AFC Championship Game Preview: Baltimore-New England

NFL’s Championship Sunday concludes with the AFC Championship Game (6:30 PM ET, CBS) in an early evening battle between New England and Baltimore that promises its share of bad blood. We’ll preview the game here using TheSportsNotebook’s usual format—talk about the matchup itself, set a little historical context, evaluate what the money boys in Las Vegas think and the make a prediction.

THE MATCHUP: The question has to begin with whether Tom Brady’s Patriot offense can be slowed down, and if not, whether the Ravens can compete in a shootout. New England scored 30 points back in September when these teams met in Baltimore and the offensive line is playing considerably better now than it was then. Stevan Ridley leads up a running game that the Pats didn’t have in last year’s championship game against the Ravens, and was still finding its footing back in September. Even with Rob Gronkowski out, Brady still has a quality tight end in Aaron Hernandez, a good receiver complement with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and a seemingly limitless capacity to turn any no-name into a star for a day.

All this would point to New England piling up the points, 35 or more. But not so fast. Baltimore has a veteran defense and even if they give up long drives, Brady’s not going to find easy mistakes to exploit. The Ravens’ key weakness—a lack of speed at the outside linebacking spots—might be a blessing here, since they won’t be tempted to attack Brady from the perimeters. They’re more likely to come up the middle, where the Patriot quarterback can be thrown off rhythm. While Brady might answer that by hitting Welker or Hernandez in the vacated middle spots, that’s not nearly as bad as doing the same with Gronkowski and letting the tight end work up a head of steam going downfield. Finally, free safety Ed Reed is as a smart a ballhawk as there is in football, and all he needs to do is capitalize on one or two mistakes to swing the game.

I’m not suggesting New England is going to be stopped. Given their weapons and the offense-friendly rules, that borders on impossible. But it’s feasible they could be held in the 24-28 point range, which shifts a lot of pressure to the Patriot defense.

Now about that Patriot defense—it’s a much better unit than last season, particularly against the run. That’s going to serve them well against a Baltimore team that is at its best when Ray Rice can get in rhythm. But the New England defense is at its worse on passes down the field. And Joe Flacco’s epic bomb to Jacoby Jones at the end of regulation last week in Denver is just one highly visible and historic example of the Raven quarterback’s ability to throw the deep ball. Torrey Smith caught two long touchdown passes last week and can get deep again. Anquan Boldin can work the possession routes. Baltimore score 31 points in the September meeting between these two teams, and while I think the Patriot defense is better now than it was then, there’s no reason to think the Ravens can’t do the same.

One lingering question remains—what if weather is a factor?  Right now, there’s only a 20 percent chance of rain, but 25 mph winds are expected. I don’t claim to be enough of expert on the New England stadium to know whether and how that might swirl, and at this point, I’m assuming weather won’t impact the offenses. But if it does, you have to say it favors Baltimore. Yes, Flacco would have the deep ball taken away and you can correctly point out that Brady is more efficient and disciplined at throwing the short percentage routes that would be in vogue. Still, weather is an equalizer that works to an underdog’s favor and if I were Baltimore, I’d take any scenario that involves Ray Rice against the opposition running game being a decisive swing vote.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Do we even need to go here? The teams played last year in the AFC Championship Game and in the aftermath of New England’s 23-20 win, I ranked the Raven loss the second-most heartbreaking in NFL Championship Sunday history. This is the first championship game rematch on the AFC side since the Denver-Cleveland battles of 1986-87. The NFC saw Dallas-San Francisco play in 1992-93.

Two things are of note here—in both previous rematch situations, the same team won both games. Also, the Cleveland Browns of the late 1980s are the organizational forerunners of today’s Baltimore Ravens. Both losses were absolute gut-wrenchers and both came to one of the sport’s signature quarterbacks, a handsome guy with GQ looks. Is this just a case of substitute Patriots for Broncos, Brady for Elway and Ravens for Browns and replay the same movie?

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: When I heard this pointspread, I thought it had to be a mistake, that someone in Las Vegas had blown a fuse. The Patriots opened at (-10). Now that line’s come down a bit and is sitting at (-8.5)—the line we’ll recognize here, and still in the nine-point range other places.

When you look at the history of these two teams—the September game, last year’s AFC Championship Game, Baltimore’s overtime loss to New England in Foxboro in 2010 and their playoff victory here in 2009, what earthly reason leads you to conclude this is not a one-score game.?  I can see (-5), maybe even (-6). You give the Patriots the home-team courtesy of a field goal and add a couple points. But how this ever came to be seen as a mismatch, I don’t know.  The total is 51.5, indicating that the books aren’t worried about weather slowing the offenses—or the defenses for that matter.

PREDICTION: I’m rooting like hell for New England in this game. While the Redskins are my favorite team, it’s the only exception to my Boston interests—Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins—so I happily stand with my Boston brethren whenever there’s no conflict with the ‘Skins. So I’m hoping that an item from my personal handicapping history holds true—whenever I think Vegas has blown a fuse, the ensuing results always remind me why they’re making money hand over fist at this stuff and I’m not. Maybe it will be a New England rout. But I can’t see that. I’ll take the Patriots to win, but similar to last year, it’s by the narrowest of margins. I’m thinking the Pats come up with one additional stop in the red zone to swing it, and it ends up 31-27, and the total goes Over. The dog gets the cover. But I’ll add this–while I’m not predicting either a Baltimore win or a New England cover, it’s easier for me to see the Ravens winning outright than the Pats covering that bloated line.

Outright Winners: 6-1
Pointspread Winners: 5-1-1
Totals Line: 5-2
*Did not pick Seattle-Washington, citing fan bias for the ‘Skins as the excuse.