By: Russ Goldman
The Patriots enter the AFC Championship Game after beating the Houston Texans 41-28 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, and will face the Baltimore Ravens. The teams met in the third week of the season, and the Ravens beat the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore. The winner of this game goes to the Superbowl.
WHERE TO WATCH: The game will be shown live on WBZ-TV 4 at 6:30 PM EST. You can also listen to the game on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston.
GAME NOTES: The Ravens are coming off an incredible 38-35 double overtime victory against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field. The Ravens pulled the upset, and really earned their berth in the AFC Championship Game.
On defense, I feel there are three players to watch, and they are located at all three levels of the defense. On the line, defensive end Haloti Ngata is a tremendous player, and has the ability to disrupt the pocket in the passing game, and also be a force in the running game.
Linebacker Ray Lewis can still get it done, and he really is the emotional leader of the entire team. In the secondary, Ed Reed is still probably one of the best safeties in the game, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will need to know where he is at all times.
On offense, running back Ray Rice is still the player that makes this group move down the field. He is a great back in the running game, but where he is truly dangerous has to be in the passing game if he is in space.
The quarterback is Joe Flacco, and he in the past has played very well against the Patriots. He has the ability to throw the ball down the field with serious accuracy, and he could test the Patriots secondary.
The Patriots and Ravens traditionally play very close games, and I expect the AFC Championship Game to be the same. This game could come down to the final drive, but I do feel the Patriots will find a way to win.
Here are my “five keys” which I believe could play a role in a potential victory for the Pats.
1. Vince Wilfork needs to be dominant against the run, and push the pocket back in the passing game. Wilfork was a huge key last week, and he made a difference in the victory. Against a running back like Rice, Wilfork can really make a difference in clogging up a lane for him to run in. Also, Wilfork might not get to Flacco, but he could collapse the pocket in the passing game, which could force the quarterback to throw the ball before he wants to, and possibly make some mistakes.
2. The Patriots need to contain Ray Rice on running and passing downs. As I mentioned earlier, Rice really is tough to deal with, because he can hurt you on all three downs. You don’t want the Ravens to establish a running game with Rice, because they could really control the clock, and keep Brady off the field.
However, I am more concerned about Rice in the passing game. He can take a simple pass out of the backfield, and break it for thirty yards. The Patriots will have to know where Rice is at all times, and do their best to keep him in check. If I were the Pats, I would chip him whenever it was a passing down, similar to how the Patriots played against Marshall Faulk in their first Super Bowl victory.
3. The Patriots defense should blitz often against Joe Flacco. I am not suggesting that the Patriots should blitz as often as the Texans, but the Patriots have had great success against quarterbacks that hold on to the ball long and take deep drops. I am suggesting that they frequently take their chances with dialing up some pressure with a blitz.
The Patriots in the past have had great success blitzing against Ben Roethlisberger, because he has the tendency to hold on to the ball. Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill have similar tendencies, and the Patriots blitzed more than usual against these quarterbacks. I have a feeling the Patriots will try to get after Flacco this way.
4.The Patriots need to go “hurry up” when they are in the red-zone. Without Rob Gronkowski, the red-zone could be a problem area in this game. When the Patriots did go very fast in the red-zone against the Texans, they were able to take advantage of the defense. I say you call a play quickly at the line, and catch the Ravens when they are not ready.
5. The Patriots need to use Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen in the passing game to set up mismatches against the defense. I think both of these running backs could be huge weapons in the passing game, whether is out of the backfield like Woodhead, or split wide like we saw in the last game with Vereen.
If you can get either back lined up against a linebacker, this could be a huge advantage for the offense. These running backs could both play huge roles in this game, and it could be catching the ball rather than running it.
In concluding, I have much respect for the Ravens, and truly believe this game will go down to the wire. However, I think the difference in this game could be the Patriots defense as I think they could make a key stop, or cause a turnover when they desperately need it. I feel the defense is ready to take the next step in their progression.
I expect this game to go down to the wire, and be very similar to the AFC Championship Game last year. However, I feel the Patriots will do just enough to be heading to New Orleans. I am predicting a 31-28 victory for the Patriots.
What are your predictions? Feel free to post them in the comments section below.
Please feel free to listen to the latest episode of Patriots Fourth And Two which includes an interview with Chris Price from WEEI.com. This is a two hour episode of the show and we do an extensive preview of the AFC Championship Game.