The AFC Championship Game

THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW: RAVENS-PATRIOTS WILL PLAY IT AGAIN AFTER CLASSIC FINISH A YEAR AGO

Jim Hurley is 11-1 in the Conference Championship Games the past 6 years - Click here to get another wining sweep Sunday

By Jim Hurley:

It's true. You have to go all the way back to the 1986-'87 NFL seasons to find the last time we've had a repeat showdown in the AFC Championship Game - the Denver Broncos bested the Cleveland Browns in back-to-back years to get to those Super Bowls of yore -- and now here's the New England Patriots looking to defeat the gritty/gutty Baltimore Ravens in back-to-back AFC Championship Games.

Will that bit of gridiron history repeat itself ...or will the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour have its ending in New Orleans come February 3rd in Super Bowl XLVII?

No doubt last year's AFC Championship Game drama when the host Patriots held off the 7-point underdog Ravens 23-20 thanks to a dropped pass in the end zone by Baltimore WR Lee Evans and a failed field-goal try by PK Billy Cundiff - neither of whom is on this here-and-now Ravens team, you'll note - will be tough to top but folks (like us) are asking a slew of questions even before we get to Sunday's showdown in Foxborough:

Will the absence of New England TE Rob Gronkowski (re-broke his forearm) be a major loss or will the Pats "play around" his injury?

Do the Ravens expect RB Ray Rice to get 25-plus carries again here one week after he toted the ball 30 times for 131 yards - or will Baltimore abandon the ground game if/when it can't move it via the ground route against DL Vince Wilfork and mates?

And will there be an X-factor type who steps it up and stars here much like New England RB Shane Vereen did a week ago in that 41-28 triumph over Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoffs (see 124 offensive yards and three TDs) or perhaps Baltimore's rookie PK Justin Tucker who calmly drilled that double-OT game-winning 47-yard field goal in the wild 38-35 win in Denver?

This is the sixth time in the last 10 years that the Patriots have found their way into the AFC Championship Game round - it's the third time in the past five years that the Ravens have navigated their way into the conference title tilt.

The oddsmakers say it'll be New England that advances into SB 47 - hey, the Patriots opened as hefty 9-point betting favorites and at last check were holding strong at minus 8 ½ -- but might the Ravens believe there's some "unfinished business" to attend to here.

Crank up the championship game rematch ...and let's get it on!

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
#4 BALTIMORE (12-6) vs. #2 NEW ENGLAND (13-4) - 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS

No sense in "burying the lead" and it all begins with Patriots' three-time winning QB Tom Brady who threw for 344 yards with three TDs and 0 INTs in last week's aforementioned win against the Texans. Brady - suffice to say - has plenty of big-game experience as he is now 17-6 in his career post-season starts (a resounding .739 winning percentage) but even the master signal-caller isn't quite sure where the Ravens defense will be coming from here.

Note that last week Brady was sacked just once while four pass-catchers snagged 5-or-more aerials including slot WR Wes Welker who finished with 8 grabs for 131 yards. Brady would love to get Welker jump-started right away here but expect the Ravens to deploy a physical nature versus Welker - maybe even S Ed Reed gets in his grill early on - and so the absence of "Gronk" could be felt more here than it was a week ago.

On the flip side, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco (331 yards passing with 3 TDs and 0 INTs against the Broncos last week) may have wowed everyone with that 70-yard rainbow touchdown toss to WR Jacoby Jones that forced the overtime periods but consider here that Flacco must be a major chain-mover and so the short-to-intermediate pass plays are critical here and thus TE Dennis Pitta (three catches for 55 yards last week) is a real key plus WR Anquan Boldin must - again - catch everything thrown in his general direction.

What to Watch - The Patriots had 25 completions and 24 rushes last Sunday versus Houston and that sort of balance is vital or else the Ravens' pass rush starring DL Paul Kruger (9 sacks) will amp up their pursuit of Brady. Simply put, if the Ravens can surprise Brady with some up-the-gut and off-the-edge blitzes here it could force the Pats' slinger to make an errant throw or two - and count us among the folks that believe Baltimore needs an extra couple of offensive possessions in order to "steal" this game.

Also, don't sleep on the special teams here: Last week's embarrassing performance by Baltimore's kick/punt coverage units - they allowed a 90-yard punt bring-back and a 104-yard kick return by speedy Trindon Holliday - cannot be repeated here although New England also has some work to do in the coverage units after Houston's Danieal Manning ran back kicks 94 and 35 yards to give the Texans a couple of energy jolts.

The Keys to Victory - Brady needs one of those famed "clean" games with no INTs and only one or no sacks at all and than he can overcome no Gronkowski and also possibly no RB Danny Woodhead (thumb) too while the Ravens need another four or five "chunk" plays on offense, a bundle of Rice rushes and solid special teams showing. Put it this way: If the cool/calm Tucker is the guy lining up for a 32-yard game winner here, he won't pull a Cundiff!

The Coaches - Bill Belichick is 168-63 SU (straight-up) in his career with the NE Patriots (a sizzling .727 winning rate) but did you know the Pats' boss is 131-94-6 against the odds during his 13 years (a solid .582 winning percentage) and so it's not exactly as if folks have "gotten rich" wagering against Belichick. Still, he hasn't won it all now in eight seasons - go back to the Super Bowl win against Philadelphia in the 2004 campaign for the Patriots' last Vince Lombardi Trophy - and even that "perfect season" in 2007 didn't end so perfectly with the Super Bowl 42 loss to the New York Giants. No doubt Belichick remains one of the great defensive minds in NFL history - SpyGate notwithstanding - and note that this year's Patriots are 7-0 SU and 5-1-1 spreadwise whenever holding opponents below the 20-point mark.

On the other side, Baltimore's John Harbaugh has taken his team into the post-season in each of his first five years on the job: In fact, the Ravens have won at least one playoff game in all five years while winning two post-season games in 2008 and two already this year. Now, it's get-over-the-hump time for Harbaugh who enters this game with a career mark of 61-30 (that's a .670 winning rate) and he is 7-4 against the odds in all post-season tilts. The one-time special teams whiz better get his club's "specials" cleaned up here ...or else.

Spread Notes - Baltimore is 9-8-1 ATS (against the spread) this year but that does include a current season-best four-game spread winning streak with playoff wins/covers against Indianapolis and Denver. Note that the Ravens are 4-3 versus the vig as underdogs this year and since Harbaugh took over prior to the 2008 campaign this AFC North crew is a solid-if-unspectacular 18-13-2 ATS whenever gobbling up points. Baltimore's 5-3-1 spreadwise away this year and 8-4-1 ATS away dating back to last season and that includes the 23-20 loss-but-cover AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Meanwhile, New England enters this title tilt with a 10-6-1 spread record this season and that features a 9-6-1 ATS mark as chalk sides and a modest 5-4 ATS mark as home betting favorites. Go back to 2007 and you will see that the Pats are just 2-7 vig-wise in all post-season games including last Sunday's 41-28 win/cover against 9 ½-point pup Houston. In AFC Championship Games the past 10 years, the Patriots are just 2-3 against the Las Vegas price tags ...hmmm.

Now, here's the game-by-game chart for both the Ravens and the Patriots this year (note all home teams are in CAPS):

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Week WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 BALTIMORE - 7 Cincinnati 44-13
#2 PHILADELPHIA - 3 Baltimore 24-23
#3 BALTIMORE - 2.5 New England 31-30
#4 BALTIMORE - 12 Cleveland 23-16
#5 Baltimore - 6 KANSAS CITY   9-6
#6 BALTIMORE - 3 Dallas  31-29
#7 HOUSTON - 6.5 Baltimore  43-13
#8 Bye Week      
#9 Baltimore - 3.5 CLEVELAND 25-15
#10 BALTIMORE - 7.5 Oakland 55-20
#11 Baltimore - 3 PITTSBURGH 13-10
#12 Baltimore PK SAN DIEGO 16-13
#13 Pittsburgh + 7 BALTIMORE 23-20
#14 WASHINGTON - 2.5 Baltimore 31-28 (ot)
#15 Denver - 3 BALTIMORE 34-17
#16 BALTIMORE + 3 NY Giants 33-14
#17 CINCINNATI - 6.5 Baltimore 23-17
WC BALTIMORE - 7.5 Indianapolis 24-9
DIV Baltimore + 9.5 DENVER 38-35 (2ot)

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Week WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 New England - 5.5 TENNESSEE 34-13
#2 Arizona + 13.5 NEW ENGLAND 20-18
#3 BALTIMORE - 2.5 New England 31-30
#4 New England - 4 BUFFALO 52-28
#5 NEW ENGLAND - 6.5 Denver 31-21
#6 SEATTLE + 4.5 New England 24-23
#7 NEW ENGLAND - 11 NY Jets 29-26 (ot)
#8 New England - 7 St. Louis 45-7
#9 Bye Week      
#10 NEW ENGLAND - 13.5 Buffalo 37-31
#11 NEW ENGLAND - 10 Indianapolis 59-24
#12 New England - 7 NY JETS 49-19
#13 New England - 7 MIAMI 23-16
#14 NEW ENGLAND - 5.5 Houston 42-14
#15 San Francisco + 4 NEW ENGLAND 41-34
#16 New England - 14 JACKSONVILLE 23-16
#17 NEW ENGLAND - 11 Miami 28-0
DIV NEW ENGLAND - 9.5 Houston 41-28

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers will bang out NFL Championship Game Side/Totals winners this Sunday as 49ers-Falcons and Ravens-Patriots battle it out plus we take you right thru Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, February 3rd -- plus get all the NBA and NCAA Basketball Winners each and every day too. So don't you get left out in the cold this wintertime! Check in with us on Game Days either right here online or at our exclusive toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 for all the winners and note the check-in times are after 1 p.m. ET for weeknight action and after 10 a.m. ET on Saturdays and Sundays.

NOTE: There's more NFL Championship Game coverage plus NCAA Hoops too in the next Jim Sez!

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Nov

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