Keys to the AFC Championship Game

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Baltimore returns to this year’s AFC Championship game matchup knowing they would have been in last year’s Super Bowl except for Anquan Bolden’s dropped pass or gone to OT at least, as former kicker Billy Cundiff missed a short field goal. So how the Ravens overcome New England this time around?

Baltimore RavensFor starters, the reconfigured Baltimore offensive line continues to play outstanding football. The reshuffling of Bryant McKinnie, Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele gives the Ravens their five best linemen in the best positions possible. The running game has improved and the pass protection is markedly better. This helps Joe Flacco immensely and last week he was barely touched by Denver, who was tied for the lead in sacks this season.

If Baltimore can run the ball with Ray Rice, this sets up Flacco for play-action passing and if there is one true weakness of New England’s revamped secondary, they will bite on pass-action. Baltimore’s pass offense has found a very good rhythm, with Torrey Smith deep, Anquan Bolden on medium-deep routes outside the numbers and TE’s Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson taking care of the rest.

This is not the same commanding Ravens defense of the past, yet it has been quite effective in limiting points. Baltimore was 17th in total defense, 12th in points allowed and has only allowed 15 PPG in the playoffs if you subtract the two Denver kick returns. John Harbaugh has been able to get a good beat on Tom Brady, who has four touchdown passes and seven interceptions in their past four get-togethers.

While the loss of Rob Gronkowski cannot be overlooked, Brady and company still have ample weaponry to move the ball. New England has to continued to thrive offensively even without Gronk, tallying 35.3 PPG when he been out of the lineup (4-1 SU) and 35.0 PPG when he played. Obviously, the two tight end setup is not as effective without him, but Brady has shown faith in Michael Hoomanawanui down the field as his replacement.

New England PatriotsThe Ravens secondary is significantly better than it was when these teams met in Week 3; however, Wes Welker is still a nightmare for any secondary and Aaron Hernandez’s star shines brighter when Gronkowski is out of the lineup. Bill Belichick will game plan the offense and have Baltimore chose their own poison.

The Patriots are known as a passing team, yet the running game might be the biggest factor to a return trip to the Super Bowl. New England average 136 yards a game on the ground, which was good enough to finish seventh during the regular season. Conversely, the Ravens run defense took a major step backwards this season in finishing 20th in yards allowed, as they gave up 10 percent more yards than what their opponents averaged on the year. This could be very important in this contest.

The New England defense began to solidify with the acquisition of CB Aqib Talib. The often troubled former Buccaneer has shutdown corner skills and the emergence of rookie Alfonzo Dennard, allowed for Devin McCourty to play free safety, where he is better suited to play the run or the pass. DT Vince Wolfork can control the A-gaps in the run and collapse the pass pocket with his strength up the middle. What the Pats defense has to do is make Flacco throw the ball towards his left, since he is not nearly as accurate compared to throwing to his right. If DE Chandler Jones is still hobbled or cannot go, the New England pass rush might be comprised.

The Sports-Watch Power Ratings have New England winning by 10.

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