Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 3 p.m. ET).
Mike: From the moment the Ravens held on to beat the Texans, I've been looking forward to this one. I think it's the way it was supposed to be in the sense that these have been the best two teams in the AFC over most of the season.
Tedy: I think this is going to be a classic, an AFC Championship Game that is worthy of its billing of No. 1 versus No. 2. I think it's going down to the fourth quarter, and will be a great game to watch.
Mike: Why do you think that is the case?
Tedy: Tom Brady was right when he said this week that this is the best team they've faced all year. Defensively, this is a group that can possibly slow things down against the Patriots. It's not going to be anything like the Broncos game we saw last week. This is a team that is playoff seasoned, with players who have been there before. This is totally different.
Mike: Naturally, there has been some discussion about the 2009 wild-card round game in which the Ravens came into Gillette Stadium and posted a 33-14 win. It was probably the most embarrassing loss of Bill Belichick's tenure as coach.
Tedy: The guys in the locker room say it's different players, different teams, a different situation. That's true. Tom Brady didn't have his weapons. He didn't have the tight ends he has now. Wes Welker wasn't playing that game. Everyone remembers the 83-yard run by Ray Rice to start the game. That deflated the crowd, but that was a long time ago. It's easy to forget the Ravens came in here last year and the Patriots beat them in overtime.
Mike: That playoff game was the only time the Ravens have ever beaten the Patriots. New England holds a 6-0 regular-season edge in the all-time series. I was asked this week how this rivalry would be compared to the Patriots/Jets or Patriots/Colts. It doesn't feel the same.
Tedy: I don't know if this is a rivalry. I think the Ravens see the Patriots as an organization that has everything they want. It's been a while since the Ravens won their Super Bowl. They want to get back there and the Patriots have been the gold standard for so long. Everyone looks at Coach Belichick and Tom Brady and the way the organization is run from the top, with Mr. Kraft. This is the organization that teams try to model themselves after.
Mike: But would you agree that this Ravens team won't be overwhelmed by the moment? The Patriots have been so tough at home, but I view Baltimore -- even with the 4-4 road record this season -- as one of the few teams that could rise up in this moment and win in a tough environment.
Tedy: In terms of approach, I look at the Ravens as the bully on the block. They want to come in and take your manhood, and they know that if they are going to get where they want to go, they'll have to do that to the Patriots. Earlier this year, we mentioned these teams were on a collision course. Well, here's your collision.
Mike: As for the Patriots, one thing that stood out to me from the team's locker room is that this team is confident and relaxed. Receiver Deion Branch talked about how much of a joy it is to come to work. They're playing loose, which looks different from what we saw last year. What do you remember about these types of weeks?
Tedy: It was always exciting. You have lunch, come back to the locker room and you see that big crowd of reporters in there and sense that excitement on a national level. You know there are just two teams left in the conference and you're proud of getting to this point and excited to play in this game. With a win, you know where you go. With that said, there are a good number of players on that team who have never played in a game of this magnitude. It will be interesting to see how they handle their emotions on game day.
Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense
Mike: Here is one statistic that stood out when researching this game a bit. There are only two running backs who led their teams in rushing yards and receptions this season: Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. Rice hits you in both areas.
Tedy: In the running game, the matchup of Rice versus Brandon Spikes is something to look for because Spikes is the main run-stopper. Spikes is that "mike" linebacker and they send him into the line of scrimmage to wreak havoc. The Ravens are going to feed it to Rice and the Patriots are going to have to prove they can stop it. Terrell Suggs said it earlier in the season, "We have a beast and we need to feed him," and so that's one of the first challenges you face as a Patriots defense.
Mike: Rice finished with 1,364 rushing yards, which ranked second in the NFL. His 76 receptions rank him tied for 18th in the league. That's a lot of production.
Tedy: He's a dual threat and can really hurt you in the passing game. When you're watching the game, and you notice Rice is offset in the offensive backfield and there is a wide receiver with a tight split, these Patriots linebackers need to know there is a potential problem there. That's when you have to get Rice because he's a big threat to receive the ball from that offset position, especially with that tight receiver. What that tight receiver does for coverage responsibilities on Rice, especially if you're in man coverage, is create a traffic problem. If Rice runs that little wheel route to the sideline, you have to get through your own defensive back and another wide receiver, who sometimes runs a subtle little pick route. That's how Rice has had a lot of production and big plays in the passing game.
