While the majority of the NFL media is predicting Sunday's AFC championship matchup is going to come down to the fourth quarter, I somewhat disagree.
Here's my prediction: If the Ravens are going to win, we'll have a pretty good idea by the end of the first quarter. If the Patriots are going to win, we won't know until the end of the fourth quarter. Bill Belichick's team can both sustain leads throughout a game and come from behind late in a game. Never count the Patriots out.
The Ravens are a bit different. They don't play well from behind, so if Tom Brady and the Pats offense come out shooting and the Ravens get down seven points or more in the first, it's going to be a long day for John Harbaugh's crew.
Being forced to abandon the run early is the worst thing that could happen to the Ravens on Sunday other than a meteor crashing on the defensive line of scrimmage during the Patriots' first drive of the game.
While there has been so much focus on Joe Flacco this past week, the true key to the Ravens' success in this game is how often and long the Ravens can keep the ball in Ray Rice's hands. It's been no secret the Ravens win games when Rice gets 25-plus carries. Even more so on Sunday, Rice's ability to keep the clock moving and sustain long drives will be imperative, especially if the Ravens have an early lead.
The game plan should be keeping Tom Brady off the field as much as possible. The old adage - "the best defense is a good offense" - has never rung more true.
If the Ravens get down early, then the ball will be in Flacco's hands. Flacco has proven he can come from behind when the game is on the line as he did in Week 9 against the Steelers, but it's not the position the Ravens want to be in.
In the first quarter, we'll also find out what kind of day it's going to be for the Ravens' defense. The Ravens have to hit Brady hard and early in the first. If we see Terrell Suggs or Haloti Ngata break loose and sack Brady on the Patriots' first drive of the game, the Ravens will be setting the tone. More importantly, they won't let Brady get comfortable.
When the Ravens beat the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs, that's exactly what happened. Brady never found a rhythm and he threw three interceptions. The one thing working for the Ravens is Brady doesn't play his best against Baltimore. He has a 71.4 quarterback rating against the Ravens. That's his worst against any team in the league.
But he's Brady, and if the pass rush isn't there, look for Brady to hit those big tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, all day long. They are a huge mismatch for the Ravens' linebackers and secondary.
Let's be real, they are a huge mismatch for every secondary in the league.
So, if you're like me, you'll be glued to the game from kickoff. That first quarter will be a crystal ball for where the Ravens will be when the final whistle blows.