FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady and the New England Patriots made it to the AFC Championship Game with a high-powered offense that piled up points and yards.
Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens got there with a hard-hitting defense that made it a major challenge for opponents to move the ball.
Today, one of those teams will advance to the Super Bowl because, most likely, of what they do best.
“We’ve got our hands full this week,” Lewis said. “You watched what they did last week against Denver, just the way they came out and ran their offense, how efficient (Brady) was, how many different receivers he hit with the ball. I think their offense, period, is playing at a very high level.”
From start to finish, Brady picked apart the Denver defense in a 45-10 divisional playoff win.
The Patriots (14-3) needed five plays to score on their first series on Brady’s 7-yard pass to Wes Welker. It took them seven plays to reach the end zone on their second series on Brady’s 10-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski. By halftime, Brady had thrown five of his six touchdown passes.
He had plenty of time to survey the field as the Broncos failed to pressure on him. The Ravens don’t plan to let that happen.
“You don’t want him back there just like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to play catch today,’ ” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You don’t want him to zone in, get in his zone, so to say. So I think pressure is going to be crucial, but it’s always crucial. But, particularly when you are playing these type of quarterbacks, it’s pivotal.”
Brady’s regular season was exceptional, even by his lofty standards. He threw for 5,235 yards, second most in NFL history, with 39 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and the league’s third-best quarterback rating of 105.6, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
The Patriots, with Welker and Gronkowski doing most of the damage, were second in the NFL with 428 yards a game and third with an average of 32.1 points.
“It’s a very clever offense,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s well put together.”
Just like the Ravens’ defense.
Baltimore (13-4) allowed the third-fewest average yards, 288.9, and points, 16.6, this season. The Ravens four takeaways in last Sunday’s 20-13 divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans, the last by Ed Reed with 1:51 remaining. Lewis had a team-high seven tackles.
“They’re great players. I’ve played against both those guys quite a few times,” Brady said. “You always enjoy going up against the best because you can really measure where you’re at. You can’t take plays off against those guys. You can’t take things for granted when you’re out there against them. You have to see where they’re at on every play because they’re guys who change the game.”
And don’t forget Suggs. He led the AFC with 14 sacks, and, with Lewis and Reed, was picked as a Pro Bowl starter this season.
The Ravens have a “very attacking-type defense,” Welker said. “They’re very physical. They run to the football really well. They rush well, cover well, tackle well across the board. They have a lot of great players and a lot of playmakers.”
But they haven’t faced a passing attack with the weapons the Patriots have. Welker led the NFL with 122 catches and 1,569 yards receiving. Gronkowski was fifth with 90 catches and set an NFL record of 17 touchdown catches by a tight end. And Aaron Hernandez, a tight end who often lines up at wide receiver and had a 43-yard run out of the backfield against Denver, was 14th with 79 receptions.
“They are not your typical offense,” Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “They’ll give you a personnel group and line up nowhere close to what you think they are going to do. You just have to roll with it and know what’s coming and adapt to it.
“That’s why communication in these games is so vital, and not going crazy and overthinking things – just getting lined up and playing – because you … don’t know what you’re going to get.”
The last playoff game between the teams, Jan. 10, 2010, was a huge surprise with the Ravens’ offense dominating.
Ray Rice scored on an 83-yard run on the first offensive play, and Brady threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first quarter. The Ravens took a 24-0 lead into the second quarter and won 33-14.
“We don’t really care too much about what’s happened in the past. We’ve won some, we’ve lost some, but right now this team is focused with the Ravens,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s really all that matters. I don’t think some game that happened two years ago or five years ago or anything else, I don’t think that really has an effect on this game.”
The home crowd could have a big effect.
Patriots fans were very loud last Saturday. And the Ravens are 4-4 on the road.
But there will be much bigger factors that determine the outcome of this game.
The Big Two: the Ravens’ defense and the Patriots’ offense.
