The Baltimore Ravens defeated the Houston Texans, 20-13, in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs today. That sets up a Ravens-Patriots matchup in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jan. 22 (3 p.m. ET).
Looking ahead to the conference championship:
They've won at Gillette before. The Ravens defeated the Patriots in the playoffs following the 2009 season, coming to Gillette Stadium and posting a 33-14 win in the wild-card round. It was arguably the most embarrassing loss in Bill Belichick's tenure as New England coach. Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play from scrimmage set the tone, as the Patriots fell behind 24-0 in the first quarter.
Series history. The Patriots are 6-0 all-time against the Ravens in the regular season, and 0-1 in the postseason. The most recent meeting came Oct. 17, 2010 at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots fell behind 20-10 early in the fourth quarter before charging back to win in overtime, 23-20. That was one of the longest games the Patriots have played (3 hours 41 minutes), with 17 penalties between the teams.
Ravens don't look too impressive. While momentum from one week seldom carries into the next, the Ravens didn't exactly charge into the conference championship, barely hanging on to beat a Texans team with rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback. Joe Flacco hasn't taken the step the Ravens hoped he would in his fourth season. He looks to be more game manager than difference-maker as the Ravens' offense struggled against a tough Texans D.
Big serving of Rice on the menu. There were only two players in the NFL who led their team in rushing and receiving -- Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. Rice figures to be a central focus for the Patriots' defense after finishing the regular season with 1,364 yards rushing (with 12 touchdowns) and 76 receptions for 704 yards (with 3 touchdowns).
Brady's respect for Reed; will injury keep Reed out? Veteran Ravens safety Ed Reed might not be playing at the high level he has in the past, but as he showed with his fourth-quarter interception to help put away the Texans, he is still a player who must be accounted for at all times. Reed needed help coming off the field after defending a long pass play in the final seconds against the Texans, so his status bears watching. Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have spoken highly of Reed on an annual basis. In 2009, Brady said, "He’s tough back there on quarterbacks. It feels like he leads the league in interceptions every year, which is tough to do when every team goes into the game thinking that we’re not throwing Ed Reed interceptions. And he does. He just makes some spectacular plays. He’s fun to watch from a quarterback’s standpoint because you really appreciate what he’s able to do. It’s a great defense and he’s one of the leaders. ... Ed’s as good as anybody."
Trouble on the road. The Ravens finished the regular season 8-0 at home, then added the divisional-round win. They were 4-4 on the road. How much will that matter next week?
Getting a feel for the Ravens defense. This is a unit that finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL against the rush, fourth against the pass, and third in points allowed. They were the league's second-ranked defense on third down. Against the Texans, though, the unit didn't apply consistent pressure, and that will be trouble for them if they play the same way against the Patriots. You can get away with that against a rookie quarterback like Yates, but Brady usually will make such an opponent pay. In terms of the strengths of both teams, this sets up a matchup of iron on iron -- the Ravens D against the explosive Patriots O.