4. Rice will not have a record-setting day like he did two years ago in Foxborough, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 total yards would go a long way in keeping the New England offense off the field. Whether on the ground or as a receiver, the Pro Bowl running back will be a major part of the game plan against a New England defense that gave up over 400 yards per game in the regular season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will want to establish the run, but the Ravens will also try to motion Rice or place him in the slot to exploit matchups against outside linebackers. The Patriots ranked 17th against the run, but that ranking is due in large part to inferior opponents playing from behind, as New England ranked 24th in allowing 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. If the Ravens can grab an early lead, Rice becomes a bigger factor in the ground game, but his role will likely be transformed into a receiver if Baltimore trails. Considering the Ravens want to control the time of possession and to limit New England’s scoring opportunities, success on the ground will be paramount in setting up higher-percentage passing plays and enticing safeties Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which would open up vertical opportunities for rookie Torrey Smith on the outside. Rice was the Ravens’ most valuable player this season and will need a big afternoon to help his team advance to Indianapolis.
5. Joe Flacco may not “outplay” Brady, but he will be a major reason (200-plus yards and two touchdowns) why the Ravens advance to their first Super Bowl in 11 years by beating the Patriots, 27-24. This is a career-defining game for the 27-year-old Flacco, who came under criticism from safety Ed Reed earlier in the week after hearing flak from fans and media throughout the season. Those who were critical of his play against Houston last week really underestimated how well the Texans defense played and overlooked Flacco’s success in protecting the football under duress. However, the Baltimore quarterback will clearly need a far more productive afternoon to win in Foxborough. Flacco must remember he’s competing against the New England defense — not Brady — and play within himself. Opportunities will be there against a vulnerable secondary, but the Patriots’ defensive backs have been opportunistic in intercepting 23 passes during the regular season. The Ravens will use their bread and butter of Rice and the tight ends to move the chains, but will mix in Anquan Boldin in the intermediate part of the field as well as shots to the outside to Smith. New England’s pass rush took a major hit when defensive end Andre Carter was lost for the season, so the offensive line should have a better day than it did against the Texans. He doesn’t have to play like an “elite” quarterback for the Ravens to win, but if Flacco can make plays the way he did in the comeback victory at Pittsburgh, Baltimore will make enough stops defensively to win a close one. If Flacco falls short, it will be the longest off-season of his career to date. Call it a hunch, but I think the Ravens quarterback is ready to take the next step in his underappreciated career and advance to his first Super Bowl. It won’t transform him into a great quarterback overnight, but it will instantly open the eyes of many of his critics.