It seems poetic that the New England Patriots will face the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Back in 2009, Ray Rice took the first snap of their AFC wild-card matchup 83 yards untouched up the middle and Baltimore never looked back. The Ravens handled the Patriots easily, a 33-14 Baltimore win that gave New England their first home playoff loss since 1978. The Patriots earned a small measure of redemption with a 23-20 win in Week 6 of last year, but their real chance to even the score comes Sunday. It should be a fascinating matchup, particularly when New England has the ball, as no team rattles Tom Brady like the Ravens. Here are some statistical areas to watch for on Sunday:
*Even though the Ravens are 1-2 in their past three meetings against the Patriots, they have slowed Tom Brady better than anyone else over the last three years. Brady is averaging 6.0 yards per attempt against Baltimore since 2009, his lowest mark against any NFL team. Most of Baltimore’s success stems from its ability to mix pressures. Over the last three years, Baltimore has blitzed the Patriots more often than any other NFL team has, sending extra pressure on 44.0 percent of dropbacks. On third down, that number jumps to 68.4 percent, well above the next-closest team (Redskins, 57.1 percent). Baltimore’s third-down pressure packages will play a crucial role Sunday.
*Stopping Ray Rice has been a common talking point this week, and rightfully so. Rice is the only player in the league with 90 rushes and 75 receptions this season. He accounts for a higher percentage of his team’s offense than any player except Maurice Jones-Drew, totaling 47.5 percent of his team’s touches and 36.8 percent of Baltimore’s yards from scrimmage. Although he is by no means a bruising back (Rice ranks 45th out of 56 qualified rushers with 1.7 yards after contact per rush), Rice’s explosive capabilities have been helped by fullback Vonta Leach this season. Rice has league highs with 1,122 rushing yards and eight rushes of at least 20 yards with at least two players in the backfield, all of which have come with Leach as a lead blocker. Though not a powerful back, Leach makes the Ravens an effective power running team. 88.5 percent of Rice’s rushes this year have come between the tackles.
*The chess match between Tom Brady and Ed Reed downfield is always interesting to watch. Brady and Bill Belichick have consistently expressed their admiration for Reed, and his effect on an opponent's vertical passing game is palpable. Since 2009, four of Tom Brady’s 15 interceptions on throws at least 15 yards downfield have come against the Ravens. Brady has averaged a pick every 5.8 attempts more than 15 yards downfield against the Ravens, and hasn’t thrown a touchdown. Reed’s presence affects opponents’ passing games especially over the middle, an area that promises to be tightly contested ground Sunday.