The New England Patriots came off of their bye week and dominated the Houston Texans for the second time in a month 41-28. The game was more lopsided than the final score, but all that matters is that the Pats are back in the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year. Once again, New England will host the Baltimore Ravens for the right to go to the Super Bowl. You can catch the game at 6:30 eastern time on CBS.
These two teams are playing not only in a re-match of last year’s 23-20 AFC Championship Game thriller, but also a re-match of the Week 3 meeting this year in Baltimore where the Ravens came from nine points down in the 4th to win it 31-30. These teams are very familiar with each other as this matchup is becoming one of the more emerging rivalries in the NFL. Baltimore is coming off an emotional 38-35 double overtime win on the road against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Plus, we all know the storyline behind this Ravens’ run is the pending retirement of one of the greatest linebackers of all time as soon as their season ends in Ray Lewis. With all the close games these two teams have played over the last five years, I don’t expect anything different on Sunday night.
Here are my keys to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in the Giant Razor:
0It seems that during the 2012 season, Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco was looking to add his name to the “elite” pantheon of quarterbacks. Under ex-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, all the pressure was put on the former 1st round pick due to the lack of usage of a great running game. Now, under the new offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell, Flacco has seen much more consistency because of a balanced offensive attack. Since Week 16, Flacco has 7 touchdown passes to zero interceptions! Against the Patriots, Flacco has 9 touchdowns in 5 games to just 4 interceptions. This includes 10 completions of 25+ yards. In five games with Caldwell as the OC, Flacco has a QB rating of 102.8. In order for the Ravens to win this game, their quarterback has to hit the home run ball the same way he did against the Broncos and like he did in Week 3 against the Patriots. I am a believer in Flacco in that you can’t rely on him to make the mistake himself. Instead, you have to force him to make mistake by trying out more blitzes. Fortunately, the Patriots have been able to blitz more due to the acquisition mid-season of cornerback Aqib Talib.
2. Tailing On Torrey: When Flacco likes to go deep for the home run, the target he likes to go to most is Torrey Smith. The former Maryland wide receiver had only 6 targets against the Broncos, but still had 3 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns! This was against one of the best cornerbacks of all-time in Champ Bailey. You can recall back in Week 3 that Smith, playing with a heavy heart due to the death of his brother that morning, had 6 catches for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns. In Baltimore wins this year, Smith has 10 touchdown receptions. On the other hand, in losses, Smith has not recorded a single touchdown. This makes Aqib Talib’s presence so important in this game.
Back in Week 3, Smith was guarded by Devin McCourty who fell victim to numerous defensive penalties, including a final drive pass interference call that led to the game-winning field goal for the Ravens. McCourty is now playing safety, so he will be in charge of keeping Smith in front of him should he burn Talib from the onset of the snap. I think Talib will limit the big plays, but the Patriots not only have to cover Smith, but also veteran Anquan Boldin, who is great at getting yards after the catch. Look for rookie Alfonzo Dennard to play an important role on that side of the field.
3. Cary, Cary, Quite Contrary: When you talk Ravens’ defense, everyone thinks of players like Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and of course Ray Lewis. While those players make an impact, the Ravens’ secondary is what I will be watching on Sunday night. The Baltimore defensive backfield has had its share of injuries in 2012. They lost number one defensive back LaDarius Webb early in the season due to a torn ACL. But, two candidates have emerged as the season has progressed to make plays for the team in Corey Graham and Cary Williams. Back in Week 3, Williams had 10 tackles to lead the team, but was the target of some big throws by Tom Brady to receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. He has five interceptions this year, which includes an INT of Andrew Luck in the 4th quarter of the Wild Card round. Against Williams, yards after catch will be important since he does a very solid job at taking away the underneath routes from opposing quarterbacks.
Also, he has a good complement at defensive back with Corey Graham, who had an interception for a touchdown and the interception in overtime against Peyton Manning last week. Against the Patriots, the Ravens’ defense has been great at forcing Brady to throw interceptions. If New England has no balance to their offense and Brady has to throw 50+ times, the Ravens will be the ones going to New Orleans, forcing at least one interception on #12.
Let me preface my prediction by saying that back in August, I predicted on my radio show that the Baltimore Ravens would go to Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Also, I picked the Ravens to win the Week 3 matchup with the Pats. That being said, there is no reason for me to think that this game will not be another instant classic. These teams are so evenly matched every time they play, with the exception of the 2009 AFC Wild Card game where the Ravens beat a Welker-less Patriots’ team 33-14.
The Ravens have the feel of a team of destiny to them, especially after their win over the Broncos last Saturday. They are getting an emotional boost from Ray Lewis and will come into this game with revenge on their minds knowing that they should have beaten the Patriots at Gillette last season. Plus, they are all healthy at the right time.
The Patriots don’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski, but I still expect Brady to balance out the targets in the passing game and to give a healthy dose of that balanced running attack with Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead to the Baltimore front seven.
Last year, the Ravens had the last possession and could not get it done. As much as I am tempted to pick the Ravens for this game, I think the Patriots will get the ball last and Tom Brady will hit Aaron Hernandez for the game-winning touchdown to send the Patriots to New Orleans.
PATRIOTS 28 RAVENS 27