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.