NFL Nation: Final Word 2012 championship Ravens-Patriots

Final Word: Ravens at Patriots

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's AFC Championship Game:

QB road warrior: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has won five out of his nine road playoff games, which is more than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Those Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have a combined 13-29 record in road postseason games. Only Eli Manning has as many road playoff wins as Flacco. Overall, Flacco has a 7-4 record in the postseason. Only two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era have won more playoff games in their first five seasons: Brady (9-0) and Ben Roethlisberger (8-2).

The final ride: Ray Lewis announced that he's retiring at the end of the season, but the Ravens middle linebacker is more than just an emotional rallying point. Lewis has recorded an NFL-best 30 tackles this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last player to post 30 tackles in his first two games of a single postseason was Jonathan Vilma in 2004, when he was with the Jets. Including the plays that were negated by penalty, Lewis has been on the field for all 188 defensive snaps for the Ravens in the playoffs. That's an iron man-like effort for a player who missed the final 10 weeks of the regular season after having surgery to repair torn triceps in his right arm.

[+] EnlargeTorrey Smith
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceTorrey Smith, averaging 24.4 yards per playoff catch, gets a crack at the Patriots' woeful pass defense.
High-flying Raven: In trying to exploit the NFL's 29th-ranked pass defense, the Ravens will look downfield for Torrey Smith, the best deep threat in the team's history. Smith is averaging 24.4 yards per catch in four playoff games. In Week 3 of the regular season, the Patriots couldn't contain Smith on an emotional night for the Baltimore wide receiver. After losing his younger brother Tevin in a motorcycle accident, Smith finished with 127 yards and two touchdowns on six catches. He was just as explosive in last week's AFC divisional playoff game in Denver, where he scored on touchdown catches of 59 and 32 yards. Smith was tied for seventh in the regular season with 12 catches of 25 or more yards. Including the playoffs, Smith has an NFL-high 36 targets on passes of 25 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Pressure point: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has 12 sacks in 13 career postseason games, the most in the NFL since 2008. He is five away from setting the record for most sacks ever in the NFL playoffs (Willie McGinest currently leads the league with 16 in the postseason). Suggs had been struggling in a season marred by injuries to his Achilles tendon and biceps. But he recorded two sacks last week in Denver, matching the total in his first nine games this season. The Ravens have been getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks lately. The Ravens have registered multiple sacks in 10 consecutive games, the team's longest streak since the 2006 season. Baltimore had one or fewer sacks in four of its first eight games this season. Brady was sacked only 27 times in the regular season. Among quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts, only six were sacked fewer times than Brady.

Moving up the ranks: The Ravens' John Harbaugh has won seven playoff games, tied for the second most by a coach in his first five seasons in the Super Bowl era. Of those seven wins, three have been over head coaches who had previously led teams to a Super Bowl (Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick and John Fox). With a win in the AFC Championship Game, Harbaugh would tie the Raiders' Tom Flores for the most by a coach in his first five seasons. Harbaugh is the only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons and also the only coach to advance to three conference title games over that same span. But if Harbaugh loses, he would join four other coaches who lost their first three conference championship games: Andy Reid, Marty Schottenheimer, John Madden and Chuck Knox.

Final Word: Ravens at Patriots

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Ray Lewis
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsTom 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.

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