There are injuries hovering around this game. It’s not an abundance of black and blue anymore, especially for the Ravens, a healed team that’s only seen Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs on the field at the same time for a handful of games this year. For the Patriots there’s the matter of Rob Gronkowski, and how his absence effects their offense.

In that sense, the subtractions (Gronk for New England, Lardarius Webb for Baltimore) are a wash, which re-focuses this game to where the central talking point belongs: the rivalry. This should be the kind of close, brutal football that’s expected of a championship Sunday.

For evidence of that, we only need to look back at recent history. Of the last six meetings between these two teams in both the playoffs and regular season, the margin of victory in five of them has been less than a touchdown. Taking that further, four of the six games were won by a field goal or less. Even when we include the glaring exception (Baltimore’s 33-14 Wildcard Weekend win in 2010), the cumulative score throughout the six games is still 164-129.

With the immensity of the offseason movement in the NFL by both players and coaches, I don’t usually give long-term win-loss records of that nature much value, but those spreads are difficult to ignore. Tomorrow likely won’t deviate from history, or at least not much, as we won’t see a blowout despite what Madden 13 would have you believe.

But unless the Ravens can continue passing deep, and passing deep often, another trend will continue too. Throughout the nine-game history of this series, the Ravens have won only twice.

The surface layer of numbers begin to tell the story of how Baltimore can win this game. Or lose it again.

Ravens offense Patriots defense
Total yards P/Game 352.5 (16th) 373.2 (25th)
Passing yards P/Game 233.7 (15th) 271.4 (29th)
Rushing yards P/Game 118.8 (11th) 101.9 (9th)
Ravens defense Patriots offense
Total yards P/Game 350.9 (17th) 427.9 (1st)
Passing yards P/Game 228.1 (17th) 291.4 (4th)
Rushing yards P/Game 122.8 (20th) 136.5 (8th)

So it’s simple then, right? Just feed Torrey Smith all day to expose a weak secondary, and chuck a few deep balls to Jacoby Jones too. Yeah, um, maybe.

Thoughts and Rants

  • Smith — who’s averaging 24.2 yards per catch over his four playoff games — was able to easily expose the Patriots’ secondary back in Week 3 during the Ravens’ 31-30 win, catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. It was a weakness the Ravens identified early, as it was one of just two games when Smith logged 100 yards or more, and perhaps more importantly as we assess the gameplan, it was one of just five games when he received double-digit targets.
  • And that all sounds fantastic now, especially after Smith repeatedly burned an aging Champ Bailey last week. Aqib Talib isn’t aging, though, and he was still a Buccaneer in Week 3. Now he’s in New England, and acquiring Talib also allowed Devin McCourty to move over to his more natural position at safety. In the nine games they played without Talib, the Pats allowed 49 passes of 20 yards or more. Since he’s been on the roster they’ve allowed 25 such completions, a per game average which fell by two.
  • That may sound insignificant at first, but limiting chunk plays is crucial against Smith, a wide receiver who has six +40 yard catches this year, despite a very moderate 54 receptions overall. That means field-stretching plays represented 11 percent of his catches.
  • So the Ravens will look to Smith and ask him to be the catalyst for their passing game Sunday, and when they do he’s usually asked to cover vast stretches of field. Including the playoffs, he has a league-high 36 targets on passes of 25 or more yards in length, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
  • As always, Ray Rice will be a crucial element after he posted 150 totals yards (101 rushing at a pace of 5.1 yards per carry, and 49 receiving) against New England in Week 3. But his tendency to put the ball on the ground in the playoffs is at least a mild concern against a defense that easily led the league in forced fumbles.
  • Over nine career playoff games and 179 post-season touches, Rice has fumbled five times, four of which were lost. Yes, that’s inherently a small sample size, but the stark contrast between his post-season fumble rate and his career regular-season fumble rate is still at the very least notable, and at worst frightening. In the regular season, Rice has fumbled once every 218.1 touches, with just seven fumbles overall throughout his five-year career. In the post-season, he’s fumbled once every 35 carries.
  • He’ll face a front seven led by Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower (SEC SEC SEC SEC) tomorrow that forced 19 fumbles during the regular season, putting the Pats seven ahead of the second-place Bears, and making them one of only five teams in double digits.
  • It’s nice and all that Lewis is healthy again, and that we get to hear the story of his life every week, and every day now (say, why aren’t we hearing this story a little more often?). But Lewis is slower. Much slower and still limited, so when the Patriots hand a football to Stevan Ridley, he’ll be running against a defense that’s given up 278 rushing yards over the past two weeks. Worse, 91 of those yards went to Vick Ballard during Wild Card Weekend, the same Vick Ballard who averaged 50.9 rushing yards per game throughout the regular season.
  • Ridley will be especially troublesome for Baltimore if Tom Brady’s chucking has the Patriots ahead at halftime. He led the league in second half rushing yards (671), touchdowns (six), and yards after contact (207).
  • Shane Vereen’s pass-catching presents another threat for a group of Ravens linebackers that sometimes struggle in space. He averaged 17.5 yards after the catch per reception during the regular season, which was first among running backs.