And then there were four. The Ravens have admitted their win over the Houston Texans last weekend wasn’t pretty. But who cares? They’re one win away from the Super Bowl. To make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time in eleven years, the Ravens must beat Tom Brady and the top-seeded New England Patriots on their own turf. It will not be easy, but they have gone on the road and stunned the Patriots in the playoffs before.
Here are five storylines to watch during Sunday afternoon’s AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium:
1. Joe Flacco vs. Tom Brady: This game isn’t just about the quarterbacks, and Flacco doesn’t necessarily have to outplay Brady to win Sunday because the Ravens are a more balanced team. But to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Brady is perhaps the best quarterback of this generation. As I wrote after the win over the Texans, I thought Flacco played pretty well against the Texans. If not for a few drops, he would have had 200-plus yards and a 60 percent completion percentage, which may have silenced a few more critics. Flacco must play better to keep pace with Brady and the Patriots, and he knows it. I can’t wait to see if he can do it.
2. Rediscovering the pass rush: The Ravens had zero sacks against the Texans, but they seemed content to sit back and let rookie quarterback T.J. Yates make mistakes, which he did. The Ravens will need to generate more pressure against Brady, but they must be deceptive about it because he is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks against the blitz. The chess match between Brady and Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will decide the outcome -- and if Pagano schemes the Ravens to a win, he will be a hot coaching candidate in the future. Linebacker Terrell Suggs needs to have a big game, of course, but so does defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has been pretty quiet of late. Ngata needs to penetrate the pocket and flush Brady out of his comfort zone.
3. Controlling the middle of the field: You might have heard this week about a pair of Patriots tight ends who are kind of good at what they do, but don’t forget about slot specialist Wes Welker, who led the NFL with 122 receptions. The Ravens will have their hands full with Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, whose 17 receiving touchdowns were more than any other player, including Calvin Johnson, the star wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. The Ravens will have to bump those three out of their routes and hit them hard after catches. But to control the middle, they may have to leave their cornerbacks on an island on the outside.
4. Winning the battle in the red zone: We’ve heard all week that the Ravens have to slow down the Patriots offense when it comes to putting up points, but how can they do it? By making their last stand inside the red zone. Obviously, the Ravens hope the Patriots don’t get that far often, but when they do, they have to hold them to three points. The Ravens had the NFL’s best red-zone defense during the regular season, allowing 16 touchdowns on 42 trips inside the 20-yard line. The Patriots were second in the league in red-zone offense, scoring 47 touchdowns on an impressive 72 trips inside the red zone. This aspect will be a lot of fun to watch.
5. Doing all the little things: No matter what some of those guys in the national media are saying, the Ravens don’t have to play a perfect game to beat the Patriots. But they do have to minimize the mistakes. They did that against the Texans, which is why they were able to win despite an uneven game from their offense. They committed no penalties, didn’t give the ball away and didn’t get beat on many big plays. That said a lot about their resolve. But Sunday’s game will be a lot more heated than that, so they need to keep their composure, especially with a trip to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl on the line up in frigid, frosty Foxborough, Mass.