Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at
New England Patriots (14-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, 2 p.m.
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
When the Ravens have the ball: When Baltimore rolled the Patriots, 33-14, in the 2009 postseason, it was a sizzling Ray Rice performance that carried the day. Rice had 22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns, including an 83-yard score, and the Ravens attempted only 10 passes. Baltimore must break its puzzling habit of going away from Rice in road games this season; he's averaging only 14.5 carries with 10 or fewer carries four times. That can't happen on this stage. Rice accounted for 38 percent of the team's offensive output in 2011 and he's easily the Ravens' premier playmaker. The Patriots aren't a threat to sack QB Joe Flacco five times as the Texans did last week. Their front seven is not as active or athletic and there are holes throughout the secondary, exposed by far lesser quarterbacks than Flacco in recent weeks. Flacco went 7-0 against teams in the 2011 playoffs by avoiding mistakes — two interceptions in those games — but he was nervy behind a flustered offensive line last week and has just six touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight career playoff games. Flacco has the height and arm strength to get the ball out even in a muddled pocket. WR Anquan Boldin, the team's best route-runner, works the middle of the field fearlessly. The Patriots are likely to let Flacco have the seven- to 10-yard intermediate throws to instead challenge speed threats Torrey Smith and Lee Evans. New England allowed 10 300-yard games and was 31st in the NFL in passing defense during the regular season, but the numbers are slightly overstated in that they patiently wait for miscues and clamp down in the red zone. They'll attack Flacco's looseness with the ball — he has 10 total fumbles, including one last week — and attempt to change the game with takeaways.
When the Patriots have the ball: The Patriots are well-equipped to use empty sets early and often as elixir for the Ravens' supercharged pass rush. Tom Brady has the skilled tight ends who can align at wide receiver, flex into the slot or motion into the backfield to slow the 3-4 scheme. Brady had six touchdown passes last week and wasn't sacked. The Ravens brought pressure through the inside gaps in the '09 win, and have been successful tripping up Brady's timing with receivers. Brady's 55.9 completion percentage against the Ravens in five career games is his lowest against any NFL team. He can take advantage of SS Bernard Pollard's aggressiveness against TE Rob Gronkowski and slide WR Wes Welker, who had 122 catches in the regular season, around the formation to find the best matchup. FS Ed Reed, typically an equalizer in coverage because of his range, closing speed and sure hands, might be limited by a sore ankle. Brady had a 40-yard completion in 10 of the last 13 games, including last week, and will pepper throws to the sideline to gauge Reed's health. But if Reed is right, the Ravens have a chance to rattle Brady's cage as they did in '09, when he was picked three times and sacked three times, had a 49.1 passer rating and a long completion of 24 yards The Patriots are a sum of parts running game. In the divisional round win over Denver, TE Aaron Hernandez had a team-high 61 yards on five carries, including a 43-yard run. Baltimore gave up 92.6 rushing yards per game in 2011, holding eight of its opponents to less than 95 rushing yards.
Special teams: The Patriots punted as many as five times in only two of their 17 games. By contrast, the Ravens punted nine times last week, the ninth time this season they had five or more punts. New England's Zoltan Mesko had a 46.5-yard average to match Sam Koch of the Ravens. Baltimore's return game — Tom Zbikowski on kickoffs, Lardarius Webb on punts — isn't a major threat since losing David Reed (29.7 yards per kickoff return) to a season-ending knee injury Dec. 24. The Patriots aren't a major threat to break a long return. Julian Edelman had a 72-yard runback for score but otherwise averaged 8.3 yards on 27 punt returns. Baltimore was 31st in kickoff return average at 29.2 yards per return, but the Ravens did come up with a fumble recovery on a punt return last week. After an All-Pro worthy season in 2010, Ravens PK Billy Cundiff made just over 75 percent of his field goals and was hampered late in the season by a calf injury. Stephen Gostkowski was 10-of-13 on field goals of 40-plus yards and 28-of-33 overall for New England.
— Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange