The 2012 AFC Championship has been set. After victories over the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will meet in Foxboro next Sunday to decide what team will represent the conference in the Super Bowl. With those two franchises involved, thoughts must immediately meander back to last year's Championship game when these two teams did battle previously.
While the setting, timing, prize and main characters are the same, an awful lot has changed over the past 12 months. Changes that will affect who comes out victorious. Last season, the Patriots scraped past the Ravens after a combination of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff cost the Ravens late on. However, during the regular season, the Ravens got some level of revenge as they had their own last minute field goal victory at home in Maryland. The difference at kicker alone proved to be huge, but this time around it could come down to any of the following details.
Ravens' New Offensive Line:
Last season, the Ravens entered Foxboro with an offensive line that had been settled for the whole season. Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher were the left and right tackles respectively, while Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda provided high quality options on the interior. The group was one of the better units in the league, but center Birk had been struggling for form entering the game and was severely exposed by the Patriots' Vince Wilfork.
Birk hasn't been struggling this season. He graded out better this year according to ProFootballFocus and his only really bad outting came against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Against the New England Patriots in Week 3, Birk contained all pass rushers that came his way and was a solid run-blocker. Birk has been average in recent weeks against lesser opposition, but he is definitely on a different level than he was at this time last year.
Along with Birk's reincarnation, the Ravens also have rookie Kelechi Osemele starting at left guard. Osemele is inexperienced at guard at this level, having played most of the season at right tackle. Osemele was forced to play right tackle, with Michael Oher swinging to left tackle, because of Bryant McKinnie's off-season struggles. McKinnie was on the bench for most of the year, but returned to the starting lineup in time for the playoffs. It's difficult to know what to expect from McKinnie, because he has played so little during the season.
Different Dimensions at Wide Receiver:
The only personnel change from last season's game to this year's is the addition of Jacoby Jones to replace the departed Lee Evans as the third wide receiver. Jones has already come up big for the Ravens, after catching that touchdown pass against the Denver Broncos in the last round. Even without that big play, his overall production this season has been significantly greater than Evans' ever was. Jones not only helps the team on offense, but he also offers a huge threat as a special teams returner(something the Patriots seriously struggled with against the Texans).
Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta may have all been on the roster last season, but each is at a very different point of their careers this year. Boldin is entering the game in much greater form this season than he did last year. Smith was essentially just a speedster in 2011, but this year he has developed into a well-rounded and explosive player. Maybe most importantly, Dennis Pitta, who was barely used as a rookie, has developed into a high quality receiving option over the middle for Joe Flacco. Pitta was behind Ed Dickson on the depth chart last year, but has clearly surpassed him at this point in his career. He offers the Ravens a receiver who can create mismatches against most defenses.
Revamped Rushing Attack:
Ray Rice is still the feature back for the Ravens, as he was last season, but now he is complemented by rookie runner Bernard Pierce opposed to Ricky Williams. Williams only had six carries against the Patriots last season, and was on the field for just 15 total snaps. Pierce should see a similar workload, but his big-play ability makes him a greater part of the offense than Williams ever was. Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry during the regular season and has over 600 yards on the whole season. He has season longs of 78 and 43 yards, so doesn't need multiple touches to have a major impact.
Cameron Out, Caldwell In:
During the regular season, the Ravens finally parted ways with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Cameron was the butt of many jokes about the team's inability to get the best out of it's best players during his tenure. Jim Caldwell, the former Indianapolis Colts' head coach, has come in to change up how the offense approaches games. So far, it has been for the better.
Youth Infusion in the Front Seven:
Defensively, the Ravens have had to endure an awful lot. Each of Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs have had various injuries this year, some effects from those are still lingering. Throw in the absence of starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain and the departure of outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson prior to the year, to make the Ravens' front seven a very young group.
Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Courtney Upshaw, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, Albert McClellan, Terrence Cody and Brendon Ayanbadejo combined for 4,791 snaps this year, compared to just 2,209 last season. That unit does at least provide some improved athleticism over last season, but it also exposes the group's inexperience to the pre-snap ability of Tom Brady.
During last year's game, Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith were the Ravens' top three cornerbacks. Webb and Williams started the game, with 68 snaps apiece, while Smith played 63. Webb spent the majority of his snaps in that game covering Wes Welker in the slot and he also intercepted Brady. However, Webb won't be involved at all having torn his ACL during the regular season and landing on IR. Williams will start the game and is fully healthy, but Jimmy Smith, a former first round pick who also intercepted Brady last season, while still on the roster has an unclear status.
In their place, the Ravens have turned to the young, inexperienced Chykie Brown and veteran backup Corey Graham. The Broncos picked on Brown somewhat, but Graham was able to intercept a pass from Manning and return it for a touchdown early on. Neither has the size or physicality of Webb or Smith, but so long as they can keep them away from the Patriots' tight ends, they should be able to get by.
