Friday, January 18, 2013
Final Word: Ravens at Patriots
By James Walker
Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium:
Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, two of the best players of their generation, square off for the last time in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
One last time: This will mark the final matchup between two future Hall of Famers -- quarterback Tom Brady of the Patriots and linebacker Ray Lewis of Baltimore. Lewis, 37, will retire after this season. He is 2-5 all time against Brady, but nearly all of the games have been close. In fact, the past three games between New England and Baltimore have been decided by three points or fewer. Brady, 35, who says he wants to play several more seasons, is going for his sixth Super Bowl appearance, which would be the most for a starting quarterback. Lewis and Brady are arguably the top defensive and offensive players, respectively, of this generation. But the road ends for one of these players Sunday.
Defending home: The Patriots rarely lose at home in the playoffs. New England is 14-3 all-time at home in the postseason and 4-0 at home in conference title games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Brady has won all three of his previous AFC Championship Games that were played in New England. That includes last season’s 23-20 playoff victory over the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
Special-teams issues: Will special teams play a factor in this game? Both teams are very unhappy with their kick return coverage in the divisional round. The Patriots allowed 230 yards on kickoff returns last week against the Houston Texans. That included a 94-yard kickoff return by the Texans' Danieal Manning to start the game. Baltimore's kick coverage was just as bad against Denver. Broncos receiver Trindon Holliday had two returns for touchdowns -- a 104-yard kickoff return and a 90-yard punt return -- against the Ravens. Both teams aim to clean up coverage issues, because special teams could make a difference in a close game.
Next man up: New England will be without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke his arm for a second time last week and is out for the playoffs. Replacing Gronkowski will not be easy. Others Patriots, such as tight end Aaron Hernandez and receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, must all step up. Replacing Gronkowski in the lineup is third-year player Michael Hoomanawanui. He has just five receptions this season but is known as a solid blocker in the running and passing game. Expect the Patriots to use fewer dual-tight end sets in this game and increase the use of three wide receivers.
Tempo is key: Look for the Patriots to push the tempo early, particularly on offense, to see if the Ravens can keep up. Baltimore played in two tough and competitive playoff games, which included a double-overtime classic last week over the Denver Broncos. The Ravens will be going on the road in the playoffs for the second straight week, and the Patriots will try to take advantage. New England had just one previous playoff game, against the Texans, a matchup that wasn't as competitive. The Patriots had a first-round bye before that and enter this game reasonably healthy, with the exception of Gronkowski’s injury.