Game time: Sunday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium
Weather: mid-30s, partly cloudy
Records: Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)
1. Can the Patriots slow down Torrey Smith? They couldn't do it during the Week 3 match-up, when Smith caught six passes for 127 yards, including two touchdowns. But that was also before the Pats traded for cornerback Aqib Talib, who has been exactly what this much-maligned secondary has needed. Consider this (via ESPNBoston.com): "Since Talib's first game with the Patriots, only the Tennessee Titans allowed fewer 30-yard pass plays than New England."
Now, Devin McCourty (who was at cornerback during the first meeting) has moved to safety and Talib will be charged with slowing Smith. If he can, it will effectively negate the Ravens' deep game, which means that quarterback Joe Flacco will have to be better on his short and intermediate passes, something he's struggled with at times this season.
2. Can the Ravens slow down Tom Brady and the Pats' fast-paced offense? This, more than any concerns about Torrey Smith, will decide the game. This isn't the same Ravens defense that's accustomed to leading the league in every meaningful category. They're soft against the run, occasionally suspect against the pass, and long in the tooth. which means that if the Pats' no-huddle gets rolling early, Baltimore could be in trouble. Not only will it wear down the defense, but it also will keep the recently resurgent offense on the bench. More than a dominating effort from Talib, the best way to shut down Flacco and Smith is to have them parked on the bench for long stretches while Brady is leading scoring drives. The Ravens have been an inspirational story through the first two weeks of the postseason, but they might have met their match with New England.
3. Does bulletin-board material really matter? It's a silly notion; grown men -- professionals, even -- who take some silly Twitter comments personally. But these are the Patriots, the very same outfit that made playing the "we get no respect" card an art form back during the Rodney Harrison era. And given that Ravens backup linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo not only called New England's offense "gimmick," but mentioned Spygate, we're guessing that coach Bill Belichick wasted little time bringing this up to his players. Hey, it's not silly if it works.