By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
Here are five keys for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots:
>>The Patriots must be able to find a way to fill the void in their offense created by the loss of injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. In last weekend’s divisional-round victory against the Texans, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady managed to consistently connect with wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had 131 and 85 receiving yards, respectively. Another receiver, Brandon Lloyd, has also proven to be a factor, and the Pats’ running backs do a nice job of catching the ball. The Ravens struggled badly against New England’s passing attack when the teams met in Week 3, but their defense has tightened considerably in recent weeks.
>>Baltimore’s offensive line needs to continue to provide excellent protection for Joe Flacco. The Ravens did a superb job of keeping Flacco upright against one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing defenses in last week’s divisional-round game against the Broncos. He faced little pressure and was sacked only once behind a line that has received a major boost since Bryant McKinnie was placed at left tackle, causing Michael Oher to move to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele to shift to left guard. Meanwhile, the Patriots didn’t get a single sack against Houston’s Matt Schaub, even though he attempted 51 passes. And there is reason to think their pass rush might be slowed by an injury to Chandler Jones.
>>Despite its highly productive passing game, New England has to maintain offensive balance with a running game capable of being highly productive. The Patriots’ No. 1 back is Stevan Ridley, but they have plenty of depth. Shane Vereen generated 124 yards rushing and receiving after taking over for injured Danny Woodhead against Houston last weekend. But the Patriots averaged a mere 2.3 yards per carry against Baltimore in Week 3. The Ravens also held the Broncos to only three yards per rush last weekend, thanks largely to an inspired effort that linebacker Ray Lewis (credited with 17 tackles against Denver) has shown since returning from a triceps injury that sidelined him for the final 10 games of the regular season.
>>The Ravens must get another strong and efficient performance from Flacco. Flacco showed off his tremendous arm strength to the fullest when he threw for 331 yards against Denver, and has been particularly effective on deep throws in the playoffs. He has not thrown an interception in two postseason games. The Ravens should be encouraged by the fact that the Patriots allowed Schaub to throw for 343 yards last weekend.
>>The middle of the Patriots’ defense must keep Baltimore’s running game in check. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork has been especially effective against the run in recent games. The Patriots’ linebackers also do a solid job of clogging the middle. The Ravens, who produced an impressive 155 rushing yards against Denver last weekend, are likely to have their best chances for success on the ground by having Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce attack the perimeter.
>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.
>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/browns_daily, Twitter.com/viccarucci, e-mail: Daily@ClevelandBrowns.com, or by calling 855-363-2459.
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