We'll certainly be covering all aspects of the conference championship matchups through the week at Shutdown Corner, but here are a few general observations about the upcoming AFC Championship game.
AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Sunday, January 20, 6:30 p.m. ET
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Another week of the AFC Playoffs brings another rematch from the regular season. The Ravens had a come-from-behind 31-30 home win over New England in prime time on Sunday, Sept. 23, erasing an early 13-0 deficit by having Joe Flacco throw for 382 yards and three touchdowns, with most of the production in the passing game coming from Torrey Smith, who had 127 yards and two touchdowns, despite playing after the tragic loss of his younger brother.
Baltimore and New England combined for 899 yards of total offense that night and a similar track could unfold in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots allowed 425 yards of total offense to the Houston Texans in Sunday's 41-28 divisional playoff win, while the Ravens defense allowed an average of 408.5 yards in wins over the Indianapolis Colts (419 yards) and Denver Broncos (398 yards) this postseason.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was critical of his defense's performance on third down on Sunday night, but did note that a lot of the Texans' production on offense came when the Patriots had a comfortable lead.
"Third down was certainly a big part of it," Belichick said on Monday morning. "We didn’t do a good job at the end of both halves. We gave up 10 points before the end of the first half. We have up 15 points later on in the game, close to the end of the second half. A lot of their points, a lot of their production came at those times.
"I’m not saying they didn’t move the ball at other times, but that’s where they had a lot of production. It was a combination of things, but it definitely came in those spurts there. They had one third-down conversion, I think, in the first half, so that was good. But we gave up some passing yardage on some inside routes, some over routes, some crossing routes, things like that. There are plenty of things we can do a better job on."
As the Broncos learned on Saturday, the Ravens offense can be pretty dangerous at the end of the half. As for third downs, Baltimore's offense was tied for 20th in the NFL on third down during the regular season, converting on 36.9 percent of their opportunities. They have not fared much better in the playoffs, converting on 11-of-27 third-down plays, or just over 40 percent of their attempts.
A major issue for the Ravens will be how their older players on defense will respond to playing yet another road game after playing 174 snaps in a six-day span already this postseason. The Patriots offense operates with an up-tempo approach, frequently using quick snaps to catch opponents when they're winded and to prevent them from getting lined up properly. That approach is why the Patriots lead the NFL with 1,191 plays from scrimmage during the regular season.
New England's offense will be without Rob Gronkowski, who underwent surgery on Monday after re-injuring his left forearm in the first quarter of Sunday night's win over the Texans, but will have tight end Aaron Hernandez and running back Shane Vereen, who missed the first meeting with the Ravens and stepped up with solid performances against Houston. Hernandez caught six passes for 85 yards, while Vereen had 124 yards of total offense and equaled a Patriots' playoff record with three touchdowns – two receiving, one rushing – in the win.
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