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AFC championship game preview: Patriots running game is the key to a return trip to the Super Bowl

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Tom Brady and Ray Lewis will meet for the last time (Getty Images)

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.

Talk about familiarity. The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will face one another for the sixth time in the last four seasons and this will be the third time the two franchises have met in the playoffs. In a 2009 wild-card playoff game, Ray Rice set the tone early, running for an 83-yard touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage as the Ravens trounced the Patriots, 33-14, avenging a 27-21 loss to the Patriots in the regular season.

One of the four Ravens losses in the 2010 regular season came via a 23-20 overtime defeat to New England and, in the 2011 AFC championship game, the Patriots beat the Ravens 23-20 to advance to Super Bowl XLVI. Baltimore got some measure of revenge with a 31-30 win over the Patriots on Sept. 23.

This could be the final game in the Hall of Fame career of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The 37-year-old announced that he would retire at the end of the season and was allowed to do his "squirrel dance" after the Ravens eliminated the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round, which was the last time Lewis would play in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. People in New England are well aware of Lewis' retirement plans and Clear Channel Outdoor Boston has changed a few billboards on Massachusetts roadways to show a countdown to Lewis' retirement party, with the expiration of the clock approximating when Sunday night's game should be ending.

When the Ravens have the ball: Regardless of what happens on Sunday, get ready for another NFL offseason full of debate over whether a quarterback is "elite." By passing for 613 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions and helping the Ravens reach a third AFC championship game in five seasons, the agent for Joe Flacco is already using the "E" word to describe his client who (surprise!) is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. During the regular season, Flacco ranked 17th in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric – trailing the likes of Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Ben Roethlisberger – so playing well and helping his team to a win in the AFC championship game will be required to place Flacco in the discussion about who is and who isn't an "elite" quarterback.

Big plays have been a big part of Flacco's success this postseason with the 2008 first-round pick out of Delaware completing 11 passes of 20+ yards (second-most in the NFL this postseason) and the Ravens have five of the 13 passing plays of 40+ yards in this season's playoffs. The Patriots gave up quite a few big plays in the passing game this season, but as Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston points out, that has changed since New England acquired Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the trade deadline. (And the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard has helped, too) Flacco's top two targets are wide receivers Anquan Boldin (11 receptions, 216 yards, one touchdown) and Torrey Smith, who played through the tragic death of his younger brother to catch six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns on Sept. 23 and has five receptions for 129 yards and two touchdowns this postseason. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots fared well against No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, but struggled when defending tight ends (ranked 29th), which could mean more involvement for Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who have combined for nine receptions, 135 yards and a touchdown through two playoff games.

A reshuffled offensive line is protecting Flacco. The Ravens were 14th in Football Outsiders' "Adjusted Sack Rate" during the regular season, but have allowed just two sacks this postseason after shuffling 60 percent of the line by moving Michael Oher from left to right tackle, rookie Kelechi Osemele from right tackle to left guard and inserting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. The Patriots got to Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub only one time last week and may need to bring more than four rushers to pressure Flacco.

Belichick may be inclined to bring additional pressure as the Patriots may want to keep the box tight to stop a revitalized Ravens running game. After producing just 56 rushing yards in Jim Caldwell's first game as the Ravens' offensive coordinator, Baltimore has averaged 188.8 yards per game on the ground, including 162.5 yards per game in the playoffs. Rice is second in the playoffs with 199 rushing yards and he and rookie Bernard Pierce will challenge a Patriots defense that ranked ninth against the run during the regular season and held Arian Foster to 90 yards on 22 carries last Sunday.

When the Patriots have the ball: In their first meeting on Sept. 23, the Patriots used their up-tempo, no-huddle offense to rack up 396 yards and 30 points in the 31-30 loss. Expect the Patriots to again play at a furious pace, using their amoebic personnel to create mismatches against a Ravens defense that is old at two key positions – inside linebacker Ray Lewis (37), free safety Ed Reed (34) – and has played 174 snaps in nine quarters of action this postseason.

Tom Brady completed 28-of-41 pass attempts for 335 yards and a touchdown in that first meeting. Most of the production in the passing game was to wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, who combined for 17 receptions and 250 yards. Those two receivers could have big games again as, according to Football Outsiders, the Ravens struggled against No. 1 (20th) and No. 2 (30th) receivers during the season. Brady will be without Rob Gronkowski, who wasn't much of a factor in the first meeting, but will have Aaron Hernandez, who was out on Sept. 23 with an ankle injury. Hernandez had six receptions for 85 yards in last week's win over the Texans, including a 40-yard catch-and-run that showed that his ankle might finally be approaching 100 percent.

Brady will get to match wits one last time with Lewis, who is retiring after the season. Brady and Lewis co-starred in an NFL-sponsored safety commercial this season.

The mutual admiration was in full swing this week

"I’ve always said and I said last week, it’s really a pleasure to play against him," Brady said of Lewis. "He’s really been so consistent over the years and durable and tough. He’s so instinctive. He doesn’t give up hardly any plays, make a ton of tackles. He’s great in the pass game, great in the run game. He blitzes well, like he did a few years ago. He’s really a play-maker for them, so they give him an opportunity to make those plays. You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up. You always have to know where [number] 52 is at. He’s always right in the middle of the defense but whether he’s blitzing or covering or he’s free in the middle of the field, you always have to take him into account."

"You’re talking about arguably the top two or three greatest quarterbacks of all time," Lewis said about Brady. "Playing against Brady and just watching him sometimes, you’re always in awe on watching on how good he really is."

The key to the Patriots making a return trip to the Super Bowl is their running game. Second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 22 carries, 123 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Texans and could be in for a bigger day against a Ravens defense that ranked 26th against the run according to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics during the regular season and has allowed 138.5 rushing yards per game this postseason.

How it could go: The last two Baltimore-New England games have been decided, at least in part, by Ravens kickers Billy Cundiff and Justin Tucker. Cundiff, a 2010 Pro Bowler and All-Pro, missed a kick that would have forced overtime in last year's AFC championship game. Tucker, an undrafted rookie from the University of Texas, squeezed his attempt inside (over?) the right upright as the clock expired on Sept. 23. We would not be surprised if this game was decided by a kicker and it's Stephen Gostkowski's turn.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 28

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