RAVENS PASSING GAME: Joe Flacco brings a hot hand and some past successes against the New England Patriots into his third AFC championship game. In his past three games against New England, Flacco has completed 70 percent of his passes and thrown for 973 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He's gone more than four games since his last interception, and he's averaged 20.4 yards per completion in the playoffs. The offensive line has led the resurgence, allowing just three sacks over the past four games.
PATRIOTS PASSING GAME: The Denver Broncos were criticized for not pushing the tempo more against the Ravens last week, but don't expect the Patriots to make the same mistake. The Patriots are at their best when Tom Brady is moving fast, eliminating substitutions and forcing mismatches. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is out, but the Ravens still have to deal with tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Brady is 17-6 in his career in the postseason, giving him the most playoff wins all-time.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell stuck to the run last week against the Broncos, and the result was 155 yards rushing, including a 131-yard day for Ray Rice. The Ravens averaged 118.8 yards per game on the ground during the regular season. Rookie backup Bernard Pierce has been slowed the past couple of weeks by a knee injury. To have success running the ball, the Ravens will have to move defensive tackle Vince Wilfork who will undoubtedly see double teams.
PATRIOTS RUNNING GAME: New England relied heavily on three different running backs, each adding a different dimension. Stevan Ridley was the workhorse, rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, which tied with Adrian Peterson for the third-most in the NFL. Shane Vereen did a little of everything with 251 yards rushing, 149 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He scored three times in the Patriots' victory over the Houston Texans last week. Third-down back Danny Woodhead had 301 yards rushing and 446 receiving. The Patriots will stay with the hot hand.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has more than 40 passing attempts this season, New England is just 2-4. The importance of taking away the Patriots' ground game makes this group the game's X-factor. When the Ravens and Patriots met in Week 3, New England gained just 77 yards on the ground and averaged only 2.3 yards per carry. Vulnerable during the regular season, the Ravens' run defense has allowed 277 yards in two playoff games. Ray Lewis has 30 tackles during that span.
PATRIOTS RUSH DEFENSE: Tough all year against the run, the Patriots allowed only 101.9 yards per game on the ground, the ninth-lowest total in the league. They also surrendered just 10 rushing touchdowns during the season. Ray Rice got one of them and also eclipsed the 100-yard mark against the Patriots in September. Vince Wilfork is a force inside, and the Patriots have three active linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. Mayo has had more than 100 tackles for five straight seasons.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens haven't consistently beaten Brady, but they have given him problems. In seven meetings against them, Brady has more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (seven). The Ravens have remained an opportunistic group in the playoffs with six sacks and five turnovers in two games. Terrell Suggs, a longtime nemesis of Brady's, played his best game all season last week with two sacks. The key matchup could be cornerback Corey Graham against Wes Welker in the slot.
PATRIOTS PASS DEFENSE: The Patriots allowed 271.4 passing yards per game, which ranked fourth-worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco passed for 382 yards against them in late September. But this group has a different look after the addition of talented cornerback Aqib Talib and the move of Devin McCourty to safety. McCourty tied for first in the AFC with five interceptions. Coach Bill Belichick loves taking away the opposition's most dangerous player, so expect a lot of attention to be paid to Torrey Smith.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: A strength all season, the Ravens' coverage teams imploded last week, allowing two return touchdowns. A flurry of mistakes that contributed to both, from poor kicks to missed tackles to abandoned lanes. Justin Tucker took some of the sting out of the unit's performance with his 47-yard field goal in the second overtime. Tucker also beat the Patriots during the regular season with a 27-yard field goal as time expired. Jacoby Jones should get chances in the return game.
PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski had a shaky regular season, missing five kicks from inside 50 yards. His short kickoffs last week helped the Houston Texans' Danieal Manning average 54 yards per return. Punter Zoltan Mesko's 44.2-yard career average is the second-best in team history. Welker is a dangerous punt returner, but the Patriots didn't get much all season from their kick return game. Matthew Slater, who had a team-leading 20 special teams tackles, was selected for his second Pro Bowl.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have proved they are not intimidated by the Patriots. In addition to the win in September, they stunned New England, 33-14, at Gillette Stadium in a divisional playoff game in January 2010. The Ravens' 8-5 road record in the postseason gives them the highest winning percentage (.615) among teams with a minimum of 10 games. Harbaugh is 7-4 in the playoffs and 2-3 against the Patriots.
PATRIOTS INTANGIBLES: The Patriots have been dominant at home in the playoffs, going 14-3. Their .824 winning percentage is the highest in postseason history among teams that have played a minimum of 10 games. They also are 7-1 all-time in conference championship games and 4-0 at home. Only two coaches have won more postseason games than Belichick, who is 18-7 in the playoffs. Belichick's Patriots teams are 5-2 all-time against the Ravens.
PREDICTION: Only the most optimistic Ravens fans would have said a month ago that they expected the team to return to the AFC championship game. With the way the Ravens dispatched the Indianapolis Colts and then outlasted the Broncos, they are as dangerous as any other team remaining. However, the Patriots have been on this stage many times before. Buoyed by home-field advantage and the play of Brady, they'll survive another challenge by the Ravens to advance to their six Super Bowl in 11 years.
Patriots, 27-23Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun