What would a trip to the postseason be without a visit from the Ravens? The tough, in-your-face, very-easy-to-hate Ravens.
Baltimore is back for an AFC Divisional round game at Gillette Stadium on Saturday (4:35 p.m., NBC), and the fact that the Ravens have “been there, won that” in New England – twice – over the last five seasons, gives some people cause for concern.
But Ray Lewis isn’t walking through that door, folks. Ray Rice isn’t walking through that door. The Ravens are a different team than they were the last time these two met in the playoffs. The Patriots are different too – and they’re better.
So let’s get into what to watch for as the Patriots look to advance to their ninth AFC Championship Game under Bill Belichick.
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Lonely island boys
Being stranded on an island has got to be a very lonely time. It’s enough to make anybody go crazy. Luckily for Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., he’s already a little crazy. That might come in handy for him on Saturday when Darrelle Revis looks to populate his island with one more sorry soul. Smith, although a little short in stature, is never short on words. He infamously told then-Patriots cornerAqib Talib to “Ice up, son!” after a game in which his Panthers beat the Patriots last season. Smith may finally be at a loss for words if Revis does end up on Smith exclusively. As for receiver Torrey Smith, Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty should be able to handle that. Joe Flacco has his work cut out for him.
Line 'em up
We aren’t breaking any news here: the Patriots' offensive line has been the biggest concern for this team all season. Has it improved since the start of the year? Absolutely. Then again, it couldn’t have gotten much worse from what we saw in September. Dan Connolly and Nate Solder appear healthy and ready to go, and that’s a good thing because it won't be easy to stop the likes ofHaloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs (12 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks).
Gronk, the difference
The Patriots will take the bubble wrap off of Rob Gronkowski shortly before kick-off on Saturday, as he’s clearly the most important non-Brady piece to their offense. They didn’t have Gronk in last year’s playoffs or in their loss to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Now, the tight end is healthy, and as we’ve all seen this season, poses a huge issues for opposing defenses, some of which look more like bowling pins as Gronk rumbles down the field.