PROVIDENCE, R.I. - On my cab ride from the airport to my hotel last night, I was talking with the driver about the vibe in the New England area leading up to today's AFC championship game.
He said that everyone is really excited, and not just because the Patriots are playing for a spot in the Super Bowl. Fans are excited, he said, because no one believes the Ravens actually will be able to compete with the Pats today.
The Patriots definitely have the firepower to make this game ugly in a hurry, and it'll be on John Harbaugh and his team to find a way to limit New England's offense and put up enough points to have a shot at a win.
Here are three keys to the Ravens leaving New England with the AFC championship:
1. Don't let Gronk wreck the game
Out of the Patriots' 17 games this season, tight end Rob Gronkowski has recorded eight multiple-touchdown performances. Last week, in a divisional round win over the Broncos, Gronkowski made 10 catches for 145 yards and three scores. If the second-year man out of Arizona has another day like that, the Ravens will likely be playing golf next week.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will almost certainly aim to double team Gronkowski for much of the game, but he'll have to mix his coverages and keep quarterback Tom Brady on his toes. If Brady knows Gronkowski will be doubled every play, he'll have no problem looking to the Pats' other tight end Aaron Hernandez or shifty wideout Wes Welker.
2. For offense, balance is key
If there's been one consistent theme to the Ravens' four losses this season, it's that if they've fallen behind early, the offense has gotten away from the running game. That cannot happen today. If the Pats jump out to an early lead, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to stay patient and try and maintain some balance in his play calling. Yes, the Patriots have the NFL's second-worst passing defense and Joe Flacco will have a chance to make some plays through the air, but the Ravens will need to keep New England honest by running the ball with Ray Rice and making sure he gets his touches.
If the Ravens can keep the Pats' front seven guessing, they should have opportunities to move the ball, put together long, time-consuming drives and score some points.
3. Get Brady uncomfortable any way possible
I don't care if the Ravens put Icy Hot in Tom Brady's jock strap, a la "Revenge of the Nerds". I don't care if they make fun of Brady's momma. I don't care if they steal his cleats and replace them with a pair of UGG boots. The bottom line is the guys on the Ravens' defense need to make Tom Brady uncomfortable by any means necessary. As I wrote yesterday, the Ravens cannot just let the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback sit back in the pocket and calmly work through his progressions. They need to get in his face, disrupt his timing and get him off his spot.
Haloti Ngata has been quiet for much of the last couple months, but the Ravens' Pro Bowl defensive tackle will need to have a big day today. He needs to collapse the pocket and make Brady move his feet. Terrell Suggs has had a big year, but he's only recorded one sack in his last four games. That needs to change. Guys like Cory Redding, Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee need to step up, as well.
In his career against the Ravens, Brady is averaging only six yards per pass attempt, his lowest output against any NFL team. The Ravens have had success against Brady in the past, and they can again today, as long as they force the Pats' QB out of his comfort zone.