FOXBOROUGH — History is on the line. Tom Brady will become the first quarterback in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl six times if the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens today in the AFC championship.
If the Patriots win, Bill Belichick will move into a tie with Don Shula for the most Super Bowl berths for a head coach.
With a victory, it will be the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl trip, tying a league high with the Cowboys and Steelers.
It won’t come easy.
The Ravens come into today’s game after beating the No. 1-seeded Denver Broncos, 38-35, in double overtime, setting up a rematch from last season’s AFC title game. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 38 seconds left to tie the Broncos in regulation before Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal to win it for Baltimore in the game’s second overtime. Flacco threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns in the win. His ability to throw the ball deep is cause for concern for a Patriots team that still has issues with consistency in its secondary.
In a 31-30 loss to the Ravens in September, Flacco threw nine passes of 20 yards or more, highlighting the Patriots’ defensive woes.
Since that Week 3 loss, the Patriots have revamped, adding cornerback Aqib Talib and moving Devin McCourty to safety.
The Ravens went 10-6 during the regular season and the team’s postseason play has been inspired by veteran linebacker Ray Lewis, who has announced this will be his final season. The 17-year pro has tallied 30 tackles in the Ravens’ two playoff games thus far, energizing a defense that has been knocked for its age. Lewis, along with the stellar play of Flacco, has been joined by a host of Ravens who have had turned in big games, including wide receiver Anquan Boldin (6 catches, 71 yards), receiver Torrey Smith (3 catches, 98 yards, 2 TDs), and running back Ray Rice (30 carries, 131 yards, 1 TD) on offense last week. Paul Kruger, praised by Patriots coach Bill Belichick this week, has performed solidly. And that’s not even including Ravens stars Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs.
Despite the loss to the Ravens in September, Brady is 4-1 against the Ravens. He’ll be without one of his biggest weapons on Sunday after tight end Rob Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve. Gronkowski broke his left forearm again, an injury he originally suffered in Week 11 of the regular season against the Indianapolis Colts.
Backup tight end and fullback Michael Hoomanawanui will likely fill the void. Tight end Daniel Fells will also likely see some action.
Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones suffered an ankle injury last week against the Texans in the AFC divisional round, but has practiced all week and is probable for Sunday’s game. Running back Danny Woodhead, who suffered a thumb injury on the Patriots’ first offensive series, is also listed as probable for Sunday’s game after practicing all week.
The Patriots are 7-1 in AFC championships and 14-3 at home during the postseason. One of the team’s three losses in the playoffs came at the hands of the Ravens in the 2009 AFC wild card, 33-14.
Here are the details for today’s game:
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.
Records: Patriots 12-4 regular season, 1-0 postseason; Ravens 10-6 regular season, 2-0 postseason.
TV/Radio info: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Steve Tasker, Solomon Wilcots); 98.5-FM The Sports Hub (Gil Santos, Scott Zolak); Dial Global Sports radio (Kevin Harlan, Dan Fouts, Mark Malone).
Projected starting lineups:
Based on information distributed to the media, practice observations, and injuries for each team.
Patriots offense: WR Wes Welker, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Sebastian Vollmer, TE Aaron Hernandez, WR Brandon Lloyd, QB Tom Brady, RB Stevan Ridley, TE Michael Hoomanawanui.
Patriots defense: NT Vince Wilfork, DT Brandon Deaderick, DE Chandler Jones, DE Rob Ninkovich, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Aqib Talib, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Devin McCourty, S Steve Gregory.
Ravens offense: WR Torrey Smith, WR Anquan Boldin, LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Matt Birk, RG Marshal Yanda, RT Michael Oher, TE Dennis Pitta, QB Joe Flacco, FB Vonta Leach, RB Ray Rice.
Ravens defense: DT Haloti Ngata, NT Terrence Cody, DE Pernell McPhee, LB Terrell Suggs, WLB Dannell Ellerbe, MLB Ray Lewis, SLB Courtney Upshaw, LCB Corey Graham, SS Bernard Pollard, FS Ed Reed, RCB Cary Williams.