Mike: How do you combat that?
Tedy: You have to use the ammunition that you have as a linebacker. The Patriots have a "butch" call, where you have a player like Rob Ninkovich, or another edge player, and as he goes up the field he sacrifices his rush to hit Rice on his way out to the progression of his route. That was the plan against players like Marshall Faulk, and it definitely should be the plan against Ray Rice, because he'll burn you in the passing game, too.
Mike: At 5-foot-8, 212 pounds, Rice is a smaller back, but he's very strong. Ninkovich compared him to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Tedy: When you're playing linebacker, and you have those behemoth offensive linemen in front of you -- 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 -- they're so big that it can make it hard to see a player like Rice. So what you're really doing as a linebacker, you're playing running back from the other side of the ball. If you can't see Rice, you have to decipher where he's going to go, so as soon as a running lane opens, that's where you go, even if you don't see him. You have to use your instincts.
Mike: Spikes seems to have a knack for that on the Patriots' defense.
Tedy: He's huge against the run, an animal. He reminds me of a Bryan Cox, a Ted Johnson type of guy that you just send forward. He's got that anvil for a head, hitting guards when he's sent up the middle as a run-stopper.
Mike: Plenty of discussion on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco recently. He's in his fourth year and Baltimore safety Ed Reed said earlier this week on Sirius XM NFL Radio that he hasn't handled defensive pressure well all the time.
Tedy: Flacco still needs to break through. This is his biggest opportunity to do that and quiet all of his critics. You win an AFC championship and there you go, you earn some clout. Up until this point, he's been a good quarterback, but we're obviously not talking about the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees level. The book on Flacco is get pressure up the middle of the pocket and get him off that spot. The spot is an area in the offensive backfield about 6 yards behind the center, and that's where drop-back passers like to go. The good ones can shuffle on that spot, move around and still be accurate. When Flacco is moved from that spot, his accuracy isn't as good. So that's the first thing for the Patriots, to get him moving. And if you don't get him, cover the checkdown, because that's where he's going to. If his receivers are covered and he starts to move, he's looking for Ray Rice. That's his outlet.
Mike: How much do you think some of Flacco's inconsistency is tied to system/scheme and the players around him?
Tedy: I don't think that's it. There are good weapons there. The young tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, are legit. They've made plays this year. You have rookie receiver Torrey Smith on the outside, and Anquan Boldin. Lee Evans made a big play last week with a spectacular one-handed catch. Don't get me wrong, I've seen Flacco look fantastic, like the two-minute drive against the Steelers earlier this year; he was making throws and you say, 'Maybe this guy has arrived.' You get some 'Wow!' moments with him, but then you still get that pressure up the middle of the pocket and there he is throwing to the checkdown. It's in him; it just hasn't been out on a regular basis.
Mike: Here is something somewhat unique about the Ravens' offense: They'll use fullback Vonta Leach quite a bit. At a position in which impact seems to be reduced in recent years, he helps give the Ravens' offense that tough, physical identity.
Tedy: He's the best blocking fullback in the NFL. That's what fullbacks do and it's a forgotten aspect of football nowadays. If you want to watch old-school collisions where they don't care about helmet-to-helmet contact, and they don't care if a player is looking or not looking in that box, watch Vonta Leach and the linebackers of the Patriots tee off on each other. That was one of the fun moments of my viewing pleasure last week -- Leach against Brian Cushing, and then DeMeco Ryans. Some he won, some he lost, but every time was a violent collision.
Mike: Then you have receiver Anquan Boldin. He's second on the team with 57 receptions and he's traditionally been tough after the initial catch with strong running.
Tedy: In the passing game, watch the play-action on early downs. They will try to hit that area behind the inside linebackers, just like they did on numerous occasions in the 2010 matchup. They'll try to get Spikes or Mayo to bite on the run, and try to go behind them. I think that is going to be a part of their game plan. Flacco is also very good at throwing outside the numbers, and putting it in places where Boldin can make a play. Boldin is a monster. That ball will be up there and he battles -- he hand-fights, he uses body position, he's physical, strong and aggressive. Whoever is playing corner, that's a battle they'll have to win because Flacco will trust Boldin over and over again.
