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Quick overhauls reduce familiarity for Ravens and Patriots

by | CBSSports.com
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Ravens and Patriots, the two combatants in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, are certainly no strangers to each other.

This will be the fifth meeting between the two teams in five seasons. The Ravens won the only playoff matchup 33-14 in a 2009 wild-card game at Gillette Stadium.

But the Patriots won their sixth regular-season matchup against Baltimore in six opportunities 23-20 in overtime on Oct. 17, 2010.

"We take whatever we learned from those games," said Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh. "Football-wise, we learned plenty from those games. So, we'll apply them to this game."

Many things have changed for each team since then and will have an impact on this matchup one way or the other.

Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense

It's a completely different beast now, so the Ravens shouldn't take too much solace in frustrating Tom Brady (two interceptions, 69.5 rating) most of the day in last season's meeting.

When the two teams faced off in Week 6, it was the first game following the trade of receiver Randy Moss to the Vikings and the return of Deion Branch in a trade with the Seahawks. Branch was a much faster player in his first stint with the Patriots and could run deeper routes more consistently.

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The Patriots were out of sync in the early stages of moving from a passing game predicated on the high-low concepts with Moss and Wes Welker to the two-tight end system we now see featuring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who was a factor in that game (four catches, 61 yards). Gronkowski was not. He played about half the snaps and was the third tight end behind veteran Alge Crumpler. That has certainly changed now. Gronkowski is an All-Pro threat who set receiving records at the position this season.

On the offensive line, Logan Mankins was in the middle of his holdout so Dan Connolly, now the center, was at left guard. Dan Koppen, now on injured reserve, was at center and was completely dominated by Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Both Koppen (two sacks) and Connolly tied for the team high with three total quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries and knockdowns combined) in that game. Stephen Neal retired but Brian Waters has been an upgrade at right guard. Sebastian Vollmer has missed the past seven games with an injury and rookie Nate Solder has done a good job at right tackle.

At running back, Danny Woodhead had 113 yards on 16 total touches. It was one of his best days as a Patriot.

The Ravens have a ton of changes, mostly for the better.

First and foremost, safety Ed Reed didn't play against the Patriots. He will certainly be there on Sunday and with a better running mate than Dawan Landry in Bernard Pollard (the man whose hit with the Chiefs ended Brady's 2008 season).

The starting cornerbacks, Fabian Washington (now with the Saints) and Chris Carr (fourth stringer), have been replaced by Ladarius Webb and Cary Williams. They are huge upgrades, as is rookie nickel back Jimmy Smith, who had a blown coverage against the Texans.

On the defensive line, Terrence Cody, Corey Redding and sub-rusher Pernell McPhee are improvements alongside Ngata over Kelly Gregg, Brandon McKinney and Arthur Jones.

The Ravens brought a lot of pressure in that game -- they blitzed Brady on 43.1 percent of his dropbacks -- and were able to keep him off-balance.

Expect the Patriots to use more of the no-huddle offense, something that has become a weapon this year but they sprinkled in during the last matchup, to keep the Ravens from setting up their pressure packages.

Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense

Not a ton of change in the Patriots' personnel, and the 3-4 concepts they played to limit Ravens running back Ray Rice to a 3.1 average on 28 attempts and 4.8 yards on eight receptions, figure to be the same. It was exactly how they played the Broncos in last weekend's dominating 45-10 victory.

Key personnel changes figure to be Kyle Love for Gerard Warren at nose tackle, Mark Anderson for Jermaine Cunningham at weak outside linebacker, James Ihedigbo/Devin McCourty at free safety, and Sterling Moore for Jonathan Wilwhite at nickel cornerback.

Other than that, the Patriots are exactly the same.

Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes had terrific games to limit Rice. Linebacker Dane Fletcher came on late to use his speed to hold Rice in check out of the backfield.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a terrific game (27 of 35 for 285 yards, two touchdowns and a rating of 119.3) against the Patriots last season.

The Patriots don't figure to be much better against the pass, but will Flacco be as good? He'll probably have to hit more big plays and has better weapons to do that this time around, if he can take advantage of them.

Rookie Torrey Smith and veteran Lee Evans brought speed to replace aging veterans Derek Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta have brought young legs -- but some inconsistency -- to tight end, where Todd Heap was valuable.

Vonta Leach replaced Le'Ron McClain as Rice's fullback and turned in another All-Pro season.

So it seems like the result of Sunday's game will come down to whose changes will be tougher to handle, the Patriots' revamped offense against a retooled Ravens secondary or the Ravens' inexperienced offensive weapons against a veteran defense that might be playing its best ball of the season?

The answers will give us the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.

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