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

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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.

Special teams

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.

Coaching

Two of the best in the business.

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