FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: (L-R) Tom Brady #12, Rob Gronkowski #87 and Deion Branch #84 of the New England Patriots celebrate after Gronkowski caught a 10-yard touchdown reception from Brady in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
With only one day remaining until the Patriots and Ravens square off in the AFC Championship, here are five key matchups you should watch for on Sunday.
Well, it's almost here. One more day until we get to see the New England Patriots play in their first AFC Championship Game since 2007. It's certainly been a long time in the making.
In last week's AFC Divisional Round, the Patriots showed us they were here to stay as they pounded Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos by a score of 45-10 at Gillette Stadium. They seemed to win every offensive and defensive matchup there was on that football field that evening, whether it was picking the Denver defense a part or shutting Tim Tebow out. You name it, they did it and did it right.
Tom Brady torched the Denver secondary for 363 passing yards and a playoff record six touchdowns and an interception. Brady's favorite target on the night, Rob Gronkowski, ended up with 10 catches for 145 yards and three of Brady's six TD's. Pretty safe to say they did their job.
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense was able to really come up big against Tim Tebow and the Denver offense. They were able to sack Tebow five times and hold him to 136 yards through the air and 13 yards on the ground with no touchdowns. While they did give up a respectable 76 yards rushing and the Broncos' only TD to Willis McGahee, the Pats defense really came up big the whole game.
While I give ample credit to John Fox and the Denver Broncos last weekend, the team that will march into Gillette Stadium on Sunday is a team that is on a different level than the Broncos. That team is of course the Baltimore Ravens.
In last week's other AFC Divisional Round game, the Ravens were able to defeat the Houston Texans by a score of 20-13 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. While they didn't necessarily win every matchup, they were able to win most.
The Baltimore Ravens defense led by Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed forced quarterback T.J. Yates to turn the ball over three times, allowing the Baltimore Offense more opportunities to score points. Even though they didn't sack Yates, they were able to throw some disguised defensive packages at him to throw him off his rhythm. Yates only managed 184 yards through the air and turned the ball over three times.
While the Baltimore offense wasn't nearly as effective as the 'D', they were very opportunistic at the right times.
While Ray Rice was held to only 60 yards on the ground, the Ravens offense seemed to exploit certain matchups at the right time. While quarterback Joe Flacco only had 176 passing yards, he did have two touchdowns and had some big plays to wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the offensive weapons against the relatively strong Texans secondary.
With the Divisional series wrapped up, it's time to see what these two teams can do. On paper, it looks like it's going to be a Patriots team that has a very strong offense and an OK defense going up against a Ravens team who's forte is it's strong defense that is complimented by an OK offense.
With the matchups set, let's take a look at five matchups on the field you should watch out for in Sunday's AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Ravens.
Tom Brady Vs. Ed Reed
In football, I know it's odd to have a one-on-one matchup that should be worth watching out for, but trust me, this is just one of those times.
Tom Brady can make any throw on the football field, we all know this. He can throw anything from a short screen pass to one of his runningbacks to a deep ball to one of his receivers down the sideline or even a long crossing pattern to one of his tight ends. The man can make any throw. However, Brady hasn't encountered Ravens free safety Ed Reed this season.
Like Brady, Reed knows how to pick his spots. He can be playing back and covering deep routes by the receivers or he could coming up on a disguised blitz package and get to the quarterback that way. The man is the definition of a ball hawk; he's where ever the ball is at all times
If Reed is able to resort to his sneaky tendencies and find himself near the ball, then Tom Brady may find himself with a few costly turnovers. However, if Brady is able to spread the ball out enough like he's been doing and keep Reed guessing all day, then Brady may be able to win this matchup. If Brady can spread the ball out and not be too dependent on one receiver, like he normally does, the man they call they best center fielder in football may be completely shut out of the game.
Ray Rice Vs. Patriots Front Seven
This is matchup that I think the Texans' front seven was able to win last weekend. Because of it, the Baltimore offense was limited to just 20 points on the scoreboard.
Last week against the Texans, Rice only had 80 yards from scrimmage, a category he led the NFL in this season, and was shut out of the endzone. When teams are able to shut Ray Rice down, they are able to take away the biggest weapon the Ravens' offense.
