Even Hollywood couldn't script an ending that the Ravens are charting for themselves. The Ravens are in the midst of one of the most inspirational, improbable and thrilling road Kamikazi missions since the fictional King Leonidas led a militia of 300 against an army of 10,000 Persians.
Ray Lewis is Baltimore's fire-breathing Linebacker Leonidas to New England's King Xerxes, Tom Brady-- the defending AFC champ. One year after Lewis won his one and only Super Bowl in 2000, Brady began his stranglehold over the AFC by leading Belichick's Pats to the first of seven AFC Championship Games they would play in. Vegas heavily favors Brady and for good reason. Brady is 86-15 in his career at home including the postseason and has the best home winning percentage among Super Bowl-era quarterbacks who have made at least 20 starts at home.
When Brady tries to set the pace for Flacco's Ravens and matchup with Lewis' defense, the rules get thrown out the window. Brady is 5-2 all-time against the Ravens but he has struggled individually against the Baltimore defense with a 7:8 touchdown-interception ratio. According to ESPN.com, Brady has a 63.1 Total QBR against the Ravens since 2008, his second-worst QBR against any opponent of which he has at least 75 action plays.
He'll also be missing one of his favorite targets after Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm against the Houston Texans.
Conversely, Flacco whose elite credentials have been questioned as the Ravens' Dilios, tasked with maintaining the Baltimore Rays commitment to excellence after Lewis lays down his helmet for the final time has established himself as the AFC's Eli-Lite against Brady in recent years. However, Baltimore's new general has unfinished business this season. Flacco has emerged as a thorn in Brady's side by splitting the series after the Patriots rolled over Baltimore in their first five meetings. Flacco also has five road playoff wins, tied for the most in NFL history by a starting quarterback.
Though, he struggles on third downs, Flacco and his bazooka arm will have a favorable matchup against the Patriots' 29th ranked defense. Flacco threw for 382 yards in an early regular season win over the Pats. However, both secondaries have made adjustments for the good and bad.
The Pats pass defense made a positive improvement by moving Devin McCourty to safety and traded for troubled Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib. McCourty led the team in interceptions. Meanwhile, the Ravens lost starting corner Lardarius Webb to an ACL injury in October but have shored up an uncharacteristically porous rushing defense that was allowing 142 yards per game and ranked 30th in the league at the beginning of November. Since then, the Ravens have held opposing rushers to 112.9 yards per game and made critical stops throughout their win at Mile High.
Flacco will also have the benefit of a resurgent Ray Rice, who is fresh off of a 30-carry 131 yard effort against Denver. The Pats will counter with their black hole of nose tackle, Vince Wilfork who gulps up opposing ball carriers like milkshakes. Ravens left guard Marshall Yanda will attempt to grapple with Wilfork If Wilfork can create pressure up the middle, it will leave defensive end Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to create havoc on Flacco on the edges
Ravens cornerback Corey Graham will be tasked with putting a lid on Wes Welker in the slot. While Flacco, Torrey Lewis and Anquan Boldin were being showered with praise following last weekend's victory, it was Graham who won the individual chess match against Peyton Manning. Graham returned his first interception for a touchdown in the first half before picking off a second pass in double overtime to set up Justin Tucker's game-winning kick.
Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger and versatile defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will have to contribute one last dominant display by stuffing Stevan Ridley and the two-headed scatback beast consisting of Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen. Vereen is also versatile enough to run between the tackles or do his best Marshall Faulk impersonation by hauling in downfield throws from Brady as he did last weekend against Houston en route to 83 yards receiving, 41 rushing and three touchdowns. Woodhead may not see much action after suffering a thumb injury in the first half against Houston.
The Ravens are fighting for Ray Lewis but the Pats have home field on their side. Their .824 winning percentage is the highest in postseason history among teams that have played a minimum of 10 games. The Ravens have some history on theirs. Eerily enough, the fourth seeded Ravens won their first Super Bowl in 2000 as a No.4 seed. Four seeds are 6-1 in Conference Championship Games all-time.
Sunday will either be the scene of Lewis' Last Stand or bring him within one Super Sunday of a Hollywood ending. Hopefully, things pan out for Lewis better than they did for Leonidas.
Kickoff: 6:30 ET on CBS at Gillette Stadium
Prediction: Ravens win 30-24.
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