After a relatively easy win over the Broncos last weekend, the Patriots cruised into the AFC Championship Game, where they will face a familiar foe. New England is 6-1 all-time against Baltimore, but that one loss came in the 2009 postseason. If the Pats want to advance to their first Super Bowl in four years, they’ll need their explosive offense to produce against a suffocating defense. Here are three keys…
1. Brady has to be Brady
Are the Ravens the team that will slow Tom Brady down? They’ll have their hands full. The Patriots QB is coming off a record-setting performance against the Broncos last week. Brady picked up right where he left off in the regular season, tying the NFL playoff mark by throwing six touchdowns (five came in the first half), and finishing with 363 passing yards. And he did it all without breaking a sweat.
New England’s offense put up staggering numbers this year — it was second in the league in passing yards (317.8) and total yards per game (428) while scoring an AFC-best 32 points per contest. With the likes of Wes Welker (the league leader in catches), Rob Gronkowski (who set a tight end record by scoring 17 touchdowns) and Aaron Hernandez at his disposal, Brady passed the 5,000-yard plateau (finishing the season with 5,235).
The Ravens gave up just over 196 passing yards per game (fourth best in the league), so the yards won’t come easy for Brady on Sunday. But if the aerial attack can break through, that will put more pressure on not only the Baltimore defense, but also its offense.
2. Try and run
The Ravens were one of the most effective teams against the run during the regular season (an AFC-best 92.6 yards per game) but they hit a bump last week against the Texans. Arian Foster became the first player to run for more than 100 yards in a postseason game against Baltimore (he had 132), making that rush D look rather ordinary. Was that output just an anomaly or the start of a troubling trend for the Ravens?
In a pass-heavy offense, the run wasn’t much of a priority for New England this season, with the unit finishing 20th in the NFL an averaging just over 110 yards per game. Running the ball isn’t the Patriots’ strength, but if their offense can become a bit more balanced this week, that will give them an advantage. Don’t get me wrong — BenJarvus Green-Ellis is no Foster, but his best game of the season came against a similarly stingy rush defense. Back in Week 5, the Law Firm ran for a season-high 136 yards against a Jets team that gave up just 3.9 yards per carry (in comparison, the Ravens allowed 3.5). That was his only game where he finished with more than 100 yards.
New England may not look to run the ball first on Sunday, but they do have the players (Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley) to at least test Baltimore’s rush defense.
3. A repeat performance from the defense
A lot has been made this season of New England’s 31st-ranked defense, which gave up just over 411 yards per game. But the Patriots D that was on display this past weekend didn’t resemble the regular-season squad at all. New England held Tim Tebow to 136 yards passing (252 yards total), sacked him five times and allowed just 10 points. The D was aggressive, made tackles and more importantly, didn’t give up the home-run play.
And that’s been the Pats’ game plan for most of the season — whatever defensive shortcomings they’ve had have been masked by their explosive offense. The unit gives up a lot of yards but allowed only 21 points per game (15th in the entire league). The Ravens have a good ground game with Ray Rice, but Joe Flacco isn’t reliable.
New England doesn’t need to shut down Baltimore’s offense to win, but it can’t give up too many big plays either.