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Saturday, January 21, 2012
Things to watch: Patriots-Ravens

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Five areas that stand out when analyzing Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 3 p.m. ET):

1. Pass protection for Tom Brady. If Brady has time to throw, like he did in the divisional round against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots are at their highest level of explosiveness. This puts the spotlight on left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. If third-year offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) is cleared to play, that would further bolster the Patriots up front. Empty sets, with no players in the offensive backfield along with Brady, are a big part of the Patriots' attack and that will be a game within the game to monitor in terms of how the Ravens defend "empty" looks.

2. Ray Rice as dual threat There were only two running backs in the NFL who led their team in rushing yards and receptions -- Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. This is priority No. 1 for the Patriots' defense, limiting Rice on the ground (1,364 yards, 2nd in NFL) while also accounting for him in the passing game (76 receptions) as a check-down option. Looking for a possible unsung contributor, perhaps it's linebacker Dane Fletcher. He helped "spy" Rice in a 2010 regular-season meeting between the teams.

3. Who wins inside the 20? The Ravens ranked first in the NFL in red zone defense (TD percentage), surrendering just 16 touchdowns in 42 trips. The Patriots' red zone offense was the NFL's second-best, with 47 touchdowns in 72 trips. It's a battle of strength on strength inside the 20, where the space gets tight. Look for the Patriots to go empty to try to loosen things up.

4. Ravens' coverage vs. "Boston TE Party" Few teams have had the answers to limit Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season. Safety Bernard Pollard figures to be involved in some form, so that will be a matchup to watch. One other possible wrinkle: The Patriots have had success going with a three-tight end package at times -- using offensive lineman Nate Solder as the third option -- and then throwing out of it. When looking to strike the balance between playing physical up front but also maintaining a threat in the passing game, that could be an effective approach at times.

5. Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Patriots' Vince Wilfork The two defensive linemen won't be on the field at the same time, but they represent what this game figures to be all about -- an all-out slugfest at the line of scrimmage. They are the two most powerful players on both teams' defense. We remember the 2009 wild-card round game in which Ray Rice raced 83 yards on the first offensive play, with Wilfork brushed to the side. If the Ravens can establish that type of command up front, it could be a long day for the Patriots. The Patriots seem better prepared to avoid that type of performance this time around.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.