Mike: On our website, ESPNBoston.com, we had a Hot Button question: "Has the Patriots' defense turned the corner?" One writer picked one side, the other writer picked the other. Where would you fall in that debate?
Tedy: At first, I'd say no because they just got done playing the Denver Broncos. But then you think about it more and say "yes" because of the playmakers that are developing. I want to talk about one specifically in Rob Ninkovich. This is a guy that came in here and no one knew about him. Rob would make a play and guys would say, "That's Ninkovich" and they'd move on. Then he'd make another play, another play, another play, and now all of a sudden you're looking at him to make that strip sack on Tim Tebow that sets an early tone. You're looking to him to do spectacular things on the edge of the defense. That's a developing playmaker. You have Brandon Spikes back now and players are starting to establish themselves. Ninkovich has taken it to the next level, and is one of the stars of the defense. He has to be mentioned right up there with Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork because of his production and the plays he's made, like the pick-six against Mark Sanchez. He's a big-time player.
Mike: It's been fun to watch Ninkovich grow in this defense. When he came here, he was mostly a special-teams guy. In 2010, he was mostly a first- and second-down player. Now he's playing all four downs.
Tedy: Everyone in New England has to respect the way he's earned everything he's gotten. It reminds me, in a sense, of the way I came up -- as a situational pass-rusher who played special teams. You do that until you learn and get better, and you keep yourself on the team that way. If you show the coaches you learn and get better, they'll eventually see it around here and they'll give you a chance. When you get your chance, take advantage of it, and that's what he's done.
Mike: Being around the team, it seems the confidence of defenders is rising. It's understandable why.
Tedy: These guys have paid their dues. The past couple of years, everyone has talked about early exits. They've taken lumps this year, from myself and others, about how they ranked statistically. Now they have a moment against the Broncos in the divisional round where you hold them to 10 points and it seems like they're taking off. They have earned being in this position.
Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense
Mike: On Wednesday, Bill Belichick said he's never coached against a safety as good as Ed Reed. That's high praise, but really no surprise given how Belichick has lauded him in the past.
Tedy: He is one of the greatest of all-time free safeties that I've ever seen. The matchup between Tom Brady and Ed Reed is going to be very interesting to watch. It's going to be great TV. You wish the TV coverage would show the entire field so you could see what Reed is doing based on what Brady is doing. It's almost a matter of Ed Reed's range against Tom Brady's deception. That deception comes with pump fakes, what he does with his eyes, staring and looking Reed off to one side. Then with Reed, you can almost bait a quarterback sometimes with your hip movement or shoulder tilt, and get him thinking you're favoring one side, but you're really setting him up. He might be backpedaling and opening his shoulders to the left, even though the responsibility is to the right, but Reed is good enough to recover. It's a chess match. It's a game with the linebackers and safety in zone coverage, and Reed is the best at that.
Mike: Then there's linebacker Ray Lewis, still going strong. Belichick talked about the Ravens having Hall of Fame players on their defense, and I think he was thinking about Reed and Lewis.
Tedy: I love watching Ray Lewis play. I'm watching him versus the Texans, and just when you think 'Ray, you're slowing down a little bit, you're getting up there in the years' all of a sudden he makes a tackle for a loss on a screen play. It's like 'He's still there.' When you get older, I think your instincts come into play and Ray has the best instincts I've ever seen at the linebacker position. When I was playing, I used to love watching him and that Ravens defense, the way he would run around and make plays. He's a player I greatly respect.
Tedy: Yes, and that's primarily because of defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. He has the ability to get up-the-middle pressure, whether it's over the guard or center. No disrespect to Vince Wilfork, but he's the best in the business. So it's rare when you're playing a team that has the best in the business at so many positions, and we haven't even talked about Terrell Suggs and his matchup against left tackle Matt Light. These are the matchups we'll watch because these are great players. Their first goal coming in here is to get to No. 12.
Mike: The Ravens finished the season ranked first in the NFL in red zone defense. Opponents scored just 16 touchdowns in 42 trips. This looks like a key area to me, as the Patriots scored 47 red zone touchdowns in 72 trips. The red zone could be where this game is ultimately won.
