Ravens-Patriots Preview

The Associated Press

After cruising to a lopsided victory behind another extraordinary Tom Brady-led offensive display last weekend, the New England Patriots find themselves on the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons.

While the Baltimore Ravens' path to the AFC championship game proved to be a bit more rocky, they continue to persevere thanks to one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

The Ravens look to slow down Brady and the prolific Patriots offense Sunday when these teams meet in Foxborough with a trip to Super Bowl XLVI on the line.

Coming into last weekend with three consecutive postseason defeats - the first of those a loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII - New England (14-3) snapped that skid in emphatic fashion in the divisional round Saturday. The Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 lead and rolled to a 45-10 blowout of Denver, as Brady threw for 363 yards and matched an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes.

"You lose a few playoff games and it's a very bitter way to end the season and it sits on your mind for quite a long time," Brady said. "For us to come out and play the way we did, have a very solid performance in the most important game of the year, is very gratifying.

"From this point on, everyone will be focused on what we need to do to be better next week and, hopefully, come out and play for another championship."

While Brady was able to pick apart the Broncos' defense, a repeat performance against the Ravens (13-4) may be harder to come by. Baltimore ranks third in the NFL with 16.6 points and 288.9 yards allowed per game, and it led the conference with 48 sacks - 14 by Terrell Suggs.

The challenge for New England's passing attack, second in the league with 317.8 yards a game, is solving a Ravens' pass defense that gave up 196.3 yards per contest during the regular season - fourth in the NFL.

The Ravens "are the best team we've faced all year," Brady said. "There's no one that's going to overlook a team like that. It would be impossible to do. They present a ton of challenges in all three phases of the game ... they're physical, they're tough, they can cover.

"They've got some of the best players in the history of the NFL at their position, in Suggs and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata."

Brady is all too familiar with Baltimore's ability on defense. Those four players were part of a unit that helped spark the Ravens to a 33-14 wild-card victory over New England in the teams' only playoff meeting Jan. 10, 2010. Brady threw three interceptions, was sacked three times and threw for just 154 yards as the Patriots lost after falling behind 24-0 in the first quarter.

"We really haven't given it much thought because it is a different season and a different team," special teams captain Matthew Slater said of that defeat. "We do remember the sting of getting embarrassed at home. ... Those guys beat us from the opening snap all the way through. We have to try to avoid that."

New England will be facing a Ravens team that seems unlikely to be intimidated by the Gillette Stadium surroundings as it seeks its first Super Bowl appearance since winning the championship in 2000.

"We've gone (to Foxborough) and played before," said Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who threw for just 34 yards and had an interception in that playoff game as Baltimore ran for 234 yards - 159 from Ray Rice.

"We have won in New England. They are one of the teams, like us, that's tough to beat at home. We know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A-game up there."

At least one of Flacco's teammates, however, could be worried about whether the quarterback will do that. Baltimore survived against Houston in the divisional round, winning 20-13 after forcing four turnovers - including Reed's late interception to help seal the win.

In a radio interview this week, Reed expressed some concern about the team's ability to move the ball after the Ravens gained only 227 yards against the Texans.

"I think a couple of times he needed to get rid of the ball. It just didn't look like he had a hold on the offense," Reed said.

"I think Flacco can have a breakout game, especially after last week. ... I know he is definitely coming back to show himself off."

Flacco shrugged off the comments, saying he had resolved things with Reed.

"It was a little funny to me, I was a little caught off guard," he told the team's official website. "It is what it is, we talked about it. It's not really that big of a deal."

Flacco, the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons in the league, threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns versus the Texans but was sacked five times and missed several easy throws.

That could be a problem if Baltimore can't get its 10th-ranked rushing game going for a second straight week. Rice, second in the league with 1,364 yards on the ground, managed 60 on 21 carries as the Ravens rushed for 87 yards - well below their 124.8 average.

New England allowed 117.1 yards rushing per contest this season and gave up 144 last week.

"I would anticipate, against the team we're about to play, you have to do a better job offensively in terms of stats and points," said coach John Harbaugh, whose team managed one field goal over the final 46 minutes versus Houston.

While New England could struggle to slow down Baltimore's ground game, the Ravens are sure to have their hands full with the Patriots' tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Gronkowski, who broke NFL single-season records for his position with 1,327 yards and 17 TDs, caught 10 passes for 145 yards and matched a postseason record with three more scores versus Denver. Hernandez hauled in four passes for 55 yards and a TD to go along with a team-high 61 rushing yards before leaving with a head injury in the fourth quarter.

"Everybody makes big plays on this team," said Hernandez, who is expected to be available Sunday. "That's why our offense is real dangerous. We've got so many weapons they don't know who to cover."

The Patriots averaged 428.0 yards, second in the league, and their 32.1 points a contest were third. Brady's 5,235 passing yards were second most in NFL history, trailing Drew Brees' 5,476, a mark he established this year.

New England has dominated Baltimore in the regular season, winning all six meetings, while Brady has gone 4-1 against the Ravens including the playoff game. However, his 71.4 quarterback rating in those contests is his lowest against any team.

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