AFC Championship Game Preview

The AFC Championship Game between Baltimore and New England kicks off at 3:00 PM EST on CBS, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms in Foxboro for the coverage. It’s the Patriots first time in the AFC title game since their undefeated season of 2007, while the Ravens were last here in 2008, when they lost on the road to the Steelers. This is a battle of the conference’s top two seeds in this year’s playoffs.

To understand how they matchup, we’ll look at how each team’s running and passing game matches up with the opposing defenses, starting with New England…

Patriot Running Game: The problems the Patriots have had in the running game can be understood by looking back to last Saturday night’s game against Denver. Bill Belichick unveiled a wrinkle where tight end Aaron Hernandez would get the ball coming around the side and it worked three different times. It’s an example of how Belichick always comes up with the right tactical move, but it’s also a mark of how lousy your running game is when you have to do this kind of gimmick in the playoffs. New England ranks toward the bottom of the AFC in yards-per-carry, while the Raven defense is the conference’s best at stopping the run.

New England doesn’t have a clear go-to back, sharing time between Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and their offensive line is built to protect Brady—an inherently passive act, where you stay on your heels—as opposed to the more aggressive act of drive-blocking at the line of scrimmage. All things being equal, there is zero reason to think New England can run the ball on Sunday.

Patriot Passing Game: With the best quarterback of my generation (I’m almost 42) behind center, the Pats produced the AFC’s most prolific pass offense, despite not having a deep threat. Brady excels at pinpointing his tight ends, Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, along with West Welker underneath. Deion Branch is a veteran on the flank, who might be limited by a knee injury, though he is expected to play.

Baltimore’s pass rush is excellent, with Terrell Suggs being a havoc-wreaker on the edge, and Haloti Ngata, one of the game’s best down lineman, and able to get pressure in a 3-4 scheme. The corners are still a little bit of a problem for Baltimore, but nearly to the extent they had been in recent years, thanks to the ballhawking Lardarius Webb on the corner. And in this space last week I said never to count out veteran Ed Reed, even his big-play skills are noticeably down at this stage of his career. You don’t bet against crafty vets in big spots and Reed made the game-clinching interception last week. Granted, that was T.J. Yates and this is Tom Brady. But it still underscores that while the Patriots merit an edge here, it might not be overwhelming enough to offset problems in other areas.

Ravens Running Game: Baltimore can muscle you on the ground with Ray Rice and I don’t understand commentators who talk about the need to open up the offense. To my mind, the Ravens have problems when they try and finesse opponents rather than just running them over. Rice runs well between the tackles and catches the ball out of the backfield.

The New England rush defense is mediocre at best, and there’s going to be tremendous pressure on tackle Vince Wolfork to have the game of his life and control the interior. The run to Baltimore is what the pass is to New England—they’re going to do it well and win this battle. But how decisively they need to control this area is the real question.

Ravens Passing Game: The talk all season has been whether Joe Flacco can win a big game when the running game and defense alone won’t be enough to carry him. Now he’s in that spot. I’d say he can permanently silence critics, but in a media culture where even Brady is still seen as having something to prove, there’s no such thing as permanent silence. But there is an opportunity for Flacco to do something special here. New England’s top pass rusher, Andre Carter, has been out for several weeks and the Pats pressure isn’t the same without him. The Patriots secondary ranks last in the AFC in yards allowed.

What New England does do well on pass defense is force interceptions. They’re the AFC’s best team at picking off the ball.  Flacco, on the other hand, excels at avoiding mistakes. What’s going to happen in the red zone? Can Flacco target a big receiver like Anquan Boldin over the middle or his tight end Ed Dickson. Can the Ravens’ take shots down the field to Torrey Smith without turning the ball over? I think this particular area is where the AFC Championship will be decided.

If you look at these matchups, it seems plain to me that this is an even football game. Which is why I was stunned to see the Patriots open at (-7.5) last Sunday night, and if you want to bet the Ravens straight –up you could get odds of 2.8 to 1. That’s come down a little bit. It’s now an even (-7) with the odds at 2.5 to 1, but I know if I were in the Bellagio on Sunday I’d bet 55% of my bankroll on the Ravens with the spread and the other 45% on the straight-up win (Of course this would be after I’d paid my regards to Terry Benedict, portrayed by Andy Garcia in the remake  of Oceans 11).

At the start of the season I picked a Ravens-Patriots AFC championship game with Baltimore going to the Super Bowl. A friend of mine implored me not to change course now. While my heart is with New England and the good fans of Foxboro that I share baseball, NBA and hockey territory with, my head says Baltimore is going to win this game. In baseball, the Orioles knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs. In football, the Ravens will knock the Pats out of the Super Bowl. Let’s call this one 24-20 Baltimore.