With Rice virtually shut out of the game, the Texans were able to force Joe Flacco to beat them. However, with a spectacular defense keeping Yates and company in check, Flacco didn't have to do to much to outscore the AFC South Champions. However, with his defense facing a much better Patriots offense, 176 passing yards and 2 touchdowns won't likely get the job done.
While they did give up 76 yard and a TD last weekend to Willis McGahee, the Patriots rush defense appears to be getting better and better each week. While McGahee is no Ray Rice, this is a winnable matchup for the Pats.
If Vince Wilfork and the defensive line are able to clog up the middle and Jerod Mayo and the linebackers are able to protect the outside edge, Rice could be in for a struggle on Sunday. If the Pats keep Rice in check, it could ultimately decide the game's outcome.
Joe Flacco Vs. Patriots Secondary
This is a matchup I just eluded to, and it's a very interesting one in my opinion.
Flacco was able to exploit the Texans in certain matchups, but not in most. Because of the extra chances that were given to him by his defense, Flacco got more opportunities to stay on the field and score more points. But with the Ravens D facing a proven, Super Bowl winning QB rather than a rookie QB on Sunday, they most likely won't give Flacco as many chances.
To give the Texans credit though, the secondary which consists of Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning is a very solid secondary. You really can't say the same about the Patriots' secondary, however.
Over the course of the 2011 season, they've battled several depth and injury problems that has forced Devin McCourty to be a safety and for Kyle Arrington to assume duties as the number one cornerback. On Sunday, the Patriots will likely start McCourty, Arrington, safety Pat Chung and Antwan Molden against the above average Flacco.
Don't get me wrong, Flacco could very well exploit this very week secondary unit with pass packages. The question inside even Ravens fans' minds this weekend will be can he do it? Even against one of the worst secondaries in the league, I just don't know.
Patriots Tight Ends Vs. Ravens Linebackers
What's the difference between D.J. Williams and a pairing of Ray Lewis? Well, a lot actually. Try more pro bowl selections, tackles, sacks, interceptions and years of experience.
Last week, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez had their way once again, as they torched Williams and the rest of the Broncos linebackers for four total touchdowns and over 200 yards receiving. This weekend however, they will be facing two of the best linebackers in the NFL in Lewis and Suggs
Gronk and Hernandez have yet to face the Ravens this year, so this should be a good battle to watch. With Ray Lewis' ability to cover almost any tight end in the league, he probably doesn't have any plans to 'Get Gronked' this weekend. If a smaller Lewis is able to mark up decently against Gronkowski, Brady may not be able to utilize his favorite red zone target as much.
However, the Patriots have not one, but two elite tight ends. The key for the Ravens will be covering both Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. While they could pull Ed Reed up from the safety spot to prevent any deep plays, the dump off plays to Hernandez will still be there for Brady. Also, Gronkowski displays a clear high advantage over Lewis and any other Baltimore Raven defender. If Brady gets enough time to throw, I anticipate that Gronkowski and Hernandez will be open on most plays.
Patriots Offensive Line Vs. Ravens Pass Rush
We've heard it really all week, about how the key to beating the Patriots is to get to Tom Brady and pressure him into making throws. So here it is, of the biggest, if not the biggest matchups you'll need to watch for this Sunday.
Last week, the Pats offensive line which consists of Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters and Nate Solder were able to hold Robert Ayers, Elvis Dumervil and the rest of the Broncos pass rushing group in check. This Sunday, they will be facing a different kind of pass rushing group with the Ravens.
In 2008, the Ravens were able to win this matchup. Because of added pressure applied to Brady, they forced him to throw balls quicker than he wanted to, which forced turnovers. Because Brady never got the time in the pocket, he was only able to score 14 points in an eventual loss to Baltimore. To me, this is the biggest matchup to watch
If the tackles Light and Solder are able to protect Brady from outside rushes by Terrell Suggs as well as safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard and if the interior line of Waters, Mankins and Connolly are able to shut down Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, then Brady will be able to have enough time and get in his rhythm. But if they aren't able to win those matchups, it will be along day for Brady and company. Looks like we'll find out on Sunday.