Editor’s note: This originally appeared on Boston.com.
The Patriots last playoff matchup with the Baltimore Ravens provided a stinging reality in New England. Despite the team’s success that season (10-6), home field advantage, and the not-so meager hopes behind one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., there was a bit of humble pie to be dished out by the more physical and more defensively gifted Ravens. Not this year. The inequality that once existed between the Ravens and Patriots no longer exists. The talent gap has closed on the defensive side of the ball. And with it, the Patriots’ physicality has progressed. This will be a junkyard fight. And despite having a troublesome year with the team’s secondary, the Patriots are peaking right now. It’s with these thoughts in mind that we lay down our predictions for Sunday’s matchup in the AFC Championship.
Joe Flacco, Tom Brady matchup is the elephant in the room
There is no one player that will have a larger impact on the AFC Championship than Tom Brady. Joe Flacco, while in the driver’s seat as the opposing team’s quarterback, is clearly second fiddle to the Ravens’ success behind running back Ray Rice, who should be aptly considered the engine of their offense. But because of Brady’s legendary skills, his temperament in big games, and his extraordinarily competitive nature — not to forget an aversion to punishing teams that have beaten him in big games — the Patriots will likely force a shootout, with the Ravens’ Flacco thrust into the hero’s chair. In that scenario, he’s either the hero or the goat. We know how Brady will react. How will Flacco respond?
The tendency breakers are still coming
In the Patriots’ win over the Broncos, Aaron Hernandez carried the ball five times for 61 yards, including a 43-yard jaunt in the first quarter that caught Denver by surprise. It’s called a tendency breaker. Coach Bill Belichick said afterward he wanted to keep the Broncos honest. Expect more flare this week. The Ravens showed one of their tendency breakers in the first quarter against the Houston Texans. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw a 1-yard touchdown to backup tight end Kris Wilson. It was Wilson’s first catch of the season.
Special teams will be a determining factor
If the Ravens defense is to be feared, even slightly, there will be greater emphasis on special teams play, both in terms of playmaking and ball security. With a plethora of veteran returners at coach Bill Belichick’s disposal (Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk), the Patriots are in a position to be conservative and play mistake free. But expect the Ravens to come in and aggressively strip at the ball to win the turnover battle. That aggressiveness will provide opportunities for some big plays by the Patriots. They have to take advantage.
The Patriots will abandon the running game
Worried about Stevan Ridley’s ball security? Don’t be. After fumbling twice in the past two games, losing one against the Denver Broncos, his playing time will likely be slashed in favor of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, essentially giving coach Bill Belichick reason to abandon the running game entirely. A back like Green-Ellis, who finds his way through holes the mean and ugly way, can be boring for the Patriots’ high flying offense. And unfortunately for Green-Ellis, that style of offense favors Baltimore, something the Patriots can’t afford. Expect Tom Brady to toss 45 plus.
Ed Reed will be avoided
Against the Denver Broncos, Tom Brady threw in Champ Bailey’s direction only once, according to Globe teammate Greg Bedard. You can expect the same of Brady when it comes to the versatile safety. Reed has the hands of a wide receiver and the range of Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. His dangerousness cannot be overstated. Just ask T.J. Yates. This game will be another great opportunity for third, fourth and fifth option receivers to explode on the Ravens. Just not when Reed is sitting above them in coverage.
There will be Gronking
“Gronking” – The act of spiking a football with extreme ferociousness after scoring a touchdown. Despite the increased attention, the double coverage, and the physicality he’ll likely face in the trenches, the Patriots all-pro tight end will continue his Gronking ways. With his build, his speed, and his hands, there is no stopping the talent named Rob Gronkowski. Not even against a defense as vaunted as the Baltimore Ravens. Expect two more scores from the big fella.
Surprise, surprise: Brandon Deaderick’s turn
In Week 17, it was Mark Anderson who recorded a sack and tackle for a loss. Against the Denver Broncos, it was Shaun Ellis who recorded one sack and a bone crushing hit on Tim Tebow. This week, it looks like Brandon Deadrick is in a position – much like last week against the Broncos – to get in on the sack party. He had two assisted tackles against the Broncos and was in the thick of the Patriots dominant defensive effort. With increased playing time since Andre Carter was placed on injured reserve, it’s only a matter of time until he registers his big sack. Sunday is looking ripe for his name to be called.
Whether the opponent is the San Francisco 49ers or the New York Giants, the Patriots will be on a plane to Indianapolis after this Sunday’s game. The deal breaker is Joe Flacco. If the Patriots can harass the quarterback sufficiently while allowing its front seven to continue its aggressive ways, they’ll be headed to their fifth Super Bowl in the last 10 years.