Another New Coordinator:
Chuck Pagano's new job with the Indianapolis Colts has pushed Dean Pees into the defensive coordinator role for the Ravens. Pees is a veteran coach who has guided the Ravens' defense through plenty of turmoil already this season. He hasn't proved to be a downgrade from Pagano at all.
—New England Patriots—
A Shiny New Secondary:
Last season's Patriots carried one of the least impressive secondaries in the whole league all the way to the Super Bowl. That led to some serious efforts from the front office over the past 12 months to revamp the unit. Neither Sterling Moore or James Ihedigbo are on the roster anymore, while Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib are now the starting cornerbacks. Devin McCourty has excelled since moving to safety, while Steve Gregory has arrived in free agency to solidify the other starting spot on the backend. Furthermore, the demotion of Kyle Arrington and addition of Tavon Wilson has made the unit much deeper on the whole.
In this game, Dennard and Talib will be crucial. Talib was acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to provide a physical presence on the outside. He has the ability to play press coverage against Anquan Boldin, who had over 100 yards on six receptions in this matchup last season. Boldin is built like a running-back and he would bully any of the Patriots' other cover men, but Talib has the strength and size to stick with him. Dennard was a troubled, but talented college player who has surprised many since being drafted by the team in the seventh round. Dennard may not have the speed of Torrey Smith, but he has enough to track him down the field with safety help and limit his impact with big plays. On the whole, he is performing at a much higher degree than Arrington was at this time last year.
A Brand New Pass Rush:
Long gone are defensive ends Andre Carter(who actually missed the playoffs last year), Shaun Ellis and Mark Anderson, to be replaced by Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott. Jones was the team's first pick of the 2012 NFL draft, while Ninkovich has moved from linebacker to defensive end this year with some success. Cunningham is much more involved this year than last, while Trevor Scott was signed in free agency as a situational pass rusher. Ninkovich and Jones are the team's two primary rushers, but Jones has been limited since a mid-season injury.
Much like last season, the Patriots will probably need to rely more on their inside rush opposed to their defensive end coming off the edges.
With Bernard Pollard on the field this weekend, Patriots fans will be anxious every time he tackles one of the home-side's players. It was during this game last season when Pollard tackled Gronkowski and he never really got back up. Gronkowski injured his ankle then and would be limited for the team's Super Bowl against the New York Giants. This season, Gronkowski is going to miss the whole game having re-injured his broken arm against the Houston Texans last week.
The Patriots handled Gronkowski's absence with relative ease this season. However, against the best of opposition in the conference, the loss of Gronkowski definitely makes the Ravens' job on defense that much easier.
Swapping Out Consistency For Explosion:
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for 21 carries and 77 yards with one touchdown against the Ravens last season. Entering this game, Green-Ellis is under contract with the Cincinnati Bengals while Woodhead left the victory over the Houston Texans with an injury on the very first play. Without those two, the Patriots will instead turn to Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Vereen and Ridley were both drafted ahead of last season, but neither carried much weight of the offense. This season, Ridley ran for over 1,200 yards with 12 touchdowns, while Vereen had three total touchdowns against the Texans. Both have proven to be less consistent than their predecessors, but both are also significantly more explosive. Ridley in particular has developed into a constant end-zone threat and helped to balance the offensive attack.
The McDaniels Impact:
Josh McDaniels left the Patriots to become the Denver Broncos head coach many years ago. After one season as the St. Louis Rams' head coach last year, McDaniels returned to the Patriots during last season's playoff run. He was with the team for the AFC Championship game, but he hadn't really had any input on what the offense was producing. With him installed as the offensive coordinator this season, the Patriots led the league in scoring with a historic season. They averaged 34.8 points per game, scoring 557 total, and also led the league in total yards with 427.9 per game. Most importantly however, the Patriots' offensive balance was phenomenal with the team ranking fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards. That kind of balance could make the difference this season.
Another Revamped Offensive Line:
The Patriots have seemingly always had one of the best offensive lines in the league under Dante Scarrnechia, but this year there was some doubt cast over the abilities of the unit. Last year's lineup featured veterans Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters and Sebastien Vollmer. After Light and Waters retired, the Patriots instead enter this game with the much less experienced Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell starting. Couple that with Logan Mankins' various injury issues, Sebastien Vollmer's chronic back problems and Dan Connolly's second position change in successive seasons, and the Patriots have a completely different offensive line unit for this year's championship game.
That unit has performed admirably all season long, but one must wonder if those performances will continue at this stage of the season.
The Brandon Lloyd Factor:
With the Ravens' lacking two of their top three cornerbacks, the Patriots will be desperate to get the ball outside of the numbers in this game. Last year they were throwing passes to Deion Branch, Chad Johnson and Julian Edelman at this point of the season, but this year those players have primarily been replaced by Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd hasn't had the expected impact on the Patriots' offense from a statistical point of view, but he has infinitely more ability than any of Johnson, Branch and Edelman at this point of their respective careers. Johnson was released prior to the season. Branch was too, before being signed during the season and then placed on IR. Edelman also landed on IR before his season ever really got going.