Ravens vs. Patriots: The key matchups for the AFC championship game

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:

Watch out!

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.

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