The script is familiar for the Ravens.
Another playoff game. Another trip to Foxborough.
This time the Ravens will travel to New England for a divisional-round matchup against the top-seeded Patriots. The Ravens punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVII on the last trip to Foxborough, and they will have to beat New England at Gillette Stadium for the third time in six years to keep this season alive.
"It is just a huge challenge for anybody going in there in the playoffs," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We're just going to play a really great football team. [The Patriots are] tremendously well-coached, very well-balanced."
The Ravens have enjoyed postseason success against the Patriots, and while the memory of that last AFC championship victory is still fresh, both teams have new groups of players preparing for this week's matchup.
"I think these guys on defense present totally different challenges than they normally do, so it's going to be kind of a new group for us to go against," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "And I'm excited about it."
Three Matchups To Watch
DT Haloti Ngata vs. C Bryan Stork
The veteran defensive tackle had a strong return last week after serving a four-game suspension. Ngata came up with the first sack of the game and he also clogged up the running game. Ngata is motivated and said after his suspension that he owes his teammates. The Ravens are hoping for a similar outing this week, and Ngata's performance could be even more critical against the Patriots. The Ravens need to get interior pressure on quarterback Tom Brady, and Ngata could have his way with young center Bryan Stork.
WR Steve Smith Sr. vs. CB Darrelle Revis
There was no trash talk across the aisle between Smith and Revis this week. It was all love between the two veterans. Revis said that Smith is an "electrifying player" and Smith told reporters that he has "a ton of respect" for the cornerback. But players will certainly be out to get the better of the other Saturday afternoon. Smith has been Baltimore's best receiver this year, but Revis is still one of the top cover cornerbacks in the game. The Ravens plan to take their shots in his direction, and Smith will have his opportunities to come up with big plays.
ILB C.J. Mosley/ S Will Hill vs. TE Rob Gronkowski
A big question throughout the week has been what the Ravens will do to defend Gronkowski, one of the most explosive and dominating pass catchers in the game. Nobody around the league has found a good answer to the question, and the Ravens' ability to slow down Gronk could prove the difference in the game. The Ravens likely won't have just one person match up against Gronkowski, and that means Mosley and Hill could both end up defending the big tight end depending where he is on the field. If they can have success against Gronk, then that would take away a significant part of New England's offense.
Three Keys to the Game
Keep Flacco Hot
Quarterback Joe Flacco has been on a historic run during his last two playoff trips. He's tossed 15 touchdowns and one interception during his last six postseason games, and is 5-1 during that stretch. Flacco has been at his best when the Ravens come out with an aggressive game plan like they did against Pittsburgh, and they could likely stick with that approach against New England. Flacco has outperformed Brady in his last two trips to Gillette Stadium, and the Ravens need him to stay hot to knock off the AFC's top seed.
Stout Red-Zone Defense
The Ravens had the secondbest red-zone defense in the NFL this season, and forcing the Patriots to settle for field goals could make the difference in the contest. With Brady and the playmakers around him, the Patriots have shown all year they will be able to move the football. But the key for the unit is to tighten up once the Patriots get inside the 20-yard line.
Get More Receivers Involved
Steve Smith and Torrey Smith have done the bulk of the work in the receiving game this year for Baltimore, but they have tough matchups awaiting them. All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis has the ability to absolutely lockdown opposing receivers, and the expectation is that he'll defend Steve Smith for much of the game. Cornerback Brandon Browner is another physical cornerback who will be a difficult matchup for Torrey Smith. If their opportunities are limited, then look for Flacco to find some of secondary options like tight end Owen Daniels and receivers Marlon Brown, Kamar Aiken and Marlon Campanaro over the middle of the field.