Top five storylines of AFC championship game

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  • Tom Brady
    Tom Brady

More: Top five storylines for NFC championship game

For the first time since the 2004 season, the No. 1 seed in the AFC will face the No. 2 for a trip to the Super Bowl. As New England Patriots fans will remember, it was the No. 2-seeded Patriots who went into Pittsburgh and won that season. In this case, New England gets to play host to the Baltimore Ravens.

While the teams haven't faced off this season, there's plenty of recent history between the two, featuring four games – three regular-season contests, one playoff game – since the 2007 season. While the Patriots won the three regular-season games, none of those victories was dominant (the largest margin of victory was six points and the other two wins were by three each).

Moreover, the Ravens have done a good job of keeping Tom Brady under control, including his MVP season of 2007 (for those who remember that emotionally charged game):

1) The Patriots' hurry-up, spread offense vs. the Baltimore defense – As mentioned, since 2007, when the Patriots switched to a more aggressive passing offense, the Ravens have played them about as well as anybody. Baltimore has contained quarterback Tom Brady to six touchdown passes and six interceptions in those games. That said, the last time these teams squared off, New England tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were playing in only their sixth career game and the Patriots were in the primitive stages of developing their current offense. Gronkowski had only one catch for 24 yards. He hasn't been held to fewer than four receptions since Week 4 of this season.



Yahoo! Sports Radio: Bills CB Drayton Florence on Pats' attack]

2) Tom Brady, Tom Brady, Tom Brady – Coming off his six-touchdown effort against Denver on Saturday night, which also put an end to Tebowmania for at least this season, Brady is back at the top of the list of storylines in the NFL. Look for all sorts of angles about how important this playoff run is for Brady, who at 34 is the oldest quarterback left in the bunch. A fourth Super Bowl title would add lots of ammo to the contention Brady is the best ever.

3) Can Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco come through? Flacco made headlines with his mild jokes about not getting much credit for the Ravens' playoff success. Well, there's a reason for that. Flacco has yet to have a stellar playoff performance in eight games. He was solid against Houston on Sunday, completing 14 of 27 for 176 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. But he was also sacked five times and it was the Ravens' defense that pulled this one out. He has one game (vs. Kansas City in the 2010 season) that could be classified as really good in the postseason. Flacco needs a signature game at some point and now would be a good time since the Ravens will likely need at least 27 points to win.

[ Related: Another ugly playoff victory for Ravens ]

4) Will Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron remain patient? As much as Flacco needs to play well, there's also the issue of making sure running backs Ray Rice and Ricky Williams get enough touches, particularly against a vulnerable New England defense. In three career games against the Patriots, Rice has 61 carries for 350 yards and two touchdowns. The Ravens are 1-2 in those contests. Moreover, the Ravens are 12-0 this season when Rice has 20 or more touches (carries and catches). They are 1-4 when he doesn't, the one win coming early in the season against 2-14 St. Louis.

5) Can the New England defense be that good again? After getting lit up to the tune of 74 points in the first half against lesser teams (Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo) over the final four games of the season, the Patriots shut down the Broncos on Saturday. The caveat is that getting a second chance against pass-challenged Denver wasn't a litmus test. It's one thing to stop Tim Tebow. It will be another to stop the Ravens.

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