As the sixth-seeded Ravens (11-6) square off with the top-seeded New England Patriots (12-4) in an AFC divisional-round playoff game Saturday at Gillette Stadium, here's a checklist of things to keep an eye on:
1. Joe Flacco, Tom Brady
There's no neutral territory when it comes to how the Ravens quarterback might impact this rematch of the AFC championship game from two years ago. If Flacco does not continue his torrid playoff streak of 13 touchdowns passes and zero interceptions in his last five postseason games, the Ravens will likely lose.
Flacco has become the deciding factor in the Ravens' fortunes, playing with more confidence and precision when the regular season is over, as if an internal body clock has reminded him that the games have become more important.
In the AFC championship game following the 2012 regular season, Flacco outdueled Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady. Flacco completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. In the AFC championship game following the 2011 season, Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Ravens lost that game, but Flacco outperformed Brady.
Meanwhile, the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since 2005. Although Brady has 43 postseason touchdowns to rank just behind Joe Montana (45 touchdowns) and Brett Favre (44 touchdowns) and has 6,424 passing yards to rank second behind Peyton Manning (6,589 yards), no quarterback has more playoff victories than Brady (18). In recent years, Brady has faltered in the playoffs against the Ravens.
Should that happen again Saturday, the Ravens could manufacture an upset that wouldn't be especially surprising given the recent track record of these quarterbacks and teams in the postseason. In the last 14 playoff games, Brady had 26 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. Flacco hasn't thrown an interception in his past 166 throws in the playoffs. During a five-game playoff winning streak, Flacco has completed 91 of 155 passes for 1,399 yards and a 116.6 quarterback rating.
2. Justin Forsett
One way the Ravens can contain Brady is to keep him on the sideline by grinding out long drives with their running game. Forsett had a quiet game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round, even losing a fumble when he collided with tight end Owen Daniels. The Ravens rushed for just 58 yards.
Forsett provided an elusive, reliable presence during the regular season when he gained a career-high 1,266 rushing yards and scored eight touchdowns. The Ravens need a big performance from Forsett to keep the Patriots defense honest. For him to do so, Forsett will need to run away or through two big, talented, athletic linebackers in Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower.
To have an effective running game, the Ravens can't have center Jeremy Zuttah get steamrolled the way he did last Saturday against Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon. It only gets tougher for Zuttah against massive Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. The Ravens probably won't be able to run up the middle, so they'll need to make their living outside the tackles.
3. Steve Smith and Darrelle Revis
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Steve Smith has 957 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in the playoffs on 56 catches. His job just became tougher, though, against six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. Revis is expected to shadow Smith the majority of the time and has the speed and cover skills to contain the feisty veteran.
Flacco has said he wants to challenge Revis and not concede anything to him. In two games against Revis, Flacco attempted only five passes and had zero completions in the cornerback's direction.
Revis and Smith clearly respect each other, but it's Smith who has something to prove against Revis, not the other way around.
4. Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski is the prototype NFL tight end: 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds with rare size, speed and hands. He's in sync with Brady, clicking in every area of the field this season, as they've connected for 82 catches and a dozen touchdowns.
The primary assignment of covering Gronkowski falls to free safety Will Hill, who returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown in coverage against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham this season.
What the Ravens have to be careful about is not overloading their coverage so much on Gronkowski that they render themselves vulnerable against Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright.
5. Defensive veterans
The Ravens need big games out of their most experienced defensive standouts.
In the past, outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata have all been productive. Dumervil has 3.5 sacks in four career playoff games, Ngata has 47 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 15 playoff games and Suggs has 81 tackles, 12 sacks, four forced fumbles, one interception and two fumble recoveries in 16 career playoff games.
Suggs' sack total in the playoffs ties him with the late, great Reggie White for the third-most in NFL postseason history. For the Ravens to win, they'll need big games out of this defensive trio.