By Matt Vensel
The Baltimore Sun
9:00 AM EST, January 20, 2013
In this game-day staple, blogger Matt Vensel makes four sometimes-courageous predictions for the game. All he asks is that you don’t hold it against him whenever those predictions end up being embarrassingly wrong.
The road back to Foxborough was a bumpy one -- the 12-month journey included a ton of injuries, individual tragedy, a late-season coaching switch and a three-game losing streak -- but here the Ravens are again, back in New England to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC championship game for a second straight year.
The Patriots are heavy favorites in the eyes of oddsmakers, but so were the Denver Broncos last weekend, and we all know how that turned out. The Ravens will again put up a fight for four quarters Sunday. But it may take another near-perfect performance from Joe Flacco and the Ravens to advance to the Super Bowl.
I expect Flacco to do his thing again, but I’m not sure it will be enough for the Ravens to pull off the upset. That’s one of my predictions sure to go wrong this week, and like last week, I’ve added a couple bonus ones.
1. JOE FLACCO WILL OUTGAIN TOM BRADY, TOO
Flacco delivered probably the best performance of his postseason career in the double-overtime win in Denver. Flacco picked apart the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense and outgained Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns. I said in this space last week that I thought Flacco would play well -- maybe the only prediction I got right -- but even I was awed by just how well he played in Denver. Up next are the Patriots, who are porous against the pass but ranked second in the NFL in takeaways. I think Flacco will be up for the challenge again and top 300 yards, which is more than I think Brady will get.
2. THE PATS WILL RUN AT LEAST 25 NO-HUDDLE PLAYS
I wrote at length about New England’s no-huddle offense in Saturday’s newspaper. The Patriots went with the no-huddle on a little over a quarter of their plays this season, but the key isn’t how often they use it, but when they use it. After the Patriots get a big play, Brady rushes his offense up to the line so they can try to catch the defense off guard. They scored two easy touchdowns that way in their win over the Houston Texans in the divisional round. Considering that the Ravens have played more than nine quarters of football the past two weekends, I expect the Patriots to keep the pedal to the mettle to try to run the Ravens ragged.
3. NEW ENGLAND WILL PICK ON RAY LEWIS
It would have been foolish to expect linebacker Ray Lewis to play at a Pro Bowl level when returning from a torn triceps two weeks ago. The man -- yes, he is mortal, but just barely -- is 37 years old and has a big bionic brace on his right arm, which can’t be close to full strength right now. But Lewis played better in his second game back, stepping up against the run while making 17 tackles. He has been a liability in pass coverage, though, allowing 13 receptions for 157 yards on 16 targets. The Patriots already like to work the middle of the field with wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez, but they may try to expose Lewis.
4. A LATE TURNOVER WILL DOOM THE RAVENS
I went back and forth on my game prediction this week. The Ravens are rolling right now and there have been a lot of good vibes coming out of The Castle. But the Patriots are at home, where their dynamic offense is difficult to slow down. I think it will be a tight, high-scoring game, but my gut is telling me that the Patriots will win it. The Ravens suffered stomach-punching losses the past two years, with the drops in Pittsburgh and Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff coming up small in New England last time around. I think it will be a late turnover that dooms the Ravens, but if they can avoid that back-breaking mistake, their chances will be much better.
BONUS PREDICTION 1. THE PATS WILL RUN FOR MORE THAN 125 YARDS
The Patriots still like to sling the rock around, but they aren’t the one-dimensional team of recent seasons past. Led by Stevan Ridley, they ranked seventh in rush offense, and I think they will have success Sunday.
BONUS PREDICTION 2. TORREY SMITH WILL SHINE AGAINST THE PATS AGAIN
The speedy second-year wide receiver had 127 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his emotional Week 3 performance. The Patriots secondary is completely different today, but Smith should have similar success.
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