After beating Houston 20-13 in the Divisional round, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed proclaimed that "we're coming and they know it," in reference to the AFC Championship game Sunday at New England. Without question, Reed and his teammates will take solace in the fact that just two years ago, they went into Foxborough and destroyed the Patriots 33-14. In that game, Tom Brady threw for 154 yards, had a passer rating of 49.1 and the Ravens ran for 234 yards. "Their era is not over," Ray Rice said afterwards. "We'll always remember this win."
While the 2012 Ravens still feature many of the same players that pulled off that upset, the Patriots' personnel is rather different.
In that game, Brady didn't have the two-headed tight end monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (who combined for 19 touches for 261 yards and four TDs versus Denver) in his arsenal. He instead threw seam routes to the vertically challenged Ben Watson and Chris Baker. With Wes Welker injured, the only other Patriots to catch a pass that day were Randy Moss, Sammy Morris, Julian Edelman (who plays more defense than offense now), Sam Aiken and Kevin Faulk.
Perhaps no player has been through more with the New England franchise than Faulk. Drafted out of LSU in 1999, the running back has spent his entire career as a Patriot. He has been both a starter and deep reserve. He has also won three Super Bowls and while two years may not seem like a long time, it feels light years away to him.
"There is a lot of turnover on our roster from 2010," Faulk told The Huffington Post.
"We have the resilience and will to keep playing no matter what goes on through the course of the game, but you can't judge this team based on what we've done so far."
Just as it did in 2010 when it sacked Brady three times, Baltimore will desperately try to apply pressure.
But is such a game plan realistic? With slower team speed, this Ravens defense has issues matching up against spread offenses. And, with Brady playing at an MVP-type level, New England is averaging over 40 points over its past four games.
The key for the Patriots -- beyond protecting Brady -- is to exploit the slower Raven linebackers in space. The Ravens will be forced to go man because he is the most accurate quarterback in the league right now. In that man coverage, we will see linebackers matched up against the two tight ends. And, while the record-breaking Gronkowski gets most of the ink, it is Hernandez who in some ways represents even more of a matchup nightmare.
Second-year man Hernandez has receiver-like quickness, great run-after-catch ability and -- as witnessed in the Denver game (five carries for 61 yards) -- is now a threat running the ball out of the backfield as well.
"He is a very diverse player and can do a lot of different things," Faulk says. "That was something that we have worked on for a couple weeks."
The question becomes: Can Joe Flacco -- who hasn't thrown for more than 176 yards in four games -- and the Baltimore offense keep pace?
Rice is their best player and Anquan Boldin is the durable possession receiver that most great teams have, but the wildcard and potential X-factor is rookie wideout Torrey Smith.
A pure downfield burner, Smith is the classic boom-or-bust playmaker that must play big for the Ravens. The challenge he will face come Sunday is more scheme than individual talent. With second-year cornerback Devin McCourty mired in a season-long sophomore slump, Bill Belichick will once again rely on zone defense across the field to try and prevent the deep strike to Smith.
The season-ending injury and loss of defensive end Andre Carter was a big blow for New England, but Mark Anderson has been very productive, registering two sacks as the starter against Denver last week. Flacco has the big arm that Tim Tebow lacks, but he is not a mobile guy in the pocket nor does he throw particularly well on the move.
Against the soft zone, there will be holes for Flacco to deliver the ball, leaving a big burden on Anderson to create havoc. Flacco will have to deliver accurate short and intermediate throws early on with the hope that doing so will open up the deep shots to Smith. Just as important will be the play of Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, whose sole mission is to limit the running room of Rice, something New England failed to do in 2010 when the diminutive back broke the first play from scrimmage for 83 yards and torched them for 60 minutes.
And so, it is Rice who it all comes back to. If he struggles to find his rhythm -- as he did in the Houston game just last week -- than so will Flacco, the play-action game and the entire Baltimore offense.
Perhaps only then would Rice's clear memory of 2010 likely fade just a bit.
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