Two teams driven by past failures will meet today in Foxboro for the AFC Championship game. For the Baltimore Ravens, the venue is the same. The Ravens' season came to a close at this point last year when Lee Evans couldn't fight off Sterling Moore for a last second touchdown, before Billy Cundiff pushed his field goal attempt outside of the posts. The New England Patriots celebrated that day, but two weeks later the pain would come. For the second time in five years, Tom Brady couldn't out-duel Eli Manning in the Super Bowl. Both teams still palpably feel that pain, which gives them both the motivation to battle ferociously today.
Ferocious battles have been typical of this tie in recent years. Last year's game was decided by just three points, 23 to 20 final, while the Ravens gained some level of revenge with a one point victory in the regular season this year, 31 to 30 final. In fact, since 2007 only one of six meetings between the two teams have been decided by more than one score. That game was a landslide 33-14 victory for the Ravens in Foxboro during the playoffs. A Tom Brady-led Patriots team has never lost a home AFC Championship game, but Brady is also just 3-3 in the playoffs since the 2008 Super Bowl.
Much of the attention in this game is going to be shared between Brady and Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis returned after a torn triceps for the playoffs this year, but announced before the playoffs that this would be his final season playing football. That has provided added motivation for the Ravens, who unexpectedly made it this far after a season blighted by injuries. Lewis himself is not at 100 percent as he deals with the ramifications of his arm injury. Terrell Suggs is in a similar situation having suffered an arm injury and a torn achilles earlier this season. Haloti Ngata has had a few injuries that have made him a shadow of himself on the field, most significantly some minor MCL damage in his knee. Ed Reed has played with a shoulder injury all season long, noticeably struggling to tackle players consistently. Those key players are all playing through injuries, but other key players Lardarius Webb and Jameel McClain are on IR, while Jimmy Smith doesn't seem set to play yet.
That means that Brady will be playing against a beaten up defense that has limped it's way through the season. Even though they are limping, the Ravens still did enough on defense to beat Peyton Manning last week in Denver. Most importantly, backup cornerback Corey Graham made two interceptions as a starter. One came at the beginning of the game when he ran back a touchdown, while the other sealed the victory in overtime. Those are the types of plays that the Patriots must avoid today. Last year Tom Brady was intercepted twice by the Ravens, which allowed them to be in position to score a game-winning touchdown at the end of the game. Instead of forcing plays today, Brady needs to be as patient as he has ever been to pick apart the defense.
Brady is typically patient and the offense as a whole does methodically move down the field. However, today they may have to be even more so. The Ravens' linebackers can be picked on in coverage, while Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are the strengths of the secondary. Reed has had a relatively quiet season, but he typically comes up big in at least one game and he's running out of opportunities. Even though this defense is drastically different to the one that played in last year's game, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is worse all over. The youth upfront has helped the pass-rush late in the season, as the Ravens sacked Peyton Manning three times last week, forcing two fumbles. Terrell Suggs had two sacks and a forced fumble, as he finally appears to be overcoming his injury issues to produce, while youngster Pernell McPhee also got to Manning to knock the ball free. The Patriots' offensive line has been excellent all season long, but time in the pocket won't be a given in this game.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots' secondary is set up well to stop the Ravens' passing attack. Anquan Boldin's size can be counteracted by Aqib Talib's physicality, while Torrey Smith's speed shouldn't overwhelm Alfonzo Dennard in space. Joe Flacco's deep bombs are very dangerous, but they also offer up opportunities to Devin McCourty for turnovers. McCourty has excelled since moving to safety, while both of the team's new starting cornerbacks have also impressed this season in coverage. The Patriots should struggle to cover Dennis Pitta however. The tight end was only a bit-part player behind Ed Dickson last year, but this season he has emerged into a difference-maker who Joe Flacco can rely on to make plays consistently. He is too big for Steve Gregory or Devin McCourty to cover, while he would simply run away from any of the team's linebackers. Pat Chung could be used in a special role, but that is yet to be determined.
Even though the Patriots' secondary match up well to the Ravens' receiving weapons, they still need to execute on the day to prove it. Anquan Boldin is in great form, while Torrey Smith had a huge performance in difficult conditions when the teams met in the regular season. Throw in Jacoby Jones' big play ability and the Ravens can beat you in various ways passing the football. What really makes this offense dangerous however, is the balance they now have to take attention off of Ray Rice.
Rice ran for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Denver Broncos on 30 carries. The Patriots have a very good run defense, but Rice is the type of back who can escape from any defender at any given time. You can't go into a game expecting to shut him down or even contain him, because he is just that good of a back. Now that he has a big-play threat to spell him in the backfield, Bernard Pierce, the Ravens' rushing attack is even more fearsome than it was last season. In fact, it's possible that it is even better than it was when Willis McGahee and Rice created one of the best combinations at the position in the league.
To stop Rice the Patriots will need their front seven to swarm to the football and dominate in the trenches. To stop Flacco and his weapons outside, the Patriots need consistent coverage from their secondary. In other words, the Patriots need a complete team effort to contain the Baltimore Ravens today. If not, the odds on Justin Tucker missing a last second field goal aren't good for the Patriots.