by Frank Martin
The Baltimore Ravens took down one future Hall of Fame quarterback on the road last week and will to repeat that feat when they visit Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game. It will be a rematch of last season's conference title game, when the Patriots eked out a 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal in the final seconds. The teams have become increasingly familiar with one another, with Sunday's meeting marking the sixth time they will square off in four seasons.
The last three matchups have been decided by a total of seven points, including the Ravens' 31-30 victory in Baltimore in Week 3. The AFC North-champion Ravens stifled Indianapolis 24-9 before stunning Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Denver Broncos 38-35 in overtime to prolong linebacker Ray Lewis' final season and reach their third title game in five seasons. No. 2 seed New England pulled away in the second half for a 41-28 victory over Houston but lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski in the process.
Baltimore Ravens (12-6): Quarterback Joe Flacco raised more than a few eyebrows when he said earlier in the season that not only does he consider himself a top-five quarterback, but he feels he's "the best." No one's laughing now. Flacco has been sensational in the two playoff victories, throwing for 613 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also saved Baltimore's season last week by connecting with Jacoby Jones on a 70-yard scoring strike with 31 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Flacco's the only QB in league history to reach the playoffs in each of his first five seasons and has torched the Patriots for 973 yards with seven TDs vs. two interceptions in the last three games. Ray Rice rushed for 131 yards and a score last week and speedster Torrey Smith had TD receptions of 59 and 32 yards. He burned the Patriots for a pair of scoring passes earlier this season. Lewis has 32 tackles in the playoff games after returning from a 10-game injury absence, but this is not a typical Ravens defense. Last week's game marked the highest point total ever allowed by Baltimore in the postseason.
New England Patriots (13-4): New England amassed a league-high 557 points during the regular season and had its sixth 40-point game last week. Gronkowski re-injured his broken forearm early in last week's victory, depriving Brady of a target that has accounted for 38 touchdowns in his first 43 NFL games. Still, Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns to surpass Joe Montana for the most career postseason victories with 17. Brady had 335 yards and a scoring pass in Week 3, but he's had his struggles against the Ravens. He was intercepted twice in last season's AFC title game and failed to throw a TD pass for the first time in 36 games. New England unveiled another weapon on offense last week in running back Shane Vereen, who caught a pair of scoring passes and rushed for another TD while registering 124 total yards. TE Aaron Hernandez did not play in the early-season matchup and will provide a matchup issue for Baltimore's aging linebacking corps. The midseason acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib has helped solidify an improving defense that limited five of the final six regular-season opponents to under 20 points.
1. New England owns a 14-3 home playoff record, the best mark in history for any team with a minimum of 10 games.
2. Baltimore handed New England one of those postseason home defeats with a 33-14 rout on Jan. 10, 2010.
3. Brady has thrown 41 career playoff touchdowns, trailing only Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44).
NFL Football Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 24.
peyton manning - aaron hernandez - aqib talib - baltimore ravens - billy cundiff - brett favre - jacoby jones - joe flacco - new england patriots - ray lewis