By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 20, 2012

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So which city, or town, does the road to the Super Bowl really go through?

This is going to be some AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are the home team and are favoured by a touchdown. But the Baltimore Ravens came up here two years ago and spanked the Patriots by 19 points. The Patriots have a killer offense, the Ravens have a killer defense. The Patriots have great veterans, with Tom Brady as the marquee guy. The Ravens have great veterans, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as the marquee guys.

And the Patriots are seven point faves?

The game is about 48 hours away, and all week long you have heard lecturing, pontificating, analyzing, predicting, and some trash talking. It will soon be time to decide the AFC Championship and who will represent the AFC at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis two weeks from Sunday. These two teams are the best in the conference. All the home teams have won in the AFC playoffs thus far. It's all right here, and no other team belongs in this game other than the Patriots and the Ravens.

All this be hanged. You want the Patriots to win. Who cares how and by what means?

Well, we assume that you all know that Baltimore is one awfully good football team, just like the Patriots. But both teams have issues that can decide the game, and the team that exploits these issues better than the other will win. Let's go from the general to the specific and see who will win and how.

Thank the Texans for providing the blueprint

Many folks thought that Houston was the better team last weekend at M&T Bank Stadium, not Baltimore. If not for that fumbled punt by Jacoby Jones and those picks by T.J. Yates, the Texans would be the opponent on Sunday, not the Ravens. Houston wasn't ready to win that big a game yet, but they sure put up a game fight against the Ravens.

Houston showed what you can do if you put the right amount of pressure on Joe Flacco. They also showed that their defensive line is at least as good as, if not better than, Baltimore's. They also showed that Arian Foster is one of the premier backs in the league, and was able to dent the Raven defense pretty well.

You could say that Rob Ninkovich is capable of getting to Flacco, if he has the same kind of game he had against Denver. And if Bill Belichick studied the game film like he usually does, he could find running lanes for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley. Dante Scarnecchia is an offensive line genius, and he could attack the Ravens defense as well as Houston did.

Another element of last Sunday's game in Baltimore was who was not heard from. Which leads us to…

The Suggs Factor: Priority Number Two

Obviously Terrell Suggs doesn't hate Yates like he does Tom Brady.

Suggs was almost completely unheard from in Sunday's win over the Texans. Either Suggs wasn't real motivated or the Texans did one whale of a job in checking him. This is another area which could fall under the "blueprint" category, but in the case of Suggs, it is deeply personal that it warrants its own separate section.

Suggs is on the record that he hates Brady, and is still angry over the roughing the passer calls he claims Brady coaxed out of the officials last season. Brady and Suggs love jawing at each other on the field. But Suggs is a dangerous pass rusher, and Matt Light may not be able to handle him all by himself.

Containing Suggs is the second biggest Patriot priority. Lewis is Lewis, but Suggs is meaner and has more passion, which is saying a lot when comparing him to Lewis. A tight end, probably Rob Gronkowski, may have to help to chip Suggs just to give Brady a little bit more time to throw. Lewis will bring his usual energy and will try and get his dogs barking. But Suggs will be a Tasmanian Devil, and he needs a little bit more consideration.

How healthy and capable are Lewis and Reed

Lewis is older and Reed is limping. But they are proud veterans who want one more day in the sun. They are not the players they used to be, but they are still among the best at their positions.

Lewis got his ring in 2000. Reed has no ring.

Lewis is one of the top 20 players in NFL history as chosen by the NFL Network. Reed is a personal favorite of Belichick.

These two guys alone could motivate the Raven defense to be actually better than they already are. What they themselves are physically capable of doing is subject to debate. They are clearly not their former selves. Lewis has been with the Ravens since their move from Cleveland. Reed sprained his ankle at the end of last week's game and he is no spring chicken. But their energy and spirit cuts deep into the psyche of the Raven defense.

So, what to make of these two guys? You will have to wait and see on Sunday. What the Patriots have to hope for is that their emotion won't be enough to overcome what they no longer can do.

Baltimore has to come to grips with who wasn't there in 2009

Here is one area which greatly favours the Patriots.

All the while you sit and wheedle over the Patriots getting clobbered by the Ravens in 2009, you may not remember that Wes Welker had nothing to do with that game. Neither did Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Green-Ellis or Ridley. The Patriots were decimated offensively, and the defense had very little spirit in trying to compensate for such.

Sam Aiken is no longer here. Neither is Randy Moss, Chris Baker or Laurence Maroney. Julian Edelman is doing better on defense and special teams than offense these days. On that dark day in January 2010, Edelman led the Patriots with six catches (along with Kevin Faulk). Faulk had 52 yards rushing, Maroney had two yards rushing.

The Ravens will have a lot more to deal with than they had two years ago. They won't be able to deal with both tight ends. They can deal with one, but not both. Edelman was taking the place of Welker. Branch is back from his Seattle hiatus. Things will be different this Sunday, no matter what Suggs or Lewis tell you.

Here is the most interesting factoid from that game. Brady had an abysmal passer rating of 49.1. But it was 39.1 points higher than Flacco's. Go look it up. Brady's passer rating will be higher in 2011.

The Rice Factor: Priority Number One

First play from scrimmage: off left tackle for 83 yards, touchdown.

That cannot happen in 2011, and it is doubtful that it will. But Ray Rice could still get his 100+ yards. He cannot be allowed to do that.

The Patriots have to stop Rice and to dare Flacco to beat them through the air. This is what will really decide the game. If Rice is stopped and Flacco rings up another 10.0 passer rating, the Patriots win. If Rice is stopped and Flacco looks like Drew Brees, then tip your hat to Flacco. But if Rice is allowed to control the game with punishing runs and killing the clock, the Ravens will be the favorite to win.

Overall the Patriots will be ready for the Ravens, and won't get bushwhacked like 2009. But stopping Rice is the linchpin for a Patriot win on Sunday and a trip to their fifth Super Bowl in the last ten years.

In the Orient, rice is considered a staple of life. In Baltimore, it is much the same. In New England, pot roast should be served over rice, not be allowed to run free on the gridiron. Treat Rice accordingly, and the Patriots can then make their plans to speed their way to Indianapolis.


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