What 2 Watch 4, Patriots vs. Ravens: AFC Championship

So, what has changed in the AFC in the last year? Apparently nothing, as we have a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship in Foxboro with the Patriots and Ravens battling for the right to represent their conference in the Super Bowl.

While some of the players have changed, the teams are essentially the same from last year’s conference title bout. The Patriots will be without their star tight end Rob Gronkowski, but the rest of the roster is surprisingly healthy for being this late in the season.

The Ravens have long since parted ways with the “Billy-goat” from last year’s title matchup, in kicker Billy Cundiff, but the majority of their roster hasn’t changed either.

So, with a seemingly similar matchup on paper, here are five things to watch for in tonight’s AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium:

1. Settling into the game. A quick start for the Patriots will be essential against a team like the Ravens, as they rely heavily on a balanced rushing and passing attack to be effective. If New England gets ahead by double digits early on then Flacco will surely be throwing as much as possible and this is where the Pats favorable turnover differential this season can come into play tonight.

2. Preventing the deep ball. The Patriots defense needs to keep everything in front of them tonight, as Joe Flacco will definitely sling it deep whenever he gets the chance. While the Pats have turned into a great run-stopping team, which will certainly be put to the test in this game against Ray Rice, they will need to combine this effort with smart defensive schemes that keep potential deep passing plays in front of them.

3. Significance of efficient Patriots running game. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen didn’t have any impact on the outcome of last year’s title game, so this will be a big chance for them to step up and continue to show how much the running game has helped the Patriots get to where they are today. It is no coincidence that New England’s rushing attack was below average in their losses this season, as the Pats have not performed as well without the complimentary running game. So, there will surely be lots of pressure on Ridley, Vereen and company to step up big on the big stage tonight.

4. The Ray Lewis farewell factor. You can’t calculate it and you can’t directly see it on the field, but you’ll be able to sense the impact of this being Ray’s “last go-around” when the Ravens defense is on the field. While many have criticizes this defense for being too old and too slow, they still seem to have the “it” factor, meaning they play well as a unit and tend to get the job done at the most crucial points of the game. While the spread may heavily favor the Patriots, there is no defying the point swing that can be caused by a jacked up defense playing for their longtime leader and a chance at going to the Super Bowl. When all that is on the line, you can honestly throw the spread out the window. All we know for sure is Ray won’t be going out without a fight.

5. Pushing the tempo on offense. While this may seem obvious to anyone who has watched the Patriots play this season, it is still apparent that when the offense isn’t going at a fast pace it is significantly less effective. The Ravens certainly present challenges to creating a quick offense, as their physical play will be shown on the field in the form of potentially slowing down New England’s fast-paced offensive attack. The quicker this game is played, however, the better chance the Patriots have of coming out on top.

Game Prediction:

Based on the above key factors of this game, it is clear that the closer the Patriots are to simply playing like they are capable of, the better chance they will have of winning. That is why the Patriots are favored so heavily in this game (9 ½) because if they play up to their abilities than the Ravens have a very small chance of coming out of Gillette with a victory.

Winning the turnover battle will have a major impact on the outcome as well, and the Patriots have done an impressive job of creating turnovers and capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes this season.

Taking everything into account, I expect the Patriots to win a very close game tonight, and here is why. New England will start off strong and lead Baltimore by at least 7-10 points at halftime. Expect Ray Lewis to give the most inspiring halftime speech of his life and this will have Baltimore firing on all cylinders in the 3rd quarter. The Pats will have a one-score lead late in the game and need a long, timeout-draining drive to end Baltimore's season and send New England off to New Orleans as the first team since 1994 to return to the Super Bowl after losing the big game the year before.

Patriots: 27 Ravens: 24

Long-Shot Predictions: Brandon Spikes will have an interception and Danny Woodhead will find the end zone a week after missing the divisional round game against Houston.

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