Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
VENUE: Gillette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
LOCATION: Foxboro, Mass (map)
WEATHER: current forecast (30', 8 mph
wind, 20% chance of snow)
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
PREDICTION: Ravens 30-27
TO THE GAME: 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.
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.
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.
FAST FACTS: Rice led
the NFL with 452 yards on third down this season. ... The Ravens were
third in the NFL in receiving yards by opposing tight ends. ... Tom
Brady has completed 20 of 24 passes to TE Rob Gronkowski thrown into
the end zone.
SERIES HISTORY: 8th overall meeting
between the two teams. The series began in 1996 when the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore. The Ravens and Patriots have played six
times in the regular season with New England winning all six games.
Baltimore, however, won the lone postseason meeting between the two
teams, 33-14, in the 2009 wild-card playoffs at Gillette Stadium.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Patriots arguably pieced together their best defensive effort of
the season against the Broncos in the divisional playoffs.
But Pro Bowl lineman Vince Wilfork is cautiously optimistic heading
into Sunday's conference title game that more good things are coming
from a defense that has been plenty bad in stretches this season.
He also knows the Patriots haven't solved all their problems, not to
mention the fact the Baltimore Ravens present a new set of challenges.
"I think last week won't have anything to do with this week to be
honest with you," Wilfork said. "Our goal is to get better. We have to
play better. We have to make more plays because each game you play it
gets tougher and tougher, especially when you're dealing with a ball
club we're going to face in the Ravens.
stingy team," he continued. "Defensively, they're probably one of the
best teams. Offensively, they have probably one of the best running
backs in the game -- wide receivers, (Anquan) Boldin and everyone. It's
definitely a challenge for us, but I think this defense is capable."
The confidence level should be at an all-time high. The Patriots can
take solace in knowing they managed a 13-3 regular-season record
despite finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive
categories. Now they're one win away from the Super Bowl.
"I have faith that we're going to get to work and we're going to put
everything we have in it," Wilfork said. "Right now, it's a one game
season. The only thing we're focused on is the AFC Championship -- this
game against the Ravens. The team that prepares well, that's the team
that is going to win this ball game."
arguably the key to the entire game plan. The Patriots need to shut
down Ray Rice, who destroyed them two years ago in Foxboro in the
wild-card playoffs, and Wilfork's ability to team with fellow lineman
Kyle Love and hold down the fort, so to speak, will determine whether
or not the Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time
in four years.
"When you have a running back like that,
you can do anything with him," Wilfork said. "I think the Ravens do a
good job of using him. That's first on our list; we have to slow him
down if we want to be successful as a defense."
The Baltimore Ravens can't be blamed for walking out of the defensive
meeting rooms with bleary eyes or dreaming at night of Rob Gronkowski
and Aaron Hernandez after watching film of the New England Patriots'
tight ends. But the scrutiny is well-deserved.
Gronkowski set a new standard for tight ends when he compiled a
NFL-record 1,327 yards, surpassing the previous mark of 1,290
established by the San Diego Chargers' Kellen Winslow in 1980.
Gronkowski set another league mark when he hauled in 17 touchdown
catches, shattering the record of 13 shared by the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2004) and the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis (2009).
Hernandez may not have the records like his teammate does, but he
enjoyed his own share of success, finishing the regular season with 910
yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169
receptions -- the most by a pair of tight ends in the same season in
Those results -- as well as Gronkowski's
10-catch, 145-yard, three-touchdown display in New England's 45-10
thrashing of the Denver Broncos in last weekend's AFC Divisional
playoff round -- have caught the attention of Baltimore's defensive
"There's probably not a better duo in the
league," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Hernandez, they use
him everywhere. They use him as a running back. He runs a lot of
vertical routes, runs a lot of underneath routes. And then Gronkowski,
he's just a big, physical body who can run. You think he's 6-6, 265
(pounds) or whatever he is, but you watch him on film and he's running
away from people. So it's a huge challenge for us. But you've just got
to match up and play."
At 6-3 and 260 pounds, Johnson
has the strength to match up with Gronkowski and the 6-1, 245-pound
Hernandez. The defense could also elect to shadow them with either
inside linebackers Jameel McClain (6-1, 245 pounds) or Brendon Ayanbadejo (6-1, 225 pounds).
If Baltimore prefers to
match those tight ends stride-for-stride, strong safety Bernard Pollard
may be the best candidate.
But the 6-1, 224-pound Pollard said the defense's
best strategy may lie in being physical with the duo.
"If you look at them, sometimes they run downfield by themselves. We
can't have that happen," Pollard said. "We have to have guys on them at
all times. We've got to run around, we've got to hit, we've got to
tackle. I'm a strong believer that if you hit, tackle, and hit people
hard, people don't like that. A lot of people don't like that. Not to
say that they're soft or anything else. I'm just saying that a lot of
offensive people don't like being hit."
The Ravens have
an enviable track record of success against opposing tight ends in
2011. The defense surrendered the second-fewest yards to tight ends
Brady practiced Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with a left
shoulder injury. Brady has battled the injury throughout the season and
will be in the lineup Sunday.
--OT Nate Solder has been
added to the injury report with a concussion. Solder is a key player
given his ability to play both tackle positions.
Sebastian Vollmer is still limited in practice due to back and foot
injuries. He sat out last week's playoff opener, but might be forced
back into the lineup if Nate Solder is unavailable.
--WR Deion Branch has been limited in practice due to a knee injury,
but figures to be in the lineup Sunday. He'll be a key part of the game
plan since the best way to beat Baltimore's defense might be utilizing
--FS Ed Reed was
limited in practice on Thursday, marking the second straight day he
took part on a limited basis. Reed, who is dealing with an injured left
ankle, is expected to make his customary start on Sunday against the
New England Patriots.
--QB Joe Flacco needs just one
playoff win to move into a tie for the most post-season victories by a
quarterback in his first four seasons in the NFL. Flacco, who is 5-3 in
the playoffs, trails the Patriots' Tom Brady, who accrued six
postseason wins in his first four years.
--RB Ray Rice
is one touchdown shy of setting a new franchise playoff record. Rice,
who has four combined touchdowns in the postseason, is tied with
running backs Willis McGahee and Jamal Lewis.
--LB Ray Lewis has caused six fumbles in 16 career playoff contests. Lewis is
tied with former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith for the
most career forced fumbles in NFL postseason history.
--LB Terrell Suggs has registered 10 sacks in the playoffs, which is a
franchise high. The 10 sacks and subsequent 69 yards lost are a
NFL-best since 2008.
--TE Ed Dickson made 21 of his 54
catches on third down in the regular season. Dickson, who tied for
second in the NFL in that department by a tight end, turned 15 of those
receptions into first downs.
Ravens: News --
Patriots they are a-changin'
Have New Attitude In Postseason
TEs Give Team Unique Advantage
Schedule Easy Path To Championship?
Defense Is The Key To Their Success
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