FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For the second time in as many seasons, the Patriots and Ravens will square off for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The location and many of the major players are the same, though much has changed in 12 months.
No longer with the Patriots is one of the heroes from the 2011 AFC Championship Game, Sterling Moore. The defensive back dislodged the football from receiver Lee Evans, who had a game-winning touchdown catch in his grasp.
Also gone is kicker Billy Cundiff, who missed a 32-yard field goal late in the game that would have send the contest into overtime.
And rather than having Rob Gronkowski at 100 percent for two-plus quarters and then a hobbling Gronkowski for the remainder of the game, the Patriots will have no Gronkowski at all, as the tight end is out for the season with a forearm injury.
The teams are the same, many of the circumstances are not, but this Sunday’s clash figures to be as hard-fought and competitive as last year’s.
Here are five things we’ll be watching for when the Patriots host the Ravens this Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium:
1. Stopping the vertical passing game. The Ravens offense is at its best when the vertical passing game is clicking. That was the case against the Patriots back in Week 3, when receiver Torrey Smith snared two touchdown grabs, a performance he repeated last Saturday night against Denver. And it’s not just Smith who the Patriots must account for down the field, as Jacoby Jones brings elite speed of his own. Joe Flacco can throw the ball with as much zip and strength as any other quarterback in the league. Look for the Ravens to test the Patriots' secondary down the field.
2. Jones' effectiveness. While it is clear that Gronkowski won’t play, the status of defensive end Chandler Jones is less apparent at this time, as he’s been limited in practice this week and is listed as probable with an ankle injury. The Patriots need to do a better job of disrupting Flacco than they did back in Week 3. The team failed to register a quarterback hit during that game, and having Jones on the field makes the pass rush more potent. If Jones can't be effective, look for fellow rookie Justin Francis to pick up a big role in his absence.
3. Pushing the offensive tempo. The Ravens have played one more playoff game than the Patriots, and were on the field for five-plus quarters against the Broncos at high-altitude. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo’s thoughts on the Patriots’ up-tempo offense aside, Tom Brady needs to keep his group moving at a rapid pace to dictate the defensive personnel Baltimore is able to use. We’d expect Baltimore to rely heavily on their nickel package this weekend, and the Patriots will need to establish the running game if that is the case.
4. Special teams. The Patriots kickoff coverage team was bad against the Texans, but the Ravens special teams were actually worse against Denver, surrendering two return touchdowns to Trindon Holliday. The slate will be wiped clean for Sunday, and both teams must be better in covering kicks. For the Patriots, that means slowing down Jones, the NFL’s All-Pro selection as a returner this season. That hasn’t been easy for teams this season, and the Patriots can’t afford to let Jones alter the momentum of the game.
5. Checking emotions. No team feeds off of emotion more than the Ravens, and the Patriots have to be smart in not letting their own emotions get pushed too far. "We're two emotional teams, so stuff happens out there," guard Logan Mankins said on Thursday. "You just always have to be smart about it. Any penalty just hurts your team, so you can take it a little ways. You just have to make sure you never take it too far." Added quarterback Tom Brady about linebacker Ray Lewis, “You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up.” The Patriots can’t afford to take dumb penalties to feed into that emotion for the Ravens. They need to focus on their own execution and not trying to match the emotional intensity of Baltimore.