(Sports Network) - For the first time in over 25 years the AFC Championship
Game will feature a rematch from the previous season.
Tom Brady's New England Patriots will once again do battle with Ray Lewis and
the Baltimore Ravens for AFC supremacy and a spot in the Super Bowl at
Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The contest is the first AFC title game rematch since Denver and Cleveland
teed it up in back-to-back conference championship tilts following the 1986
and 1987 seasons.
The Ravens will be returning to Foxboro for the first time since their
heartbreaking defeat in last year's AFC Championship Game when New England
narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown
catch was knocked from the grasp of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff missed an
ensuing gimmee field goal attempt that would have tied things in the waning
seconds of the fourth quarter.
Both Evans and Cundiff are gone but Baltimore is back in search of its second
ever Super Bowl appearance.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco
said. "We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all
and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that
win. We know what we've put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a
The Ravens reached the AFC title game for the third time in five years by
cutting Peyton Manning's first season in Denver short and extending Lewis'
final NFL season when the club's new kicker, rookie Justin Tucker, knocked
home a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime period to give
Baltimore a dramatic 38-35 victory over the Broncos.
"That game did the game of football proud," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh
Tucker's deciding field goal came four plays after Corey Graham intercepted
Manning in Denver territory for the second time of the game, while the Ravens
forced extra time on a thrilling 70-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to
Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
It was a desperation heave but in a stunning breakdown of situational football
by Denver. Broncos safety Rahim Moore allowed Jones to get deeper than him and
compounded that error by badly misplaying the throw in the air before Jones
snared it and raced untouched for the startling score.
"At that point in the game when you don't have any timeouts and you've got to
go a pretty decent length, you've got to start taking shots at some point,"
said Flacco. "It happened to work out."
Flacco also hooked up with Torrey Smith for a pair of touchdowns earlier on
while amassing 331 yards on 18-of-34 passing, with Ray Rice contributing 131
rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries to the improbable win.
"It was pretty incredible," said Flacco. "We overcame some things today and we
fought until the very end. When some of those (negative) things happened, none
of us blinked. We just sat over there on the sideline and said 'alright, our
The Patriots, meanwhile, advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a
41-28 win over Houston behind Brady, who surpassed his boyhood hero, Joe
Montana, to become the winningest signal-caller in NFL playoff history.
"Tom is a great competitor," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's our
leader and we all follow him. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Texans,
including two TD passes to running back Shane Vereen, who saw extensive
playing time in place of the injured Danny Woodhead. Vereen also had
a 1-yard touchdown run, becoming the third player in NFL history with two TD
catches and a touchdown run in a postseason contest.
"Shane had a great game," Brady said. "Just a huge growing up moment for him."
The Patriots rolled up 457 total yards on Houston's highly regarded defense
despite playing most of the way without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who
exited the contest on New England's second offensive series with a re-fracture
of his surgically repaired left forearm, an injury that sidelined him for five
weeks during the regular season.
Along with Vereen, Wes Welker helped offset Gronkowski's absence by amassing
131 yards on eight receptions.
"That's what Josh does best," said Brady in reference to offensive coordinator
Josh McDaniels. "He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always
comes up with a way to adept and scheme things up. There's no one better in
Woodhead, who injured his thumb on the first offensive series against the
Texans, is expected to play against the Ravens, but Gronkowski is done for the
"You can't replace him, but we all have to step up," said Pats tight end Aaron
Hernandez when asked about Gronk's absence. "It is a huge loss and everyone
knows that, but we still have games to win. Everyone has to step it up and we
have to do as much as we can do individually to fill his void."
The Patriots are 6-1 overall in the regular season and 4-0 at home all-time
versus the Ravens. The two teams have met twice previously in the postseason
with each winning a game.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Few give the Ravens much of a chance of stopping New England's latest march to
the Super Bowl, which would be the franchise's sixth appearance on the big
stage in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
The last thing the Ravens needed on top of all that was a Pats team being
fueled by the words of a special-teamer, albeit a very good one. Baltimore
special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo really stepped in it this past weekend
when he started talking trash in advance of Sunday's game.
In a series of Tweets, Ayanbadejo called the Patriots' extremely effective up-
tempo offense a gimmick, needled them for ultimately failing in their near
perfect 18-1 season back in 2007, and even brought Spygate back before
finishing up by ripping the organization for releasing wide receiver Tiquan
Underwood a day before the Super Bowl last year.
It was the kind of needless rant which makes coaches wish Twitter accounts
came with breathalyzer tests or at least a simple I.Q. hurdle.
Baltimore has often been a speed bump during the Pats' recent success dating
back to the aforementioned 18-1 season when New England needed a late Brady
touchdown pass to fend off the Ravens.
Two years later, Baltimore did knock out New England with an emphatic 33-14
first-round upset. But, in 2010, the Patriots returned the favor in overtime
in the regular season, and then survived last year in the AFC Championship
Game when Evans dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown for
the Ravens and Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal.
The tables turned a bit earlier this season when Belichick was the one
frustrated after a last-second 31-30 setback, chasing after and eventually
bumping a replacement official who ruled Tucker made a 27-yard game-winner
which flew directly over the right upright.
No matter how close this rivalry has been at times, though, more often than
not the Patriots have gotten the best of Baltimore when it has counted and New
England seems to hold a number of significant advantages going into Sunday's
The Pats had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing
427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single-
season average all-time.
Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times,
enters this contest with a 17-6 playoff record, the most wins by a starting
quarterback in postseason history. Meanwhile, his .739 winning percentage is
now ahead of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (.737) and Troy Aikman (.733) for
the top spot in league lore.
