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The New England Patriots will make their sixth AFC Championship Game appearance of the Bill Belichick era this Sunday, hosting the Baltimore Ravens for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVI at 3:00 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
The Patriots have owned this series over the past decade, going 4-1 against Baltimore during that time period. That “1″ was a loud one however, a 33-14 trouncing during the 2009 Wild Card playoffs in Foxborough.
These two teams have played each other three times in the past three seasons. Baltimore and New England split their 2009 series, with New England edging the Ravens in the Week 4 regular season contest 27-21 before the Ravens dismantled New England 33-13 in their Wild Card match up.
Baltimore and New England also met up during the 2010 regular season, the first game of the post-Randy Moss era. Tom Brady led one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks, bringing New England back from a 20-10 deficit in the final frame to tie the game with under two minutes left. The Patriots finished off the Ravens with a 35-yard overtime field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
The Ravens come into the contest having won three in a row and seven of their last eight. In last week’s Divisional Round matchup versus Houston, Baltimore shut down rookie TJ Yates by capitalizing on a quartet of turnovers en route to a 20-13 victory to advance to this week’s title game. Quarterback Joe Flacco led touchdown drives of two and 34 yards, and was inconsistent throughout, tossing for 176 yards and two touchdowns on 14-27 passing.
New England enters the AFC Championship game on a roll, having won nine in a row. In last week’s Division Round matchup versus Denver, New England silenced Tebowmania, limiting the Broncos’ quarterback to 136 yards on just 9-26 passing and 13 yards on five carries. Tom Brady had one of the all-time great playoff performances, dissecting the Denver defense to the tune of 363 yards and six touchdowns (tying a postseason record) and just one interception.
Rob Ninkovich led the defensive effort for the Patriots, finishing the night with five tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle-for-loss, and a vital strip-sack of Tim Tebow to halt Denver’s opening possession.
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New England Offensive Line vs. Baltimore Pass Rush
Baltimore’s pass rush should scare Patriots’ fans. In fact, it should terrify them. In the past three matchups versus the Ravens, Baltimore has had two key strip sacks of Tom Brady, giving them fantastic field position which eventually led to touchdowns (2009, Wild Card). Jim Harbaugh’s pass rush also forced Tom Brady into a pair of interceptions in those match up as wells (Wild Card, 2010).
It is safe to say that protecting Brady is essential for successful offensive output. If the Patriots struggle in this area on Sunday, the Ravens could find themselves in close game late. If Brady is upright and can make his throws, the Patriots will have offensive success.
Joe Flacco vs. Bill Belichick
Ray Rice may dominate the headlines, but this game will come down to the arm of Joe Flacco at some point. Despite his critics (myself included), the Delaware alum possesses a 5-3 postseason record, including an appearance in the AFC Championship during his rookie campaign.
In three games against New England, Flacco averaged 198 yards against the Patriots (games of 264, 34, 285). In last week’s game against the Texans, Flacco had just 176 yards. Obviously stopping Ray Rice is a concern for the Patriots, he is a top-three rusher, but if the Patriots can shut down Flacco, New England will have a trip to Indianapolis.
Despite a line that opened at New England -9 and has shifted to -7, this game is going to be close. For some reason, I feel one of the Ravens key defensive playmakers (Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, or Haloti Ngata) causes a key turnovers that gives Flacco a short field. unfortunately for Baltimore, Tom Brady just has too many weapons to contain, which will provide the ultimate difference.
New England 24, Baltimore 20