Patriots vs. Ravens, Part Four

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It's hard to imagine that the Baltimore Ravens would run into a team they despise more than the Pittsburgh Steelers in this season's NFL playoffs after the Ravens dispatched the "Killer Bees" in the Wild Card round.

But in what's become the fiercest playoff rivalry of the last five years, Baltimore will play against the Patriots in Gillette Stadium for the fourth time since 2010.

History is on the Ravens' side as winners of two of their past three matchups, but it'd be a mistake to get caught up in history because these are two very different teams than the ones that played in the AFC Championship just a couple seasons ago.

Of the seven New England players that had a rushing attempt or a reception in a 15-point loss to the Ravens in 2013, only two still wear Patriots uniforms and just one, running back Shane Vereen, will take the field on Saturday. Their defense this season looks nothing at all like the unit that Joe Flacco ransacked for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no picks that day.

Same goes for the Ravens, too. Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, the three that accounted for every touchdown Baltimore scored in that game, won't be playing. Ray Lewis is now an analyst for ESPN and Ed Reed is who knows where.

That's what makes these two franchises among the most successful in the NFL. They replace the production left from players that retired, left in free agency or were taken away in handcuffs and they remain strong.

Recent history can tell us some things though. It tells us that the Ravens are one of the only teams that are not only unafraid to play in Foxborough, but fully expect to win every time they play there. Like I just said a few paragraphs ago the Ravens have played at Gillette in the postseason three times since 2010, and they've outscored the Patriots 81-50 in those games.

The only constants on offense in all those games that will also be playing on Saturday are the quarterbacks. And recent history tells us that Tom Brady looks rattled against Baltimore's defense while Flacco thrives against New England's.

In that case you can throw recent history out the window. Flacco faced a Patriots defense in 2012 that had to play wide receiver Julian Edelman at corner for over a third of its total snaps and a unit in 2013 that relied on a bend-don't-break philosophy that regularly gave up a ton of yardage.

This time, the Patriots actually have a defense. A healthy Vince Wilfork has revitalized a line that allowed only six rushing touchdowns all season, and the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have had the same effect to a secondary that used to be a punchline.

It's a good thing too, because just as the Patriots have a complete defense the Ravens have a complete offense. Baltimore doesn't lack in any one department on that side of the ball, from the running game to the receivers to the quarterback and the offensive line, it's all rock solid.

Justin Forsett averaged over five yards a run during the regular season en route to over 1,200 yards rushing. He had a sluggish game against Pittsburgh, but it didn't seem to matter because his quarterback lives for the playoffs.

In his last five playoff games, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns, a mind-boggling zero interceptions and averaged just about 280 yards a game through the air. It's also worth noting that he played four of those games on the road in Denver, New England, Pittsburgh, and the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

We can't share the same gushing remarks about Flacco with Brady, though. After demolishing the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round, Brady hasn't looked right in his last three postseason games, the first of which includes his most recent loss to the Ravens. He has just two touchdowns against two interceptions and a completion percentage south of 60 percent.

There's good news and bad news for Brady as it pertains to this next game against Baltimore. As always, you go bad news first, which is that the Ravens have a terrific pass rush and the Patriots have an offensive line that has looked downright awful in some games this season. They key to beating Brady has always been to keep him off the field and keep pressure on him when he's on it, and Baltimore certainly has the personnel to do that.

The good news? If he has time in the pocket, Brady should be able to shred a Ravens secondary that has withstood a myriad of injuries and has needed to rely on newcomers and no-names to hold the fort. It's also a huge boost that Brady will have a healthy Rob Gronkowski, who was hurt during their 2013 tilt.

If the game plan for the Ravens is to limit Brady as much as possible, New England's is nearly the opposite. To win a ticket to the AFC Championship game, the Patriots will have to stifle the running game and dare Flacco to throw it against Revis and that secondary on third-and-long.

When the Ravens absolutely need to rely on Flacco's arm, it doesn't go their way. Baltimore is just 1-4 this season when Flacco finishes with at least 35 pass attempts. For reference, the Patriots are 10-2 on the year when Brady throws the ball 35 times or more.

When it comes to movies, the first installment is usually the best and it's never the fourth. As far as the Patriots and Ravens facing off against each other in the playoffs goes, this could make for the most exciting game these two have ever played and it's because of how frighteningly complete both these teams are.

Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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