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Ravens @ Patriots: AFC Championship Preview & Prediction

Baltimore Beatdown makes it's prediction of the winner and final score when the Ravens play the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

Al Bello

The Baltimore Ravens will find themselves in a very familiar place when they go up to Foxborough, Massachusetts to face the New England Patriots in the 2013 AFC Championship Game.

This will be a repeat match-up of the heart-breaking game from last year in which the Ravens saw their Super Bowl hopes knocked to the ground then twist wide left. The Ravens got a bit of revenge when they hosted and defeated the Patriots during the 2012 regular season, but that was not on the level that last year's of this weekend's game will be.

Baltimore comes in as more than a touchdown underdog despite upsetting the Denver Broncos last week while being a 9.5 point 'dog. The Ravens won five months ago and even with the loss, still came within a field goal of sending the game into an extra session.

In fact, when these two teams face off, their games are usually tight until the bitter end, and rarely are decided by more than six points. Joe Flacco has led the Ravens against the Patriots five previous times, including twice in the post season. Four of the five have been decided by six points or less, three by a field goal or closer.

Only Baltimore's shocking 33-14 win in the 2010 playoff game when Ray Rice took the game's opening handoff 80 yards for a touchdown and the Ravens never looked back, was decided by more than a TD. The Ravens have two wins of those five games and hope to even the score Sunday evening.

For whatever reason, as tough of a team as the Patriots are, the Ravens always seem to match up well with them and rarely let Tom Brady have great games against them. The return of Ray Lewis and the better health of the defense has returned this defense closer to the level of dominance they enjoyed over the past decade than the one from earlier this season.

Baltimore held the Indianapolis Colts without a touchdown and while the Denver Broncos put up 35 points on them last weekend, 14 were on Special Teams returns and Peyton Manning could only mange one offensive score over the games final 53+minutes of regulation and the two overtimes.

Now they are facing the NFL's highest scoring team which is averaging 35 points a game. Baltimore's defense will have tough time shutting down New England, but should be at least able to slow them down enough to give Joe Flacco and the offense the same chance to put at least one more point on the scoreboard than the Pats.

For one of the first times in Patriots history, they had a run game to complement their passing game this season. However, don't expect that to materialize in this game, as the Ravens run defense has been solid as of late. The pass rush has improved greatly and while Ray Leis may still be a liability in pass coverage, New England's best over-the-middle threat (Rob Gronkowski) is out for the game.

Other than Wes Welker, none of the Patriots receivers scare the Ravens and even Welker is not a game-breaking threat. The Ravens are content to give up the short passes until they are backed up against their end zone and then stiffen up to force opponents to settle for field goals.

Offensively, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell seems to have found his rhythm calling plays, utilizing the running and passing game to perfection, increasing the confidence and effectiveness of Flacco. The change in the personnel protecting Flacco has made a huge difference as many have heard my criticism of Flacco's issues under pressure.

However, if given time, Joe can be as cool as the other side of the pillow and when allowed to stand tall in the pocket and use his rocket arm that might be among the best in the league, he can be as deadly as any around the NFL.

Thus, we get to the keys to the game on both sides of the ball for the Ravens. If the Ravens defense can slow down the Patriots offense and force them to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, that will give them half of the recipe for victory.

If the Ravens offensive line gives Flacco time to throw, he will be able to find his receivers for big plays and put points on the scoreboard. That is the other half of the equation for a road win and a berth in the Super Bowl.

When the Ravens went on the road and beat the Tennessee Titans and then the Oakland Raiders to send them to Super Bowl 35, fans viewed the victory over the #1 seeded Titans the hump and the Raiders game a mere formality to reach the next step.

While in no uncertain terms am I suggesting this game will be a mere formality, it does not scare me as anywhere as tough a hill to climb compared to what the Ravens had to face in Denver. The Ravens have beaten New England and know they can out-muscle and beat them at the point of attack and also down-field, while limiting them with a renewed defensive swagger.

Call them a team of destiny or anything similar, but I will just call them the more complete and better team on Sunday, fighting and earning a trip to Super Bowl 47 and a fairy-tale ending to Ray Lewis' 17-year legendary career.

Ravens 31-27