AP Pro Football Writer
Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
When the Ravens (12-6)
have the ball
For most of his five pro seasons, RB Ray Rice (27) has been the main man on offense for Baltimore. He still is a key player, leading the team in rushing and scoring 10 TDs. But he’s not the only option, making the Ravens far more threatening with the ball than in previous years.
Indeed, when Rice struggled holding onto the ball in the wild-card win over Indianapolis, rookie Bernard Pierce (30) rushed for 103 yards.
Rice is a breakaway threat whether running or receiving, and the rapid development of WR Torrey Smith (82) has added a dimension to the passing attack of QB Joe Flacco (5). WR Jacoby Jones (12) caught the 70-yard pass to tie last week’s game at Denver at the end of regulation and provides another deep threat.
Flacco also has rekindled his connection with WR Anquan Boldin (81), who has been sensational in the playoffs with 11 receptions for a 19.6-yard average and a TD.
Baltimore will try to mix the quick-striking runs of Rice and Pierce with shorter passes to Rice, Boldin and TEs Dennis Pitta (88) and Ed Dickson (84). It’s the most effective, balanced offense the Ravens have had under John Harbaugh.
Flacco, the only quarterback to win playoff games in each of his first five pro seasons, has gotten exemplary protection from his line of late, led by left guard Marshal Yanda (73). If he gets it again, he’ll surely take shots against New England’s mediocre secondary. Boldin and Smith could give fits to CBs Aqib Talib (31) and Alfonzo Dennard (37), and safeties Devin McCourty (32) and Steve Gregory (28).
A DB probably will have to deal with Rice in passing situations because LBs Jerod Mayo (51), Brandon Spikes (55), and Dont’a Hightower (54) are not particularly quick. But they are smart and sound fundamentally.
New England’s best defenders are DT Vince Wilfork (75), who requires two blockers, and DE Rob Ninkovich (50), who seemingly always winds up by the ball.
When the Patriots (13-4)
have the ball:
New England led the NFL with 557 points, often using a no-huddle attack that tires out defenses, while also confusing them. In two games against Houston, which supposedly has one of the league’s top units, the Patriots ran several plays in which receivers were uncovered.
You think Tom Brady (12) took advantage?
Baltimore -- and anyone else -- has no chance against New England if it doesn’t get pressure on Brady. The way the Giants handled the Patriots in their two Super Bowl meetings is the blueprint. That means Ravens pass rushers Terrell Suggs (55), underrated Paul Kruger (99) and Pernell McPhee (90), and even blitzing backs such as star safety Ed Reed (20) and CBs Cary Williams (29) and Corey Graham (24) must get to the two-time league MVP. Or at least force him to get rid of the ball when he doesn’t want to.
The onus for protecting Brady falls on a line that has solidified as the season wore on, led by guard Logan Mankins (70). The other big chore is neutralizing Baltimore’s man-mountain NT, Haloti Ngata (92), in both the running and passing games.
Given time, Brady will pick apart anyone. WR Wes Welker (83) is almost guaranteed to gain 100 yards, as is TE Aaron Hernandez (81). The Patriots will miss outstanding tight end Rob Gronkowski, gone with a broken left arm, so Brady will get others involved, particularly WR Brandon Lloyd (85) deep, and RBs Stevan Ridley (22), Danny Woodhead (39) and Shane Vereen (34) on shorter patterns.
Ridley is a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, and third-stringer Vereen scored three times against the Texans.
Charged with slowing down the run will be Ngata and, of course Ray Lewis (57). The brilliant linebacker’s 17-year career will end when the Ravens’ season concludes, and don’t think Baltimore won’t be stoked to get him to one more Super Bowl.
And don’t think the Patriots won’t attack Lewis, who missed 10 games with a torn right triceps, but has 30 tackles in the two playoff games since returning.
Lewis and Brady love the chess match that goes on between them. At its finest, it makes for intriguing football.
Baltimore’s Jones is an All-Pro who led the league in kickoff returns with a 30.1 average and scored twice. He also ran back a punt for a TD.
The Ravens were solid on coverages during the season -- Harbaugh made his reputation working with special teams -- but fell apart against Denver as Trindon Holliday ran back a punt and a kickoff for scores.
Rookie Justin Tucker (6) has been a stud, making 30 of 33 field goals, including the winner in double overtime in Denver. P Sam Koch (4) is steady.
So is Patriots PK Stephen Gostkowski (3), who hit on 29 of 35 field goals. But New England showed vulnerability on kickoff coverage against Houston.
P Zoltan Mesko (14) is inconsistent. Against the Texans, he rocketed several kicks beyond 50 yards, and also had a couple of near-flubs.
There are no true game-breakers on New England’s kick return squads, with coach Bill Belichick emphasizing ball security over everything.
Two of the best in the business.
Harbaugh has taken the Ravens to the postseason in all five of his years as a head coach. Not even Vince Lombardi managed that.
Harbaugh put his faith in Flacco, has filled out the offense around him, and will make the tough call when things don’t pan out. He fired coordinator Cam Cameron in December when the Ravens were stagnating.
He’s been fortunate to have a strong defense during most of those five seasons, and his coaching staff has gotten the D back on track, for the most part, in the playoffs.
Belichick would reach his sixth Super Bowl as a head coach with a win Sunday, matching Don Shula’s mark. A defensive wizard early on, Belichick recognized what he had in Brady and turned the QB loose. Now, the Patriots are one of the great offensive teams in NFL history.
He also could tie Chuck Noll for most Lombardi Trophies if New England takes home its fourth prize in February.
Both Harbaugh and Belichick are sons of football coaches, and Harbaugh’s younger brother, Jim, is San Francisco’s head man.
Simple for both teams:
* Patriots haven’t won NFL title since 2004 season and have lost last two Super Bowl trips. They are determined and not a little bit ticked off.
* Ravens haven’t won NFL title since 2000 season, have lost two of last four AFC championship games, and know their emotional leader is about to retire.