New England Patriots v. Baltimore Ravens AFC Championship NFL Preview
By: Cian Fahey | Published Sunday, January 22, 2012, 9:30 AM | Updated Sunday, January 22, 2012, 9:30 AM
The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are the last two remaining teams in the AFC as they meet in the Championship game today to decide who will go to the Super Bowl.
While their style of play couldn't be any different to each other, both teams are capable of putting on dominant displays on any given Sunday.
Veteran leaders, Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, will both be looking to outfox each other while also providing the heartbeat of their respective rosters.
Lewis and Brady's matchup will be pivotal to the outcome of this game. Brady is the best in the league at diagnosing defenses, at least he is during Peyton Manning's continued absence, but Lewis is the best at hiding his team's play and understanding the tendencies of opposing offenses.
Outside of the Lewis and Brady matchup, the Ravens' biggest defensive priority will be containing Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Ravens likely won't give Brady the opportunity to take advantage of mismatches in man coverage so expect to see a lot of zone coverage from the backend.
Ravens safety Bernard Pollard is infamous in Boston for ending Tom Brady's season in 2008, but today his responsibilities will focus on primarily covering the team's tight ends.
Pollard and Reed's pre-snap positioning and movement will be key to confusing Brady. The two safeties, as well as Lewis and Terrell Suggs, will be the first players Brady looks to in order to determine his primary receiver.
Suggs will be hoping to be in Brady's eye-sight all day after not impacting TJ Yates in their last playoff game. Lining up across from Matt Light, Suggs should have an advantage over Light athletically. Neither is a youngster but Light's prime is long-gone while Suggs had his best statistical season with 14 sacks.
To many, Suggs is a defensive player of the year candidate, his versatility as far as positional play as well as his versatility in blitzing styles makes him the worst type of thorn to deal with for offensive co-ordinators.
Pressuring Brady from the outside isn't the ideal way to slow down the Patriots offense. The Ravens will be hoping to pressure Brady through the middle in order to prevent him from stepping into throws. Brady is not capable of consistently throwing off his back foot or extending plays outside of the pocket to win football games.
Expect Suggs to stunt inside on a regular basis as Haloti Ngata looks to push the pocket.
Ngata will be going against two celebrated guards in Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Waters and Mankins are indeed fine guards, but their play has suffered a drop-off as this season has worn on. Waters and Mankins started the season playing like all-pro players, even as all-pros they would struggle to deal with Ngata.
Despite not being a celebrated name, Ngata is arguably a top five player across the whole league regardless of position. His ability to dominant opposing offensive linemen is scary as he can overtake the running game and shut down the passing game with his sheer athleticism.
Collapsing the pocket on Brady will be what the Ravens look to do, expect to see a lot of four man fronts today opposed to their base 3-4 defense in order to move Ngata and Terrence Cody into the A gaps of the offensive line between the guard and the center.
Pressure won't be so key on the other side of the ball as the Patriots' priority will be to contain star running back Ray Rice.
Rice's ability to break off big runs or consistently cut chunks into defenses will present a major headache for Bill Belichick. Rice is elusive enough to make defenders miss in tight situations while he is intelligent enough to wait for holes from his offensive line to burst through.
Unlike last week's game against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots cannot sell out to stop the run this week.
The Ravens passing game may not be anywhere near as impressive as their running attack, but Joe Flacco and his slew of receivers are capable enough to keep the Patriots' defense honest. Considering the state of the Patriots' secondary, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans will all be threats to go deep on every single snap.
Running a balanced attack will be the Ravens' offensive gameplan provided that Cam Cameron doesn't get too trigger happy too early.Tweeting @Cianaf