Tedy: Overall, what will be interesting to me is how the Ravens match up against the Patriots in their empty sets. Everyone knows from watching the Patriots, that's when they have no one in the backfield with Tom Brady and it's five pass-catchers split to both sides. Most defenses have game planned blitzes or coverages against these formations. As much empty as the Patriots run, the question is what the Ravens will do. They've always been creative on what they do and who they send. Do they overload from the guard-tackle box out with three or four rushers, and drop two, and only send two? That could get the offensive line to slide the wrong way and that's the game between Patriots offensive coordinator Billy O'Brien and Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano with those empty-type adjustments.
Mike: Then there is the no-huddle, which is so lethal for the Patriots. They can play it up-tempo, like we saw against the Broncos, or be a little more deliberate with it. This has become a big part of what the Patriots do and I'm not sure the Ravens have seen anything like it this year. The suddenness of how they use it stands out to me. It's almost like a sneak attack, an offensive blitz.
Tedy: Sometimes that's Tom Brady, who thinks to himself, 'If we get a first down, I'm going to come out of first down with the no-huddle and hurry-up.' Other times it can be game plan and coaches can say 'In this game, in the second quarter, we're coming out hurry-up.' I remember coming out against the Jets in the playoffs and the game plan was non-stop hurry-up from the beginning so they couldn't adjust with exotic blitzes. One thing to keep in mind is that inexperienced defenses can be had by that technique. But if you have guys like Lewis and Reed communicating, no matter how quick it is on offense, you can get everyone on the same page. I've been on veteran defenses before where even before hurry-up snaps, we call pressures. Get it communicated that quickly.
Tedy: They're going to do their best to take them away. Safety Bernard Pollard, we all remember him from taking out Tom's knee. I don't think he did that on purpose, but he was the guy, and he'll possibly be matched up against one of the Patriots' tight ends. If you're Brady, I think you would look to that type of matchup. Maybe Ed Reed gets involved with Hernandez. I could envision the Ravens loading up coverage between the numbers and trying to take away the tight ends and say, 'Hey, let's see those receivers on the outside beat us. Whoever it is, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Tiquan Underwood, we're playing them one-on-one.'
Mike: One other topic to touch on is with rookie running back Stevan Ridley. He looked to me like the Patriots' most explosive running back in recent weeks, but he's fumbled in each of the past two games. Do you play him more and let him work it out, or do you really limit him because a turnover like that could end the Patriots' season this time around?
Tedy: Watching that film as a defensive player, you're going to look at your defensive teammate and say, 'That guy will give it up.' The book gets written on you a little bit on a week-to-week basis. The Ravens will see that and they'll try to get the ball out. As far as how much he plays, I still think you have to give him a few carries here and there, and see what's working. Last year, Danny Woodhead was their leading rusher against the Ravens. If Ridley comes out on fire, and looking good, you go with that. But it's in the back of the coaches' minds that BenJarvus Green-Ellis does not fumble. That's who I'd roll with.
Special teams and predictions
Mike: I thought the Patriots were excellent on special teams on Saturday. Punter Zoltan Mesko continues his fine season, kicker Stephen Gostkowski's strong leg is producing kickoffs and the coverage teams are clicking.
Tedy: Special teams can be a difference-maker in this game. Bill Parcells used to have a saying, in the biggest of games, and it was 'Don't be the guy that ruins the game.' Watching that game, Texans-Ravens, who was that guy? Jacoby Jones. He was trying to make a play, and he gave the ball up to the Ravens in close, which resulted in a touchdown. He wasn't the same for the rest of the day. Those are probably the most pressure-packed plays -- punt's in the air, kickoff's in the air, the snap, the hold, the kick, the long snap. They're emphasized even more in championship games.
Mike: Prediction time. A tipped football here or there could decide this game. The Ravens are going to bring their best shot, which is what you expect when you're talking about great players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ray Rice. This one could come down to the wire. In the end, that look in the eyes of Tom Brady from Saturday still resonates, and I can't pick against him at home in this situation. Patriots 20, Ravens 17.
Tedy: This will come down to the wire. I see multiple lead changes in this game. The quarterbacks will have to be leaned on, especially in the fourth quarter. It comes down to which quarterback has the ability and experience to get that done. The answer is Tom Brady. Fans of the New England Patriots have been looking for defensive players to step up and make a name for themselves. The next generation is here and look for players like Ninkovich, Chung and Mayo to come up big. Patriots 28, Ravens 24.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.