game increasing.
- What the Patriots do so well with the hurry-up attack is use running back Stevan Ridley and the other running backs to blast around the end or through creases in the line as the defenses don’t have time to set the defense before another play comes at them. Ridley is a perfect fit to this offense speed because he fits the Bill Belichick running back profile of being decisive with the ball in his hands and moving upfield quickly. Often referred to as “one-cut”, this is not a running style for backs dancing in the backfield waiting for hole to open and break off a big run. The big runs come for the Patriots by getting Ridley to the second level where he can make a move or run over a defensive back.
- Patriots running back Shane Vereen, although not having the size of Ridley, is quicker and just as effective when he runs with authority. As Vereen has become more comfortable in the offense, possibly from just being healthy enough to play and practice regularly, his ability to pick up yards on the ground (in addition to via the passing game) has stood out. Earlier in the season, the Patriots had incredible success on 2nd down and long where they would hurry to the line and run Ridley or Vereen while the opposing defense were off-balance and expecting a pass.
- If the Patriots can pick up chunks of yardage on the ground against the Ravens, they can keep the defense back on its heels and allow for the passing game to operate at top efficiency and score a lot of points.
Dec 10, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (left) and New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports
- Patriots Pass-Catchers Match-ups in the Middle
- Going hand-in-hand with the running game is the Patriots short passing game featuring wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez working over the short to intermediate middle of the field. The Patriots will use these receivers as de facto running backs running three to five yard routes that get the ball out of quarterback Tom Brady’s hands quickly before the pass rush gets to him. By getting these two the ball in space, they often can make the first defender miss and pick up eight or ten yards on the play.
- The Ravens linebackers are strong against the run and like to blitz the quarterback. No linebacker in Black and Blue is going to go to the Pro Bowl based on pass coverage. In week three, the Patriots did not have tight end Aaron Hernandez playing and the Ravens focused a lot of attention on tight end Rob Gronkowski. With Gronkowksi out injured, it will be interested to see where the Ravens try to match-up with the Patriots receivers. Ravens cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith will likely find themselves matched-up on wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd at various points of the game.
- Who for the Ravens draws coverage on tight end Aaron Hernandez and how many defenders he commands is going to be an important part of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s pre-snap reads. If the Ravens allow Hernandez to match-up in single coverage against a linebacker (especially an inside linebacker like Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbee, two run thumpers who struggle in pass coverage) look for Hernandez to exploit that coverage and make some big plays.
Jan 12 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) is tackled for a loss by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) and outside linebacker Paul Kruger (99)
- 5 and 9 (Terrell Suggs #55 and Paul Kruger #99)
- As Patriots quarterback Tom Brady watched his hours and hours of film on the Ravens defense this week, his eyes had to be drawn to the 5s and 9s. Ravens outside linebackers #55 Terrell Suggs and #99 Paul Kruger are smart, strong, pass-rushers. While Suggs was injured for the first half of the season, Kruger stepped-up and took over his role of terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. Now the Ravens have both on the field in their nickel defense. As the Ravens are likely to be in the nickel a majority of the game, Brady will need to make sure his protections account for these two pass-rushers coming off the edge.
- The Patriots match-up to these two with their twin towers at tackles in left tackle Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Don’t discount the Patriots role of the second tight end even without Rob Gronkowski. Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has excelled this season by providing an extra blocker in the running game and providing help against quarterback smashing edge rushers like the Ravens duo. Look for the running backs to chip in as well and help out if the Ravens bring extra rushers at quarterback Tom Brady and try to isolate Suggs and Kruger one-on-one with the Patriots offensive tackles.
- If the Patriots line and tight ends give quarterback Tom Brady an extra half second to step and throw accurately, it could be a long night for the Ravens, but if Brady is out of rhythm and getting hit by the edge rush, Baltimore is in great position to create turnovers and turn the tide of the game.
Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller (58) pressures Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5)
- Who’s in a Hurry?
- Everyone expects the Patriots to be in hurry-up mode on offense, but what about the Ravens? In week three against the Patriots, the Ravens fell behind 13-0 after the first quarter. With Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the no-huddle offense, the Ravens moved down the field on two extended drives to score and take a 14-13 lead at one point in the second quarter and get themselves back in the game. After the Patriots took the lead before halftime, the Ravens came out in the second half in the no-huddle again and moved down the field to score and take the lead again.
- Obviously, the Patriots hope to keep the Ravens from exploding for 500 yards of offense again. If the Ravens have trouble slowing down the Patriots on offense, they won’t hesitate to put quarterback Joe Flacco in the shotgun and run the hurry-up offense. If the Patriots get the Ravens in the hurry up and make some stops, they can get the game out of hand in a hurry.
General view of the Lamar Hunt trophy awarded to the winner of the AFC Championship game. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports