For the second consecutive season, the New England Patriots will take on the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Also for the second consecutive season, the game will be at Gillette Stadium.
Last time 'round, the Patriots fought hard for the 23-20 victory, scoring a touchdown early in the fourth quarter off of a rare Tom Brady rush (quarterback sneak). Brady actually had a statistically poor game, with just 234 yards and no touchdowns against a pair of interceptions.
Joe Flacco, meanwhile, had two touchdowns and just one interception, but the Patriots were able to put drives together when they needed to.
Banking on a game with just 43 points scored in it this time around, though? That's not exactly a safe play. Baltimore has the oldest roster in the NFL, with many players on defense nearing the "over the hill" mark, while the Patriots only ever seem to get better on offense, averaging over 30 points per game this season.
Still, Baltimore already made waves with their win over the Denver Broncos on Saturday. Few gave them a chance in that game, with the odds and experts overwhelmingly swayed in Denver's favor. Plus, there's also the fact that they already played the Patriots once this season.
That game ended 31-30 in favor of Baltimore, after wide receiver Torrey Smith had a huge day, less than 24 hours after the tragic death of his younger brother. Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hours before the game, he wasn't even sure he would play.
The Patriots of Week 3 were a different team, though. They had just played a sluggish game in which they lost to the Arizona Cardinals and didn't seem to hit their stride until nearer the end of the regular season and, of course, in the playoffs.
Baltimore is a different team as well, but that might be a bad thing. They just played a double overtime game against the Broncos in which their aging defense looked as though it was slowing down in the middle of the third quarter. New England, meanwhile, just had a relatively easy win over the Texans after a bye week.
Let's take a look at where both these teams are coming from.
Where They Come From: Patriots
New England downed the Houston Texans in Week 14 of the regular season, dominating them to the tune of 42-14. This prompted the Texans to go on a skid in which they lost three of their final four games, falling out of the top seed in the conference and earning the Patriots the No. 2 seed in the AFC and thus, a bye week.
Apparently, the Patriots used the bye week well, as they downed the Texans in dominating fashion once again. It wasn't quite as big a blow out, but they still managed to put up 41 points while allowing just 28. They were in control of the game from start to finish (sans the opening drive field goal from Houston) and have just been incredibly good of late.
New England has scored 40-plus points five times this season, not counting the playoff win over Houston. They scored over 50 points twice, including their 59-24 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11. They had some very close losses, falling by a total of four points in their three losses to Baltimore, Arizona and Seattle. Only the San Francisco 49ers truly out-gunned them, when they put up 41 to New England's 34 in Week 15.
Given that the Patriots could end up rematching them in the Super Bowl, it's an interesting thing to think about. Of course, they can't overlook the Ravens, so let's see where they're coming from.
Where They Come From: Ravens
Baltimore seems to come closer every year as "that other team." In the NFC, the New York Giants have filled that role, but unlike Baltimore, they take their improbable runs all the way to a Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens just get in the playoffs, do a little damage, and then get bounced out.
Time is certainly running out for, again, what is the oldest starting lineup in the NFL.
Taking a quick look at some stats, the Ravens appear "unremarkable," to put it gently. They no longer rank among the top of the league in most defensive stats, nor are they among the NFL's truly elite on offense. They're No. 15 in the league in passing yards, No. 11 in rushing yards and on the defensive side of the ball, they're even lower. They're ranked 17th in passing yards allowed and 20th in rushing yards allowed.
A couple years ago, teams had a tough time getting to 90 yards on the ground, but now, they're averaging 122 yards against the Ravens defense.
Still, the offense has stepped up as of late. They made the playoffs by winning the NFC North, and easily dispatched the Colts, 24-9 to advance to the divisional round. Anquan Boldin showed up big time in that one, setting a franchise record with 145 yards receiving.
The more imposing matchup was this past weekend, when the Broncos took on the top-seeded Broncos. The teams matched each-other score for score, with 14 points for both teams in the first quarter, and then one in each of the next three. The game went to overtime, and then to double overtime.
There, Peyton Manning threw an ill-fated pass that the Ravens managed to snag down for the interception. Baltimore's defense was clearly tired and feeling the effects of a long game, but were able to take advantage of the poor decision, an Justin Tucker nailed the field goal to secure the win.
They made a significant statement with the win, and for all of the people that will undervalue them in picks and how the Patriots will be favored in Vegas, the Ravens will not be underestimated by the Patriots.
Something Extra: Patriots
New England lost tight end Rob Gronkowski early in the game to an arm injury. Gronkowski stretched out to make a catch (he landed out of bounds), but was unable to properly turn, and the entirety of his weight went directly on his left arm, which was already in a cast. It's a broken forearm, and he will not return for the playoffs.
"Gronk" is set to have surgery on Monday, and he will certainly be missed by the Patriots. Still, the team has got by without him to this point. He was a big part of the offense in the early going, but initially broke his forearm in late November and missed five games, before returning for the regular season finale, a shutout win over the Miami Dolphins.
They've been able to survive (and thrive, really) with guys like Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, and they'll likely continue to do so. Still, they're a better team when they can throw to Gronkowski, so it's something to consider either way.
Something Extra: Ravens
If you watched any part of the games against the Colts and the Broncos, you'll have seen linebacker Ray Lewis get an awful lot of camera time. The biggest "intangible" factor for the Ravens right now has been "winning one for Ray."
Lewis has had one of the best careers of any defensive player in the NFL ... ever. He personifies the Ravens organization and has been a leader on that team throughout his entire career. If anything serves as motivation for the Ravens, it's getting Lewis another Super Bowl ring before he calls it a career.
And by all counts, Lewis will, in fact, call it a career after this postseason comes to an end. The victory over the Colts was Lewis' last home game, but he sure would enjoy a return trip for a Super Bowl parade.
The Ravens and Patriots will square off on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. eastern, after the 49ers play the Atlanta Falcons to decide the first half of the Super Bowl equation.