Players To Watch In AFC Championship
BOSTON (CBS) – The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will battle for a trip to the Super Bowl Sunday afternoon in Foxboro.
The last time the two teams met in the postseason, things did not go the Patriots way. Baltimore got off to a fast start, and the Patriots could not catch up.
Two years later, the teams are completely different. Baltimore still has their dominant, but older, defense while New England has their old reliable taking snaps with a few new weapons this time around.
Here are five players from each team that will make a difference in Sunday’s game.
Brady is 4-1 against the Ravens in his career, with the lone loss coming two years ago in the AFC Wild Card round. Despite his success in the win column, Brady hasn’t put up great numbers against Baltimore. He has six touchdowns in the five contests, with the same number of interceptions. Five of those INTs have come the last two times out, the playoff loss and an OT win earlier that season.
But now there is a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and Brady wants another ring to cement his legacy. He has better targets this time around, with Wes Welker and a pair of dynamic tight ends, and has the memory of his last two playoff defeats fresh in his mind. He’s unlikely to break any records against this Baltimore defense, but look for him to do what it take to get back to the big game for the sixth time in his career.
Hernandez did it all last week against the Broncos, and the Patriots could use his versatility against the Ravens. Hernandez proved to be more than just a tight end, leading the Pats in rushing in addition to his normal receiving and blocking duties.
However, Hernandez had to leave last game and his status could still be a concern. Going into a game against the hard-hitting Ravens after fighting a concussion is no easy task. Hernandez could be the X-factor in this one, as his speed and strength could really present problems for the Ravens. If he isn’t on the field, the Ravens will be able to key in on Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker and make life difficult for Brady and the rest of the offense.
The Ravens defense is very strong over the middle of the field, so when he isn’t going to Gronkowski and/or Hernandez, Brady should look to exploit Baltimore on the sidelines. The Patriots don’t really have a down-the-field threat, but Branch proved last weekend with his 61-yard touchdown against Denver he still has the speed (and push-off moves) to break out the big play.
Brady and Branch’s chemistry together cannot be overlooked, especially with a lot of the focus on the two tight ends heading into the game.
The Patriots ground defense kept Tim Tebow in check last weekend, but now have to worry about Ray Rice of the Ravens. Rice is quick and sneaky, and Mayo will likely be the one who gets to keep an eye on him Sunday afternoon. Keeping his gains to a few yards will be key, and Mayo will have to make sure Rice doesn’t have any big touchdown runs like he did in the 2009 playoffs.
The focus will be in the middle for the Patriots defense, and Ninkovich will be a big part of that. He did a great job last weekend getting to Tebow, and he could bring some more pressure on Joe Flacco this weekend. His focus, like the rest of the linebackers, will be making sure Ray Rice gets as little yardage as possible.
On the first play from scrimmage in that 2009 playoff game, Rice took the air out of the Patriots sails with an 83-yard touchdown run. He is a threat to do that at any time. The Patriots linebackers will have their hands full with Rice, but everyone will have to lend a hand when he makes his impact in the pass game.
Gresh & Zo Whiteboard: Stopping Ray Rice
The Ravens quarterback has come under heavy scrutiny in Baltimore, whether it be from his own players or from nosey neighbors who see him on a skateboard. So Flacco is looking to get the credit he deserves. It’s rare that he lights up any defense, but he is a serviceable quaterback. He’s already played in eight playoff games in just four years, with seven of them coming on the road. So he’s got plenty of postseason experience.
The key for the Patriots will be to make Flacco make mistakes. Apply the pressure and make his force throws he doesn’t want to make. He doesn’t move around in the pocket, so the pass-rush could be ripe for another big game. If the Patriots can get up early and force Flacco to throw, Baltimore could be in for a long day.
The rookie receiver became Flacco’s favorite target throughout the season, and could give the Patriots secondary some issues. He had just one catch for nine yards last week against a strong Houston defense, but with Anquan Boldin commanding much of the attention down the field, but look for Flacco to look for Smith when he needs a completion.
The Ravens linebacker has had strong words for Brady and the Patriots over the years, and will look to add to the pair of career sacks he has against #12. It was his strip-sack of Brady in 2009 that let the Ravens go up 14-0 early, and cruise to their win. While he’ll still get his shots at Brady, Suggs will be the guy hitting the Patriots tight ends, trying to get them off their routes, with Lewis doing the same.
While the talk has been about Lewis and Ed Reed, defensive lineman Haloti Ngate may be the biggest defensive factor for the Ravens. He is their big guy in the middle, and will be going up the gut trying to get to Brady. While Brady has a solid pocket presence, having Ngata coming at him up the middle might change things a bit. If Ngata can make Brady feel the pressure, he will have to rush his throws and make quick decisions. That’s not always a bad thing, but having a 330lb lineman getting to Brady is.
Tune in to the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens Sunday, January 22 at 3pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage begins with a special two-hour Patriots GameDay on WBZ at 11:00am, with Patriots Preview beginning at noon on the Hub!