It's not exactly Brady versus Manning, but this will do. On one side of the AFC Championship Game stand the Baltimore Ravens, a team riding an emotional high that just might be strong enough to carry them to the Super Bowl. On the other side are the New England Patriots, a team that has become quite accustomed to playing for the AFC crown. These teams already have collided in one exciting game this season, with Baltimore winning 31-30 in Week 3. Don't be surprised if the rematch offers a similar level of excitement.
The Patriots enter the AFC championship fresh off a 41-28 win over Houston. The Ravens went to Denver and left with a 38-35 double-overtime win. That means there should be no shortage of offensive fireworks in Foxborough this coming Sunday. Both teams are thriving off big plays, strong quarterback play and the need to compensate for defenses that have faced their share of struggles.
The storylines aren't hard to find here, either. You've got Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis trying to go out in the same manner Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis did during the 2005 season, with a Super Bowl win serving as the exclamation point to a celebrated career. You've got Tom Brady and Bill Belichick trying to reach their sixth Super Bowl together. You've got a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game, narrowly won by the Patriots. You've also got a number of extraordinary veterans looking for their first championship, players such as Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Anquan Boldin, Jerod Mayo and Wes Welker. In other words, there will be no shortage of intensity.
On the other hand, there will be plenty of questions to discuss all week. We'll start with these:
1. Which team has more momentum going into the AFC Championship Game? Baltimore was a nice story when Lewis announced he was retiring at the end of the season. They were even more compelling in beating Indianapolis in the wild-card round, in what became the final opportunity for him to celebrate on his home field. Now the Ravens are something completely different after upsetting Denver on Saturday -- they're a team that fully believes that destiny is working in its favor. That's a great edge to have at this point in the season because it can carry a team through setbacks, struggles and all the predictable skepticism that hovers over an underdog. The New York Giants rode a similar wave to last year's Super Bowl win, and the Green Bay Packers did it a year before that. Like those teams, the Ravens weren't the best group on paper when the postseason began, but they are the most dangerous right now.
2. Are Tom Brady's recent postseason struggles really a concern? Some skeptics think Brady's Super Bowl success earlier in his career clouds the fact that he hasn't been nearly as extraordinary in recent years. There is some truth to that. Prior to this postseason, the Patriots had lost three of their past five postseason games, with Brady throwing four touchdown passes and five interceptions in those defeats. But let's also be fair. Brady wasn't the only reason New England lost those games. He was just the most visible. The man still has played in five Super Bowls, and he has three wins in those contests. The Ravens realize he's the first person they must stop. After 13 seasons -- and with New England boasting a balanced offense -- that's still as difficult a task as there is in this league.
3. Can the Ravens' offense deliver for a third consecutive week? It's time to start giving Baltimore credit for what it's doing on this side of the football. The decision to fire Cam Cameron and replace him with Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator has given this team more rhythm. Ray Rice is still the Ravens' best weapon, but far more encouraging are the big plays in the passing game. Anquan Boldin had 145 receiving yards against Indianapolis. Torrey Smith was giving Champ Bailey -- yes, Champ Bailey -- fits with deep routes in the first half of that victory in Denver. On top of that, tight end Dennis Pitta continues to be a reliable target underneath and down the seam. Still, this team only goes as far as quarterback Joe Flacco can take it. Given how he's playing lately, he's not about to fall apart.
4. How significant is the loss of Rob Gronkowski? It's huge. It seemed that the star tight end was destined to make a huge impact in Sunday's AFC divisional game against Houston, especially after missing six weeks with a broken left forearm. Instead, he vanished to the locker room after falling while trying to make a sideline catch in the first half and never returned. He's likely done for the season after breaking the same arm. It is fair to say that his probable absence makes life much easier on the Ravens. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots can't capitalize on their beloved two-tight end sets, and they also lose a huge big-play target. That could be a major loss against a Baltimore defense that is feeling as good as it has all season.
5. Do the Ravens have to be concerned about their special teams? Not unless Trindon Holliday is going to magically suit up for New England. As electric as the Denver return man was against Baltimore -- he scored on a 90-yard punt return and a 104-yard kick return, both of which were NFL playoff records -- New England doesn't have anybody capable of inflicting that much damage. If anything, the Ravens should be encouraged about the potential in their own return game. Jacoby Jones averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return this season while earning a Pro Bowl spot. He can get loose just as easily as Holliday.
6. Who is the X factor for Baltimore? Ravens Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He was hampered by shoulder and knee problems throughout the season, and those woes factored as much in the decline of Baltimore's defense as the injuries to Lewis, Suggs and cornerback Lardarius Webb. Ngata creates the havoc inside. He frees up Lewis for tackles, and he requires double-teams that give other pass-rushers opportunities to win their matchups. The Ravens haven't been as affected by Ngata's limitations in the postseason thus far, primarily because neither Indianapolis nor Denver had the running backs to challenge Baltimore on the ground. The AFC title game will be a different story. New England's rushing attack, led by Stevan Ridley, is as strong as it has been during the Brady era. If Ngata isn't at his best, the Ravens will struggle.
7. Who is the X factor for New England? Cornerback Aqib Talib. The Patriots' defense changed for the better when New England acquired Talib from Tampa Bay in a midseason trade. His presence gives New England more versatility in its secondary and greater comfort in man coverage. He'll also have plenty of opportunities to make plays. The Ravens haven't been shy about attacking through the air this postseason, as Bailey discovered in Denver's loss Saturday. The popular belief is that you have to attack New England's defensive backfield to create problems for the Patriots. Talib has the ability to make that a risky strategy.
8. How much will their regular-season meeting impact this contest? That game was filled with so much emotion that it's hard to draw comparisons. Yes, the Ravens got a one-point victory on a winning 27-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, but that game will be remembered more for Smith playing less than 24 hours after his younger brother, Tevin Jones, died in a motorcycle accident. The Ravens played brilliant offensive football that day, with Flacco throwing for 382 yards and three touchdowns and Smith producing six receptions for 127 yards and two scores. The odds favor a similar shootout this time around, but nothing can duplicate the way Baltimore played for its young receiver that night.
9. How much will last year's AFC Championship Game result impact this one? It certainly has to be a motivational tool for Baltimore. The Ravens were one dropped Lee Evans pass away from going to the Super Bowl -- and a missed Billy Cundiff field goal from at least forcing overtime -- last season. Instead, they had to swallow a bitter 23-20 loss and hope for another shot this year. Don't for a minute think that won't be brought up during Baltimore's practices this week. As for New England, it won't matter a bit.
10. Who will advance to the Super Bowl? Most everybody was primed for another chapter in the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady postseason series, but since Denver couldn't make that happen, it's difficult to see anybody stopping the Patriots at this point. It's not just about the home-field advantage, either. It's about knowing how to win at this stage of the postseason. New England is 5-1 in AFC Championship Games since Tom Brady became its starter. They're about to get win No. 6.