“When you do watch how the games are played, nine times out of 10, I just truly believe defense is going to find a way to win the championship,” Lewis said. “You can go back however many years you want to go back, and defenses have a way to come out to make a play that changes the outcome of games.”
Unless, of course, you’re facing Brady.
“I try to be the best I can be every week,” he said. “I don’t think long-term too often, especially in weeks like this.”
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME BREAKDOWN
BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-4) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-3)
Noon today at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
LINE: Patriots by 7.
TV: Ch. 7. RADIO: 950-AM, 102.9-FM.
SERIES: Patriots lead, 6-1.
LAST MEETING: Patriots beat Ravens, 23-20 in overtime, on Oct. 17, 2010.
LAST WEEK: Ravens beat Texans, 20-13; Patriots beat Broncos, 45-10.
RAVENS: PROBABLE – S Ed Reed (ankle).
PATRIOTS: QUESTIONABLE – WR Deion Branch (knee), T Marcus Cannon (ankle), S Patrick Chung (knee), LB Dane Fletcher (thumb), TE Aaron Hernandez (concussion), S James Ihedigbo (shoulder), DT Kyle Love (ankle), G Logan Mankins (knee), LB Rob Ninkovich (hip), T Nate Solder (concussion), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), T Sebastian Vollmer (back, foot), WR Wes Welker (knee), LB Tracy White (abdomen). PROBABLE – CB Kyle Arrington (foot), G Dan Connolly (groin), WR Matthew Slater (shoulder).
Passing OFFENSE: How can Patriots QB Tom Brady top his performance of a week ago, when he tied a single-game playoff record with six TD passes? The Patriots have a great possession receiver in Wes Welker (league-leading 122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine TDs) and a monster tight end in Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs) but no real deep threat. Their third receiving option is another tight end, Aaron Hernandez (79 catches, 910 yards, seven TDs). The Ravens prefer to have QB Joe Flacco manage the game and check down to RB Ray Rice (78 catches). WR Anquan Boldin had 57 catches for a team-high 887 yards but scored on three TDs during the regular season. Edge: Patriots.
Rushing Offense: The Patriots won’t soon forget the way Rice took off on an 83-yard TD dash on the first play of Baltimore’s 2009 playoff win at New England. Rice accounted for 36 percent of Baltimore’s offense this year. He ran for 1,364 yards and 12 TDs, including a long of 70. The Patriots’ leading rusher against Denver was Hernandez – the No. 2 tight end – who carried five times for 61 yards. He had only five carries during the entire regular season. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 13 carries for 28 yards last week. Edge: Ravens.
Defense: The Ravens allowed the third-fewest points per game (16.6) this season and led the AFC with 48 sacks, but they had just three sacks in the last three regular-season games. In 10 career postseason games, linebacker Terrell Suggs has 10 sacks. The Patriots’ defense has not played up to its usual standards, ranking 31st overall and 31st against the pass. Edge: Ravens.
Intangibles: The Patriots are 7-1 at home this season, losing only to the New York Giants, who are in Sunday’s NFC championship game. They have been on a mission to honor the late Myra Kraft, wife of owner Bob Kraft, and would love nothing more than to hand him the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Edge: Patriots.
Ravens SS Bernard Pollard vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski: Most fans in New England remember Pollard as the player who, while with the Chiefs, ended Tom Brady’s 2008 season on a vicious hit to the knee in the season opener, but he’s now a key part of Baltimore’s secondary. Pollard might be the player aggressive and gutsy enough to take on Gronkowski one-on-one.
Why the RAVENS CAN win: The Ravens still have a lot of players who remember how they beat the Patriots during the 2009 playoffs, and the better defense prevails.
Why the PATRIOTS CAN win: Tom Brady. He’s 15-5 in the postseason and can tie his boyhood idol, Joe Montana (16-7), for the most postseason wins by a starting quarterback.
Pick: Ravens, 24-21.
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