While the NFC showcases two surprise teams in the championship game, the AFC title game features two of the most successful clubs over the past dozen years when the New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Both teams seem overdue for a trip to the Super Bowl, after consistently posting impressive regular season records. New England hasn't reached the Super Bowl since 2008, while the Ravens haven't been there since 2001. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls with Tom Brady at quarterback, and the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV behind a defense led by 13-time Pro Bowl line backer Ray Lewis.
Brady and Lewis are rather synonymous with their respective team's image. The Patriots have had success over the years based on their prolific and efficient passing attack, while the Ravens' defense is usually one of the best in the NFL.
Bill Belichick's offense will need to be clicking this weekend, as Baltimore's defense is coming off another stellar season. The Ravens finished fourth in the NFL in average opposing passing yards per game (196.3) and second in average opposing rushing yards per game (92.6).
Brady has perhaps the best tight-end combo in recent memory. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have combined for 2,237 yards and 169 receptions, but should be marked by perhaps the two best line backers in the NFL in Lewis and Terrell Suggs.
While the New England passing game is one of the best in the NFL, the running game has been subpar, as the Patriots finished 20th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (110.3). The Patriots have used a ground game by committee this season with rushing yards coming from BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667), Stevan Ridley (441), and Danny Woodhead (351).
The Ravens' offense has mainly revolved around Ray Rice. The Pro Bowl running back is a threat on the ground and in the air, after gaining over 2,000 total yards in 2011.
While the Patriots' defense will focus on Rice, the Ravens are expecting more out of their quarterback this weekend. The pressure is on Joe Flacco, who hasn't thrown for 300 yards since Nov. 6 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, to have a big game and lead a team that seems to just fall short of going to the Super Bowl in recent seasons. Flacco finished the 2011 season with a 78.2 passer rating on the road, and can expect a very boisterous crowd in Foxborough, Mass. to make things difficult for him.
Questions have surrounded Flacco on whether he has the ability to lead the Ravens to their first appearance in the Super Bowl in 11 years. Flacco has two solid wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, and a serviceable pair of tight ends in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, but often seems rushed to pass, which forces him to dump the ball off to Rice, or throw an incompletion.
The Ravens' passing game will be under intense scrutiny, as the New England defense finished 31st in the NFL in passing yards allowed (293.9) in 2011. Against the Houston Texans on Sunday, Baltimore managed only 227 total yards, so the Ravens are due for a stronger offensive effort.
I would anticipate, against the team we're about to play, you have to do a better job offensively in terms of stats and points, said head coach John Harbaugh.
LINE: New England is favored by nine points.
PREDICTION: The Patriots' offense has been extremely efficient this season, and New England should move the ball well, despite facing an excellent defense. Brady is coming off one of his best seasons, and dominated a very good Broncos defense last Saturday. The Patriots will likely test the Ravens' corners by making receiver Wes Welker a key target. Expect Flacco to bounce back after a lackluster effort against Houston, and throw the ball more than 30 times. Baltimore can win this game if they do the intangibles: force turnovers, limit penalties, and have a big game on special teams. But the Patriots just seem too focused to keep Baltimore in the game with costly mistakes, and rarely falter at home.
PREDICTED SCORE: Patriots over Ravens, 31-17