For the first time since the 1992 season, the same two teams will meet in a Conference Championship game. Not since the Cowboys and 49ers met for 3 consecutive years from 92-94; has this happened in the NFL. This may not be Brady vs. Manning XVI, but it’s not like we can complain either; we’re still going to see Tom Brady and Ray Lewis playing chess for the better portion of Sunday’s Championship game.

Ray Lewis in the AFC Championship game on his last go around. Could you script it any better than that? It’s going to be interesting to see how much Baltimore has left in the tank after that thrilling double overtime win in Denver. There is no question that this team is mentally tough enough to come into Foxboro this week and give the Patriots a serious run. They have a veteran defense who have been in situations like this before. The Ravens are one of a few teams in all of the NFL that don’t come to Foxboro scared.

In order for them to have some success this Sunday they are going to need to get to Tom Brady and make him get the ball out quick and they’re going to have to get Ray Rice going early. If the Ravens can get Rice going early, that may force the Patriots to bring up some safety help; leaving the possibility of getting beat deep by Torrey Smith. Also, this will allow the Ravens to control the clock and keep their defense off the field against the hurry up offense of the Patriots. The longer they keep Tom Brady off the field the better chance they have to win this game; plain and simple. I can imagine the word of the week for this Ravens D is pressure. They know that if you get in the face of Tom Brady he tends to struggle. Is Ngata healthy enough to provide a pass rush presence from the interior? Is Suggs coming off the ball a little slower after coming back from the Achilles injury earlier this year? Last week was the first time all season the Ravens allowed more than two passing TD’s in a game; can Brady step up and do the same? These are questions the Ravens hope to answer through their play on Sunday.

On the other hand, New England is coming off of an impressive win over the Houston Texans. Early injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead didn’t slow the Patriots down, it just forced them to spread the ball around and allow for the “next guy up” to take advantage. This next guy was Shane Vereen. Vereen had 7 carries for 41 yards and a TD. He also added 5 catches for 83 yards and two TD’s. With Gronkowski out the remainder of the post season and questions still regarding the status of Danny Woodhead; Vereen is going to have to step up for the Pats to make a run. If Ridley and Vereen can continue to complement each other it will allow the Patriots to set up the play action, which is their bread and butter. The word of the week for the Pats offense should be tempo, tempo, tempo. The Ravens have faced 170+ defensive snaps in the past two weeks and, given the age of their defense, its had to have taken a physical toll on them. There is no question it starts with the offensive line. They all have to be on the same page regarding protection calls. They did a great job last week containing Houston’s pass rush and if the Patriots want to get to New Orleans they’re going to have to keep Tom Brady upright and the Ravens on their heels.

In addition to strong play from the offensive line the Pats are going to have to continue to be stout when it comes to the run game. If they let Ray Rice get going early their whole playbook opens up. The Patriots do a great job at making teams beat them without their best weapon. If the Pats can take away Ray Rice and force Flacco into making the majority of the plays, there is a much better chance they are going to be able to force some turnovers. As we’ve seen all season this is where New England thrives; turnover differential. If they can force the Ravens to become predictable look for this opportunistic defense to take advantage and make some game changing plays.

While the Patriots may be favored by 10 points this week, both sides know this is going to be a dog fight that comes down to the wire. Will the storybook run continue for Ray and the Ravens or does Brady lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl in search of his 4th ring. One thing for sure is there are storylines galore that come with this game. The real question is, how does this story end?

Prediction: Patriots 27 Ravens 20

Written by: Dan Whisner

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