Nickel Package: Five Things to Watch in Ravens vs. Patriots
Aaron Wilson: As the Ravens (12-6) square off with the New England Patriots (13-4) Sunday night in an AFC championship game rematch at Gillette Stadium, here's a checklist of a few key areas and people to keep an eye on:
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1. How will the Ravens' defense fare against Tom Brady?
It's rare for a quarterback to thrive in the playoffs like New England Patriots star Tom Brady.
With a 17-6 all-time playoff record for more postseason victories than any quarterback in NFL history, Brady is on top of his game again. Orchestrating the NFL's top-ranked offense, which is averaging 427.9 yards and 34.8 points, Brady completed 401 of 637 passes for 4,287 yards and 34 touchdowns this season. His eight interceptions tied for the fewest among quarterbacks who started every game, earning him his eighth invitation to the Pro Bowl.
But Brady hasn't always excelled against the Ravens.
He triumphed in a 23-20 AFC title game against the Ravens last year at Gillette Stadium, but was outdueled by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco statistically. Brady struggled in a 2010 AFC wild-card loss to the Ravens, a 33-14 defeat where he was under constant duress from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
The Ravens are hoping to harass Brady into a few miscues Sunday night in an AFC championship game rematch.
The Patriots are strong in these situations, with a 7-1 record in AFC title games and a perfect record in four home AFC title games
Brady is overseeing a fast-break offense that piles up points and yards, beating defenders to the punch with no-huddle and quick-game elements that are hard to counteract unless a defense generates an immediate pass rush and covers tightly.
It's up to outside linebacker Paul Kruger to utilize his speed to penetrate the backfield and get after Brady. Brady will be looking for mismatches, even against two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year. He'll likely target Ravens veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis, 37, after watching him allow eight receptions for 97 yards on eight targets against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
He'll probably be picky about going after free safety Ed Reed, 34, who has clearly lost a step and didn't have a pass deflection against the Broncos and whiffed on a tackle attempt of Demaryius Thomas on his bubble-screen touchdown catch.
Brady has had success going to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who had nine catches and 108 yards against Ravens cornerback Cary Williams in Sept. Williams, who had a surgically repaired hip, has improved his technique markedly since that first game. It will be interesting to see how Brady approaches that matchup.