PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sixty minutes will decide whether the Ravens advance to Indianapolis or find themselves falling short for the fourth season in a row.
Standing in their way is the high-powered New England Patriots, winners of nine straight including last week’s 45-10 blowout of the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. The Ravens own a 1-6 all-time record against New England and are 1-4 in Foxborough.
However, that one victory came in the form of a 33-14 beatdown of the Patriots two years ago in the wild card round of the playoffs as Ray Rice ran for a playoff franchise-record 159 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. The performance handed New England its first home playoff defeat since 1978 as the Ravens forced quarterback Tom Brady to commit four turnovers.
What happened on that day doesn’t amount to much as far as what transpires at Gillette Stadium on Sunday – for example, the personnel has changed dramatically for the New England defense – but the victory does provide a psychological boost at a place where many teams are intimidated by the Patriots’ mystique.
The AFC championship features the ultimate contrast in styles as New England represents the new era of high-scoring, pass-happy offense while Baltimore still thrives on its strong defense to win ugly year in and year out.
Here’s what will happen in Foxborough on Sunday afternoon …
1. Needing to make Tom Brady as uncomfortable as possible in the pocket, Terrell Suggs will lead the charge with two sacks. For all the talk of sticking with the Patriots’ talented tight ends and the video-game production of Wes Welker the key to beating the New England offense is pressuring the future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Ravens have done it effectively over their last three games against the Patriots, sacking Brady nine times. Suggs leads the charge for the pass rush and will need to come up big against New England left tackle Matt Light on Sunday. Suggs has been quiet over the last month, collecting only one sack over the last four games, but the Pro Bowl linebacker was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2010 postseason when he collected five sacks in two games. The 29-year-old has posted 10 sacks in his 10 career playoff games. The New England offensive line allowed 32 sacks in the regular season, but the unit is banged up with left guard Logan Mankins dealing with a knee issue and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer ailing with back and foot injuries. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has been masterful in finding the proper balance between sending extra defenders and dropping enough men into coverage, and he’ll need his best plan yet on Sunday against the most explosive offense in the AFC.
2. The Ravens will not be able to stop tight end Rob Gronkowski from making big plays, but Lardarius Webb will hold wide receiver Wes Welker in check. Analysts and fans have spent the better part of the week trying to figure out how the Baltimore defense will account for the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski. Pagano will call for bracketed coverage as much as possible and likely entrust strong safety Bernard Pollard to hold his own in one-on-one coverage in certain instances. However, it’s clear that few have had any luck against the second-year tight end who caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in the regular season. In fairness, the Ravens have held their own against tight ends despite questionable pass-coverage ability for their linebackers, but Gronkowski’s combination of size and talent is something they haven’t seen all season. What could be the great equalizer in creating stops against the New England offense is Webb’s coverage against Wes Welker, who caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards this season. The third-year cornerback hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass all season and can play Welker when he lines up on the outside or from the slot since Webb moves inside for the nickel package. Even if the Ravens allow a couple touchdowns to Gronkowski, Webb’s coverage skills should keep Welker from going off against the secondary, which would be a major feather in the hat of the defense.
3. Whichever team fares better on third down will win on Sunday. It’s a simple thought, but the Ravens must limit the possessions of the New England offense has much as possible. To do that, they’ll need positive yardage on first and second down to set up third-and-manageable situations. Baltimore ranked seventh in third-down conversion percentage (42.4 percent) while the New England defense allowed conversions on third down at 43.1 percent of the time, ranking 28th in the NFL. Rice and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta will be critical in moving the chains on third down and keeping the Patriots off the field. On the flip side, the New England offense ranked fifth in third-down efficiency (45.9 percent), but the Ravens were second in the league in third-down defense with opponents converting only 32.1 percent of the time. Of course, the Patriots can score so quickly that third down isn’t even a factor on some drives, but the Ravens will be more meticulous with their opportunities while mixing in an occasional vertical shot against the Patriots’ secondary. An inordinate amount of turnovers one way or the other could always negate the significance of third-down conversions, but the team that can move the chains and force punts will likely raise the Lamar Hunt trophy at the end of the afternoon.