The All-Pro has been even better at home, amassing an 11-2 mark and the
Patriots as a whole are 14-3 all-time as the host in the playoffs. In AFC
title games, New England is an impressive 7-2 and a perfect 4-0 in Foxboro.
To his credit, Ayanbadejo tried to back off on Monday.
"I made selfish comments on Twitter last night that reflected poorly upon
myself, my teammates, and the organization. For that I apologize," Ayanbadejo
The damage, however, was already done.
A Patriots source told CBS' Mike Freeman that Ayanbadejo's quotes had already
been circulated through the New England locker room and that "players who are
aware of the quotes are furious and feel it is one of the most disrespectful
things ever said about the franchise."
That's probably a stretch, but why give Belichick any added ammunition?
On the field Brady generally exposes opposing defenses with his uncanny
ability to create tempo, either by speeding things up and limiting defensive
substitutions or slowing things down and using pinpoint accuracy to shred zone
Brady is able to survey things at the line of scrimmage and get his team into
the proper play on a consistent basis, something Belichick and McDaniels give
him the freedom to do. The All-Pro also takes care of the ball as evidenced by
New England's NFL-leading plus-25 turnover differential during the regular
By limiting substitutions, Brady puts an incredible strain on the opposition
and its ability to handle a plethora of playmakers, like Hernandez, as well as
the game's top slot receiver, Welker, outside the numbers threat Brandon Lloyd
and running backs Stevan Ridley, Woodhead and Vereen.
"They look to create advantages for themselves, and they do it with tempo a
lot of times," Harbaugh said. "It's not just the fact that they go fast
sometimes. They force you to line up. Sometimes they'll force the defense to
show their hand because you have to defend the play. If you don't, they'll run
On the other side, the Ravens have had a down year defensively but have picked
it up at the right time thanks to the return of four defensive starters:
Lewis, fellow linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard and star
pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
Lewis, who missed 10 games this season and has announced his retirement at
season's end, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of linebackers and although he's
not the player he once was, the leadership he brings to the field has been
sorely lacking from a Ravens' defense, which finished 17th in total defense at
350.9 yards allowed per game, the franchise's worst showing on that side of
the ball since 2002.
"(Lewis) is a great player and known for being one of the best linebackers to
play the game," Hernandez said. "And yes, you are aware of him when he is on
the field. But like I said, we just have to play our game and do what we have
to do. We have to focus on our play and not really the other defensive
players. He is a hitter and a great player. He reads offenses and catches
calls. You have to know where he is on the field."
Offensively Baltimore has picked it up recently under offensive coordinator
Caldwell replaced the fired Cam Cameron in Week 15 against the Broncos. The
Ravens struggled mightily in that game, especially early with five straight
three-and-outs. Since then, though, the Ravens offense has turned it on,
putting up 533 yards of offense against the New York Giants in Week 16. The
team then rested players in the regular season finale before ringing up a
franchise postseason record 441 yards in the first round of the playoffs
against Indianapolis and hanging 38 points on Denver a week ago.
"We haven't changed a lot," Harbaugh said. "It's still the same system that we
had in place. We call things the same way. Everybody puts their imprint on it,
and Jim's done a great job with that. We have grown a lot in the last month.
There's been some growth, and it has shown up in stats and things like that,
and that's a credit to all of our guys, not the least of which, obviously, is
Caldwell has brought some up-tempo process to the Baltimore offense and has
been more willing to let Flacco generate things from outside the pocket.
An offensive line shift and an improved running game have also made things
easier on Flacco. When left guard Jah Reid went down with a toe injury, the
Ravens reinserted veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher
back to right tackle and shifted rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard.
Meanwhile, rookie Bernard Pierce has been teaming with Pro-Bowler Rice for a
nice 1-2 combination in the backfield.
"The O-line, I think that's where it starts all the time," Flacco said. "If
those guys are playing well, I think we play well as an offense, and I think
that goes the same across the league. And, these guys have really stepped up
and are starting to play really well."
A strong running game opens up play-action for Flacco, who throws one of the
best deep balls in the NFL. Meanwhile, Smith is one of the top vertical
threats in the league and can high-point the football like few others.
That could be a problem for the Pats, who rank 29th in the NFL in pass
defense but the secondary has been much improved since acquiring talented
corner Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay and moving Devin McCourty back to safety.
"It is a big job this week to try and prevent that deep ball," Talib said.
"They are on the same page right now with Flacco. We have a lot of work to do
This figures to be a lot like last year's game and closer than most people
While no player should need motivation for a championship game, human nature
is human nature and playing this week has become somewhat of a birthright for
this Pats group.
Baltimore's best bet was to surprise the sleeping giant, one which would have
been looking ahead toward the Super Bowl after reading a week's worth of press
clippings about how great it was. Instead the Ravens will be facing a fired-up
bunch ready for battle thanks to Ayanbadejo.
On the other hand Baltimore is one of the few teams that can roll into Foxboro
and not be intimated. The Ravens understand what it takes to win in New
England and what it takes to win in January.
"There will be one team that holds the Lombardi Trophy, and that will be the
ultimate team of destiny for this year," Lewis said. "And whatever race we
have to run, we're going to run our race."
Meanwhile, consider this -- since 2010 Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns versus
just two interceptions in the postseason, compiling a 102 passer rating. Over
that same span, Brady has tossed 13 TDs with five picks and compiled a 101.5
"I don't really think so," Flacco said when asked if he elevates his play in
big games. "You go out there and you play to win the football game and
some of the things that have been required to win these football games. I
would like to think that I go out there and play consistently and approach
everything the same way. We win a lot of football games around here."
All that said it's hard to imagine beating Brady and Belichick in Foxboro.
"I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. "Baltimore
certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played
them early in the year. They got us. We're going to have to play our best game
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Ravens 20, 49ers 17
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