The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, through ups and downs of the last two seasons, have ranked as two of the AFC's most consistent and successful teams. It's not a surprise, then, to see the two squads preparing for a second straight season to face off in the AFC Championship Game.
Last year the Patriots escaped with a 23-20 victory and this year's meeting will likely hinge on many of the same matchups that gave New England the slight edge they needed to win the AFC's bid to the Super Bowl in 2012.
So here are some to keep an eye on when the Pats and Ravens square off again to decide the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl, where any slight advantage could mean victory:
Smith proved his game-changing abilities against the Denver Broncos in the Ravens' thrilling double-OT victory in the AFC Divisional Round. The young receiver caught only three passes, but scored twice to help Baltimore to the win. And Jacoby Jones's historic Hail Mary grab showed just how dangerous the Ravens' receivers can be.
So how do the Patriots slow down the attack, especially after ranking near the bottom of the NFL against the pass in 2012? Look no further than Aqib Talib, who helped the Patriots weather 51 pass attempts from the Houston Texans in New England's divisional round victory. Talib, a late addition to the Patriots, has been a difference maker in these playoffs and could help slow down the Ravens' passing attack in the cold weather.
The Patriots will no doubt miss the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will sit out the game with an arm fracture on Sunday. Gronkowski, along with being an offensive threat against even the toughest defenses, led the Patriots in receiving in last year's AFC Championship Game. So will Tom Brady instead look to Wes Welker to pick up some of the slack?
You might expect just that, and the Ravens secondary would be foolish not to think the same. Welker grabbed eight balls for 131 yards against the Texans. The Ravens defense still brings it, despite their age. Game on.
The Ravens' men in the trenches have been good all season. In fact, Yanda was named a Pro Bowler again this year after another dominating performance. Birk has been solid at center for years. But all that skill couldn't stop Denver from basically containing Baltimore's run game in the divisional round, forcing Joe Flacco to go to the air.
Birk and Yanda will have their work cut out for them against Wilfork, who has been a pain in the Ravens' sides — recording a sack in the 2012 AFC Championship Game and four tackles in the teams' meeting earlier this year.
The Patriots seem capable of putting relatively no-name running backs behind Tom Brady and seeing production no matter who ends up back there. Vereen and Ridley have helped balance an offense that was beginning to look a little pass happy, and against the Texans, the two combined for 123 important rushing yards.
Certainly the vaunted Ravens defense wants to make the Patriots as one-dimensional as possible — or even zero-dimensional. That will start by containing the efficient Vereen and Ridley, who are quietly helping the Patriots replicate the success they had with BenJarvus Green-Ellis last season.