I'm not buying into the "Ravens as team of destiny" hype going around Crabtown this week. That's just not a football reality. The Ravens are headed back to Foxborough for a re-match of last year's AFC Championship game. And from a pure football perspective, each team has a 50-50 chance of getting out of there with a W— the team that plays a better all-around game will go on to the Super Bowl. It could just as easily be the Patriots as the Ravens. Both teams are at relatively equal strength right now. Both teams know each other very well, too.
These are not exactly the same teams that squared off last January for the title, either.
Nate Davis is a smart football writer who has a nice piece in USA Today. To sum up, he basically boils down the major differences in the look of each team this time around:
Turnover of personnel— A lot of new faces on both sides. For example, all the major players in the heartbreak ending to last year's 23-20 loss to the Patriots are gone— Wideout Lee Evans lost his grip on a potential game-winning touchdown, which New England defensive back Sterling Moore helped knock away; shortly thereafter, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal which would've sent the game into overtime. All of those players have moved on,
New faces include Jacoby Jones, a blazer who not only makes a huge impact in the return game but showed that he can also make the big catch as evidenced by his 70-yard TD which sent Saturday's game at Denver into overtime. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker came through with the 47-yard field goal that vanquished the Broncos in double OT and also beat the Patriots in Week 3 with a 27-yarder at the gun. Baltimore also doesn't have injured corner Lardarius Webb, who picked off Tom Brady last year. On the other side, Brandon Lloyd is a clear upgrade over Chad Ochocinco/Johnson as the Patriots' deep threat while cornerback Aqib Talib solidified a once shaky secondary following his midseason acquisition. The loss of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) obviously hurts, though he didn't score in the previous two games vs. Baltimore.
The Ravens have a legitimate deep threat this year– Along with Jacoby Jones, second-year Ravens wideout Torrey Smith (98 receiving yards, 2 TDs vs. Denver) made Broncos corner Champ Bailey look about as bad as he ever has in his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career over the weekend, and he won't face any player nearly as decorated Sunday, Talib included. Smith was a key performer in last year's playoff meeting (82 yards, TD) and somehow managed to be even better in Week 3 (127 yards, 2 TDs) despite playing on the heels of his brother's untimely death. He opens the field for resurgent graybeard Anquan Boldin not to mention do-it-all back Ray Rice.
The Patriots have an improved running game– Steven Ridley's 1,263 rushing yards in 2012 were the most by a New England back since Corey Dillon had 1,635 in 2004 … and for all the praise Brady deserves, the Pats haven't gotten a ring since Dillon's signature season. Fellow soph Shane Vereen got into the act Sunday, scoring three touchdowns (1 rushing, 2 receiving, 124 yards from scrimmage) and could continue getting snaps even if injured Danny Woodhead (thumb) can play. The Ravens ranked 20th against the run in the regular season. And despite all the hoopla surrounding Ray Lewis' return from his triceps injury, Baltimore has allowed 277 rushing yards in two playoff games.
The Ravens have improved pass protection— The Patriots defense relies upon getting a lot of pocket pressure on Joe Flacco, but that's getting harder to achieve. New England managed 37 sacks in the regular season but didn't get Joe Flacco in their regular season meeting and only took Matt Schaub down once Sunday. That probably needs to change given Flacco has outplayed Brady in each of the last two meetings and is coming off arguably his biggest NFL victory. But the Ravens pass-pro is trending up very strongly since the revamping of their O-Line. Also the Ravens are getting very good pass-pro blocking from their 2-backs (Vonta Leach and Bernard Pierce).
More differences than similar comparisons to last year's AFC Championship match-up, if you ask me…But there's still Ed Reed…and Tom Brady…and Ray Lewis…going at each other for maybe the last time ever. That much stays the same.