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What To Watch For In Patriots-Ravens AFC Championship Game

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Ray Lewis and Tom Brady (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Ray Lewis and Tom Brady (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — The weeks are still made up of just seven days, but during playoff time, it can seem like a month passes by between weekends.

The seven days of hype, analysis, trash talk, media barbs, crazy billboards, mayoral name flubs, half-hearted guarantees and national analysts SCREAMING in your FACE about FOOTBALL can make the days drag on.

Fortunately, we’ve all made it to the weekend, which means kickoff is rapidly approaching. With that, let’s run through four items to watch for when the Ravens visit the Patriots in Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game.

Expecting The Unexpected
You can slice the matchup any way you’d like. Compare the offenses, defenses and special teams all you want, but no matter what, there are always elements of games that cannot be accounted for. Take last week for example: Trindon Holliday returning a kickoff and punt for touchdowns wasn’t in either Denver’s or Baltimore’s game plan, nor was a fumbled snap by Joe Flacco. Peyton Manning coming as close as possible to a tuck rule, only to have just barely gotten his second hand on the ball before fumbling was likewise a game-changing moment that couldn’t have been accounted for heading into the game.

So as you watch this one play out between the Patriots and Ravens, be on the lookout for the kick return, tipped interception, dropped pass or lucky bounce that shifts momentum for one team and against the other. It could go a long way in deciding the game.

Ground Game
The Patriots’ rushing defense ranked ninth in the NFL this season, allowing just 1,630 yards, or 101.9 per game. But there was one man who was able to single-handedly top the 100-yard mark against the Patriots this season, and his name is Ray Rice.

Rice ran for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Week 3 while also catching five passes for 49 yards. It was without a doubt the best performance by a running back against the New England defense all year, as Frank Gore’s 83-yard performance was as close as any rusher came to 100 yards all season. In fact, the average output of opponents’ leading running back on the season was just 55 yards.

Rice has proven capable of burning this Pats D before (159 yards and two touchdowns in the ’09 playoffs), but he was contained to just 67 rushing yards and 11 receiving yards in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Rice’s final stat line could be directly tied to the final score.

On the flip side, the Ravens allowed 15 rushing touchdowns on the season, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. The Patriots, meanwhile, led the league with 25 rushing touchdowns. The matchup of Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen against the leaky Ravens run defense (20th in NFL at 122.8 yards per game) presents one of the few mismatches across the board, so be ready for the possibility of Tom Brady spending much of the day handing the ball to his backs and letting them do the work.

Retirement Party Or Super Bowl Send-Off?
Ray Lewis is retiring at the end of the season. Had you heard? If not, welcome back to earth. I’m not sure where you’ve been this month, but one of the best linebackers in football history is indeed hanging it up once his Ravens finish their season.

Of course, whether that takes place Sunday night in Foxboro or Feb. 3 in New Orleans depends on the outcome of Sunday’s game. Win or lose, Ray Lewis will be the story coming out, and throughout the entire game, at least two cameras will always be focused on No. 52 in white.

Last week, Lewis led the Ravens with 17 tackles (10 solo), and he led the team with 13 tackles (nine solo) the week before against the Colts. He also picked up a pass interference penalty when he couldn’t keep up with Eric Decker running across the middle, which is something that doesn’t look quite as good when it’s shown on one of those isolated replays.

Say what you want about Lewis, but there’s nobody in the world more motivated to play the best game of his life than him.

Mother Nature
The Patriots’ passing attack is well-known to football fans, and Joe Flacco showed the world he knows how to throw last week with touchdown passes of 59, 32 and 70 yards in Denver.

While throwing the ball may have been the bread and butter for the Patriots, Mother Nature could be the great equalizer in that part of the game. Forecasts call for a very cold evening at Gillette Stadium, with the potential of strong winds. It’s those gusts that could disrupt the passing game on both sides.

And if the game once again comes down to a field goal? You might not want to be Stephen Gostkowski or Justin Tucker in that situation.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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