FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The stage is set for an AFC Championship Game rematch: same teams, same venue, almost exactly one year apart.
The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at Gillette Stadium in a game that figures to be a highly competitive contest between two teams that played to a one-point game earlier this season.
We’ll dive deeper into the contest from a variety of angles throughout the week, but here’s an early look at the five things from an X’s and O’s perspective that the Patriots will have to handle against the Ravens next week.
1. The vertical passing game. This much is clear from the Ravens’ Saturday night win in Denver: Quarterback Joe Flacco has extraordinary arm strength, and the Ravens have the manpower to stress a secondary down the field, specifically in receivers Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith. Smith went for two touchdowns and 125 yards back in a Week 3 matchup with the Patriots, and the pure speedster had two more touchdowns against the Broncos on Saturday. The Patriots have been vastly improved in allowing passing plays of 25 yards or more since the arrival of cornerback Aqib Talib, who had arguably his best game of the season against the Texans on Sunday. Nonetheless, the secondary will need to be air tight down the field to prevent the Ravens from establishing their vertical passing game. The vertical passing game is a quick-strike mechanism for Baltimore’s offense to turn the tide of a game (as it did on Saturday), and the trickle-down effect is reflected in the fact that the team is 6-0 this season when Flacco throws for more than 300 yards, and 7-0 in games in which Smith scores a touchdown.
2. Kickoff returns. Speaking of explosive plays and players, the Ravens led the NFL in average yards per kickoff return this season (27.3), and Jones was a runaway choice as a first-team All-Pro selection as a kick returner. Jones returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season and has tremendous straight-line speed. The Patriots' kickoff coverage was an area of strength throughout the 2012 regular season, but was a major weakness on Sunday, allowing Texans returner Danieal Manning to average 54 yards per return on four tries, including a 94-yarder to open the game. The Patriots need to play with much better lane discipline on Sunday and can’t give Jones room to find daylight because he’s tough to catch in the open field.
3. Setting the edge in the running game. By the numbers, Baltimore’s run defense was below average during the regular season, but that was not the case in the win over Denver. If the Patriots are going to establish their running game next Sunday, they’ll have to be able to win on the edge, as the Ravens have a number of physical, strong players who can turn a play inside and reduce the field. Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw and others have the ability to control tight ends and offensive tackles, which forces running backs to funnel back inside to the territory that linebacker Ray Lewis patrols. The Patriots were held to just 2.3 yards per carry in the first matchup and will need to be better on the ground on Sunday. After rushing for 122 yards against the Texans, the Patriots are 13-0 in games in which they surpass 100 yards on the ground this season, and 0-4 in games which they do not.
4. Slowing down Ray Rice. Rice is one of the best offensive players in football and was once again a force this season as both a runner and pass catcher. He accounted for 150 yards against the Patriots back in Week 3 and is a pivotal cog to the Ravens' offense. The Ravens are dedicated to running the football on first down with Rice, and the Patriots will be put to the test in slowing him down to set up second- and third-and-long situations for Baltimore. Rice is not large in stature, but can wiggle to make defenders miss in the hole, is incredibly quick and has tremendous power for his size. Much like the Patriots keyed on Arian Foster on Sunday, they’ll do the same with Rice next week.
5. Pressuring Flacco. It seems obvious, but pressuring Flacco is an area in which the Patriots must do much better than they did back in Week 3, when he had time and space to throw. The Patriots failed to register a single hit on Flacco during that game while allowing him to throw for 382 yards. Though Flacco has had moments of inconsistency throughout 2012, he’s shown himself to be capable of diagnosing a defense and make it pay when he has time to stand tall in the pocket. With Chandler Jones leaving Sunday’s victory over Houston due to an ankle injury, the Patriots could be without a top pass rusher next Sunday. Whether it’s with better pressure in their four-man rushes or via designed blitzes and pressure schemes, the Patriots will have to find a way to make Flacco more uncomfortable than they did back in Week 3.