Ravens must slow Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Perhaps a recent comment from Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo in which he referred to the New England Patriots' up-tempo offensive attack as a "gimmick" was as much a plea as it was a diss: Don't use it against us.

After all, that "gimmick" offense needs just three points this Sunday to become the second team in NFL history to score 600 points in a season, and managed to throw for more yards during the regular season than the Arizona Cardinals mustered through the air and on the ground combined in 2012.

It has been a virtually unstoppable force that even Ayanbadejo's own team struggled to deter back in Week 3, when Tom Brady threw for 335 yards, both Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker surpassed 100 yards receiving and the Patriots controlled the game until the fourth quarter, putting up 30 points along the way.

In seven games against top-10 scoring defenses this season, the Patriots have averaged 31.7 points. If there's an antidote for shutting down the Patriots' hurry-up, sprint-paced offense, it's yet to be uncovered.

So Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Ravens and Patriots should be about managing expectations: The Ravens -- and every other NFL defense today -- don't have the manpower to shut down Brady & Co. when they step on the gas pedal, but can they keep the Patriots in check?

If so, it starts with delivering the Patriots a dose of their own medicine.

"We have to kind of slow the pace down and line up," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said on Thursday. "If you watched the [Houston versus New England game], [the Patriots] were able to get people out of alignment, people were standing around on the goal line, which is supposed to be the hardest place to score. But it was the easiest place for [the Patriots] because [the Texans] weren't getting lined up and things."

Echoed Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, "The No. 1 priority, first of all, is just to get lined up and be ready to play. Don't be looking around, don't be talking back to somebody else and then the ball is being snapped and then you have to try to react to what's going on. You have to be out, you have to be set, you better be ready to go."

The Patriots' up-tempo attack is predicated upon being able to both run the football and throw it from a singular personnel group. They have the versatility within their skill players to run a power off-tackle play from a traditional offensive formation on one play, followed by an empty set with Brady operating from the shotgun on the next.

If a defense chooses to go heavy to stop the run, the Patriots throw it. If a defense ushers out additional defensive backs to stop the pass, they run it. That's oversimplifying things, but what has become clear through 17 games is that the Patriots' offense is at its best when it pushes the tempo and can run the football effectively, balancing out its potent passing game.

That is evidenced most clearly in the fact that the Patriots are 0-4 in games in which they failed to rush for 100 yards as a team, despite the fact that Brady threw for more than 372 yards on average in those losses.

The best way to contain the Patriots' offense and prevent it from doing what it does best -- move at warp speed -- is to find a way to slow down the run. That knocks the balance off kilter, and the subsequent ripples work in an opponent's favor.

The Ravens managed to do that in the second half of their Week 3 matchup, holding the Patriots to just 29 yards rushing on 18 attempts, an even better effort than the 48 yards on 16 carries surrendered in the first half.

The threat, at least a mild one, to run the football existed in the first half for the Patriots, when they scored 20 of their 30 points. That shriveled in the second half, and so too did their lead, which eventually evaporated in the game's final seconds.

But as both the Patriots and Ravens have said this week, Week 3 no longer matters. It's a new week and a new game.

The Patriots must prove they can run the ball more effectively on Sunday than they did in September, and the Ravens must prove they can duplicate their previous success.

Using Week 3 and last Saturday, when the Ravens took on a Broncos offense that similarly runs at an up-tempo pace, as a gauge, the Patriots should expect to see a heavy dose of Baltimore's nickel package, which features four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs, rather than their normal 3-4 front.

That typically leaves Terrence "Mount" Cody, Baltimore's behemoth nose tackle, on the sideline, watering down the Ravens' run defense. Cody was limited to just 11 snaps in 83 plays against the Patriots in Week 3, and 23 of 94 against Denver last Saturday, according to Pro Football Focus.

But Baltimore slowed Denver's running game last Saturday from its nickel group, due in large part to its ability to set the edge on the perimeter and turn everything back inside, shrinking the field (an injury to Broncos starter Knowshon Moreno was a critical blow as well).

They did the same against the Patriots in Week 3. Slowing down the running game prevented the offense from running at maximum efficiency. It is the common denominator in the four games this season in which the Patriots' offense has looked closer to mortal than unstoppable.

The Ravens' offense has clicked in the playoffs, and the vertical passing game has played a big role in that. But Baltimore doesn't want a shootout on Sunday.

The Ravens want to play the game on their terms. The Patriots want to push the tempo.

If the 19 weeks of football leading to this point have shown us anything, the key rests in the Patriots establishing the run or the Ravens being able to control it. On 13 occasions, the Patriots have done it. It's equated to 13 wins. They'll look to extend that mark on Sunday.