It’s not the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning showdown many expected in the AFC Championship Game. But the intense rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens is just as exciting.
For the second consecutive year, these familiar foes will meet at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC at the Super Bowl. Last season, New England escaped with a 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard chip shot that could've forced overtime.
Is this year’s rematch the last stop Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis? Or will Patriots quarterback Tom Brady be denied his sixth career Super Bowl appearance? AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley examine the possibilities.
James Walker: Jamison, I feel like it was just yesterday when we watched Billy Cundiff botch an otherwise great playoff game at Gillette Stadium. You had the feeling there was still unfinished business between these two teams, even after they played in the regular season. I think it’s fitting that the Ravens and Patriots got back to this point and meet again with so much on the line. How different are the Ravens now compared to the team that made last year’s AFC title game?
Jamison Hensley: Well, James, the Ravens don't have Cundiff or wide receiver Lee Evans anymore, which is a big difference from last season. But that hasn't been the only change. The Ravens have really undergone an image makeover in the 12 months since losing the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Last year, and actually for the past 13 seasons, the Ravens have been a team defined by defense. The offense has always been in the passenger seat when it comes to the team's championship drive. That's not the case anymore. Even though the Ravens defense finished No. 17, it has been ranked in the 20s for most of the season. The Ravens are relying on Joe Flacco and their offense more than ever. Baltimore won half of its games this season by scoring 30 or more points and was 5-0 when Flacco threw for more than 300 yards yards. Like he's been all season, Flacco is the X factor for the Ravens. I'm sure he's going to throw the ball deep against a Patriots defense that has given up some big plays this season. Everyone knows Tom Brady is championship-caliber, but is that defense at that level yet?
Walker: New England’s defense is tricky to gauge. Is it championship caliber? No. The Patriots are not going to win a championship solely based on their defense, which was ranked 25th this season. But the defense has improved, largely due to its young players. Rookies draft picks like linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have really added to New England’s physicality. The Patriots are ninth against the run and ninth in points allowed. It’s the “chunk” passing plays where New England has the most trouble. I think Ravens can have success by attacking the Patriots vertically. New England has done a good job this season of scoring touchdowns, pushing the pace on offense and holding opponents to field goals. Before you know it, opponents are down 17 or 20 points. Obviously, the Patriots’ offense is a hot topic thanks to Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He provided New England some easy bulletin-board material by saying he doesn’t respect the Patriots’ “gimmick” offense. The Patriots will use that as motivation, even if they don’t admit it publicly. Speaking of motivation, how big is the Ray Lewis factor and how will it impact this game?
Hensley: There will always be a debate on whether or not Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time. But there's really no argument when it comes to Lewis being the greatest leader in NFL history. James, as you know from your years of covering the AFC North, Lewis has a way of motivating players and getting them to elevate their game. That's a big reason why the Ravens had a top-10 defense from 1999 to 2011. His impact is being felt this season, too. The Ravens are 7-1 with Lewis and 5-5 without him. When Lewis announced before the playoffs that this was going to be "his final ride," that became the emotional rallying cry for this team. Do I think everyone is playing for Ray Lewis? Not at all. Joe Flacco wasn't thinking of Ray Lewis when he threw that desperation touchdown pass in Denver. But the Ravens are certainly playing inspired football. It helped the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and they're hoping it helps them to knock off another future Hall of Fame quarterback. James, what has impressed you the most about Tom Brady's game this year?
Walker: I’ve always argued that Brady is better than Manning, especially this time of year. People will always debate their statistics. But the biggest difference between the top two quarterbacks of this era is Brady is 17-6 and Manning is 9-11 in postseason games. I think that’s telling. There is no other quarterback I’d rather have in a one-game scenario than Brady. What’s impressed me most is Brady is 35 and is showing no signs of slowing down. Brady even took on more responsibility this year running a high-tempo, no-huddle offense more often and flourished. Brady, in my opinion, is in a class of his own among the final four quarterbacks. Flacco’s performance last week silenced a lot of critics, but he is 0-2 in AFC Championship Games. Jamison, Flacco is in a contract year. Is this the season he gets over the hump in the conference title game?
Hensley: If Evans could've held onto that catch in the end zone, Flacco would've already been over that hump. Just like last year, I expect the Patriots will look to shut down Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat them. Flacco has been a dangerous downfield passer this postseason, averaging 20.4 yards per completion. I'm not saying he's in Brady's class, but Flacco is playing at a higher level right now. It's not about Flacco stepping up in a contract year, either. He knows he's going to get paid whether it's a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The reason Flacco is playing better is because he's more experienced. Of course, as I say this, I also want to point out that Flacco is the streakiest quarterback in the league. So, do the Patriots get the good Flacco or the bad one? We'll find out Sunday. James, how do you see this game playing out?
Walker: You’re right, Jamison. Flacco has followed up some good performances with some bad ones. But I really like the sense of urgency from both teams. Baltimore has Lewis making his last postseason run and Brady looks like a man on a mission to qualify for his sixth Super Bowl appearance and maybe a fourth title. I decided to stay away from firm predictions after the regular season. AFC East blog readers were getting upset that I was hitting on most of my picks. My final record for the season was 40-12 picking division games. So I’m going to pass. But as I wrote over the weekend, Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick were high school teenagers. The quarterback advantage is in New England’s favor, which makes the Patriots the favorite of the four remaining teams.
Hensley: If the Ravens and Patriots played last month, my prediction would’ve been New England in a rout. But something has happened to the Ravens since the playoffs have begun. The Ravens are the big underdog once again, and that will only fuel Baltimore’s desire that it has something to prove. Four of the last five meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by six points or less. This is going to be another close game. And, just like last year, the AFC Championship Game will come down to the final drive.