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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Six keys for a Patriots victory in the AFC Championship

  • New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, breaks a tackle before diving in to the endzone for a Patriots' touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, breaks a tackle before diving in to the endzone for a Patriots' touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, breaks a tackle before diving in to the endzone for a Patriots' touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
  • New England wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd, celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the Patriot's 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013. The Patriots advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

First, the prediction. The Patriots will beat Baltimore tonight in Foxborough and earn a trip to another Super Bowl in New Orleans. But the Ravens won’t make it easy.

Things might turn lopsided, like the 2009 playoff game when Baltimore battered New England, 33-14. Except that was the only one of the last five meetings between these two teams, all in the last three years, decided by six points or more. Chances are better this will come down to the final minutes, one play or one decision, just like last year’s AFC title game, or this year’s regular-season meeting.

So the Patriots will need to fight to end Ray Lewis’s career on a cold New England night. Here are six places they can go to work doing it.

The ground game

Tom Brady can’t carry the entire load. He has a career quarterback rating of 74.1 against Baltimore, his worst against any team. When the Ravens know New England is passing, they can drop seven into coverage and still get pressure with four.

So the Patriots need to run the ball effectively, something they didn’t do in

the 31-30 loss in Baltimore in September when they had just 77 rushing yards on 34 carries. Since then, however, New England has established a running attack and wound up averaging 136.5 rushing yards per game, ninth in the league.

And these Ravens, unlike some recent versions, can be run on (122.8 rush ypg allowed, 19th in the NFL), so expect Brady to hand off early and often to Stevan Ridley to test this matchup.

Outside the numbers

If the running game fails, or Baltimore commits more men to stop it, Brady should look to the edges to complete passes. The Ravens are tough in the middle of the field with Lewis and safety Ed Reed, and they know Brady likes to target Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in that area. Taking those safety blankets away is one of the ways Baltimore has stymied Brady.

This is exactly why the Patriots acquired Brandon Lloyd, to work outside the numbers when inside is clogged. And Lloyd did just that in the regular-season game in Baltimore with nine catches for 108 yards. When Lloyd is covered by Cary Williams, who Brady picked on with 13 targets in that September meeting, lots of passes should head their way.

The Shane Vereen mismatch

The Patriots will obviously miss tight end Rob Gronkowski, a matchup nightmare. The emergence of Vereen as a receiving threat can help fill that nightmare void.

The older, banged up Baltimore linebackers will have a hard time staying with the speedy Vereen. The second-year running back may have been a relative unknown until last week, but he has shown the ability to thrive in the passing game. He had eight catches for 149 yards this season, five more for 83 yards last week, and during his three collegiate years at California, Vereen had 74 receptions for 674 yards and six touchdowns.

Bomb shelter

The Patriots and their 29th-ranked pass defense (271.4 ypg allowed) have been susceptible to the deep ball all year. And Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco throws a mean deep ball, as Denver learned last week.

Generating a pass rush will help New England with this problem. Flacco is 2-3 against the Patriots. He wasn’t sacked once in the wins, but he was sacked eight times in the losses. The addition of cornerback Aqib Talib, who wasn’t on the team in September, will also help the Pats avoid the bomb. Talib will likely spend much of the night shadowing Torrey Smith, who had 127 yards and two touchdowns on six catches in that regular-season game.

Frying Rice

Stopping the big pass play may be the top priority for the New England defense, but it can’t forget about running back Ray Rice. Like Flacco, Rice is 2-3 against the Patriots, and in the wins he had 42 carries for 260 yards and three touchdowns, and in the losses he had 60 carries for 258 yards and no scores.

How Vince Wilfork plays will make a huge impact here. Wilfork was a force in last year’s AFC title game, finishing with six tackles, including three for a loss, and Rice wound up with just 67 yards on 21 carries. If Wilfork can lead the charge against the run, the rest of the Patriots can focus on the air.

Keeping up with Jones

The Patriots also need to stop big plays on special teams, specifically from Jacoby Jones, who averaged a league-best 30.7 yards per kickoff return this season.

New England struggled with this last week, allowing 230 yards on five kickoff returns against Houston, including returns of 94 and 69 yards. If the Patriots want to slow the red-hot Baltimore offense, which set club records for playoff yards in a game in the last two weeks (439 and 479), they can’t let Jones loose and allow the Ravens to play on a short field.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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