SUNDAY, 6:30 P.M. EST, GILLETTE STADIUM, FOXBOROUGH
FIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1 Sunday will mark the eighth time since the AFL-NFL merger, and the first since 1994, that a conference title game is a rematch from the previous season. In six of those eight games the previous year's victor again advanced to the Super Bowl, the only exceptions coming when a pair of teams faced off for a third time in a row: The '76 Raiders beat the Steelers after having lost two straight AFC titles games to Pittsburgh, and in the NFC the 49ers did the same to the Cowboys in '94. Count this as one of many factors that bode well for the Patriots, who beat the Ravens 23--20 last Jan. 22 in Foxborough.
2 The Ravens' Ray Rice is the big name in the ground game, but on the whole the Patriots' rushing attack, led by Stevan Ridley (right) and Shane Vereen, has been better than Baltimore's. The Pats averaged 136.5 ypg in the regular season to the Ravens' 118.8, and Ridley and Vereen each had a rushing TD in New England's 41--28 win over the Texans on Sunday. In last year's championship game the Pats held Rice to 3.2 ypc on 21 carries (nearly a yard and a half below his career average), and while he rushed 20 times for 101 yards in the 31--30 Week 3 win in Baltimore, New England's run defense stiffened thereafter. The unit finished 2012 ninth in the NFL at 101.9 ypg. The Ravens were 20th (122.8 ypg), their first time outside the top 10 since 2002.
3 Tight end Rob Gronkowski, lost for the rest of the playoffs with a refractured left forearm, will be missed—but not much in this game. Baltimore's pass defense ranked 17th in the NFL, allowing 228 yards per game, and it features a pair of average starting CBs in Cary Williams and Corey Graham. Tom Brady still has Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd at his disposal, and keep an eye on slot man Wes Welker. He struggled in his first four games as a Patriot against the Ravens, averaging just 5.5 catches for 43 yards, but exploded for eight receptions and 142 yards in that Week 3 loss.
4 Joe Flacco beat the Broncos last Saturday largely on deep throws, with all three of his TDs coming on passes of 32 or more yards. The Pats, meanwhile, were 29th in the NFL in passing defense, at 271 ypg, and gave up 74 passing plays of 20 or more yards, most in the league. If Torrey Smith burned Pro Bowler Champ Bailey (who allowed 47.4% of the balls thrown his way this season to be caught), what might he do to the Patriots' top corner, Aqib Talib (59.1%)? Expect Flacco to go long, often.
5 Michael Oher may be the game's best-known tackle, thanks largely to The Blind Side, but this season he was also among the worst at the position. According to Pro Football Focus, Oher ranked 37th among the 43 tackles who participated in at least 75% of their teams' snaps, only one of whom gave up more sacks than Oher's 10. New England will likely focus its pass rush—veteran Rob Ninkovich and rookies Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones—on Oher, who was moved for the playoffs from the left side of the line to the right. That could prove the final difference maker in what looks to be a high-scoring affair, one that should constitute the end of Ray Lewis's career.
THE PICK: Patriots 38, Ravens 27
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (RIDLEY)