The Patriots proved last year during the AFC Championship that Tom Brady did not have to play a great game at home in order for them to win. Tonight may be a different story for Mr. Bunchen because the Ravens, and despite what the pundits are saying, have revenge on their mind after losing the AFC Championship game in New England Last January.

The Ravens lost the 2011 AFC title on the game’s final drive. With 22 seconds left, QB Joe Flacco’s pass for WR Lee Evans in the end zone fell incomplete when Patriots DB Sterling Moore, knocked the ball out of Evan’s’ hands. Still yet, there was hope the Ravens could send the game into overtime with what amounted to a chip shot for kicker Billy Cundiff, but Cundiff’s 32-yard FG attempt to tie the game sailed wide left and his first fourth quarter miss of the year turned out to be the one that ended the season.

The much maligned Joe Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, outplaying his nemesis and future Hall of Fame Patriots signal caller. Tom Brady was an identical 22-of-36 but threw for just for 239 yards in earning his fifth career victory over the Ravens including the post season.

The Ravens as a franchise have never defeated the Patriots during the regular season in six attempts. The Patriots average margin of victory during the last four regular season meetings between the two teams has been a little less than four points.

Despite having a 4-0 regular season record vs. Baltimore, Brady has struggled vs. the Ravens defense. He has thrown just four touchdowns to three interceptions and completed just 56.3 percent of his passes with a QB rating of 77.9 during those games. If you throw in the post season in which Brady is 1-1 vs. Baltimore, he has six career touchdowns and eight career interceptions.

Even during Brady and the Pats undefeated 2007 season, in which the New England offense was unstoppable, the Ravens defense held Brady to his second lowest QB rating (76.3), and his lowest completion percentage (47.4) of the season. Brady threw for just 257 yards with two touchdowns and one interception during a controversial 27-24 Monday night win. 

Just like Payton Manning seems to have No.52’s number in terms of figuring out the Baltimore defense, much of the same can said of the way Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense seem to conquer Brady and the Pats offense. With that said, it hasn’t translated into wins but that could all change tonight if the Ravens can execute these three keys to success.

1) I hold my breath every time a player from another team has gotten into the face of a Ravens player after a play, or there is pushing and shoving after a play this season. I do not get the impression this unit is as disciplined as they need to be in order to be a true Super Bowl contender, on Sunday night, the Ravens are going to have to be careful and play solid disciplined football.

Much of the talk around the sports talk world has centered squarely on how bad the replacement officials were in Week 2. The Ravens-Eagles matchup was a marquee NFL game that had a bad call or two help determine the outcome but the pushing and shoving got very out of hand early. This was between two teams that play once every four years, so imagine the possibilities tonight at M&T Bank Stadium.

Despite all of the sweet nothings expressed about each other’s teams this week by both head coaches, as well as their and the future Hall of Fame players from each squad singing the praises of respect for each other, there is a lot of bad blood between these two teams.

While No.52 respects Tom Brady, it’s a safe bet he does not like him and would love nothing more than to beat his Patriots badly tonight. Remember the Ray Lewis tirade following the Ravens loss in Foxborough when Brady asked for and received a roughing the passer call on Terrell Suggs. Lewis said Brady was a man and could be hit like everyone else, it is a very real possibility that Lewis personally sees to it tonight.

Ravens safety Bernard Pollard is known as the Anti-Patriot and is hated by New England fans. Pollard, then a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, slightly rolled into Tom Brady's knee, ending the quarterback's 2008 season in the first week. A year later, it was Pollard, then a member of the Houston Texans, who Wes Welker was trying to elude while suffering a torn ACL. Last year, it was Pollard who took down Rob Gronkowski, resulting in an ankle injury that forced the tight end from the conference title game and affected the Pats offensive game plan the Super Bowl.

The Ravens cannot be caught up in anything other than the game plan tonight. Maybe a little trash talking but the dirty stuff has to be avoided. The NFL warned teams this week not to get confrontational with the replacement officials. You can also bet the NFL had conversations with their replacement refs about doing a better job this week and that may mean more flags, especially in a marquee game on national television.

The Ravens were flagged for two roughing the passer calls last week and two more additional personal foul penalties. One was offsetting between Carey Williams and DeSean Jackson and the other was on RB Ray Rice. Not acceptable and head coach John Harbaugh must have his team in better sync. You can bet Bill Belichick will. Last week New England had just one such breakdown when they had a roughing the passer and personal foul penalty on the same play.

The Ravens cannot give anything away to Tom Brady. Remember what they gave the Pats back in 2007 when Brady came to M&T undefeated in December. I am sure the name Bart Scott will jar your memory and a certain defensive holding penalty, which led to a little tossing of the referees yellow flag. And they weren’t even replacement officials.

It is not farfetched to think that this game, with replacement referees, could be decided by an undisciplined play or a bad call. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen tonight and the Ravens play smart football. Let us also hope that these referees, like the ones on that October day in 2009 are not flag happy when or if the Ravens hit Tom Brady tonight, that is of course as long as the Ravens keep it clean.

2) One of the reasons experts picked the Ravens to beat the Pats during the AFC Championship game was that no one thought the Patriots had an answer for Ray Rice, well they did, and his name was Vince Wilfork.  If the Ravens do not block Wilfork better tonight than they did in January, they will not win this game either.

During the AFC Championship game, it was a foregone conclusion that the Ravens Ray Rice would have a great day vs. the horrendous Pats defense, and Tom Brady was going to have beat the Ravens with his two tight ends all day. Neither happened and what happened instead is a major reason the Ravens did not go to the Super Bowl. Ray Rice couldn’t find any room to get started because of one man, Vince Wilfork. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound tackle was a one man-wrecking machine during the AFC Title game with six tackles three of them for a loss and he also registered a sack on Joe Flacco.

On the next to last drive of the game and with 3:36 to play, the Ravens were facing third down with a short three yards  to go on the Pats 30-yard line. This is where Wilfork loomed larger than his size. He stuffed Ray Rice for a three-yard loss and then chased Flacco into throwing an incomplete pass to TE Dennis Pitta on the next play forcing a turnover on downs with 2:46 to play.

While impressive, those stats simply do not tell the whole story. Wilfork, who served as a defensive captain for the Patriots in 2011, was disruptive all day long, as he lined up against every offensive linemen at one point during the contest. Because of his versatility  and because the Ravens were forced to change assignments, and double team him more than they game planned for, confusion set in and as a result, Ray Rice rushed for just 67-yards on 21 carries. Rice was ineffective and the Ravens offense sputtered until Flacco found some passing lanes in the Pats horrendous secondary.

Wilfork had a great season in 2011. The ninth year pro who played his college ball at Miami, had 52 tackles, the fourth highest of career but he set career highs in sacks (3½), interceptions (2) and pass breakups (5). Wilfork has the ability to do what bothers Ravens QB Joe Flacco the most, collapse the pocket. Flacco tends to panic when the pocket collapses and if you can get Flacco on the run; your defense has just about won the battle on most occasions.

Tonight the Ravens will send rookie left guard Ramon Harewood to block Wilfork and it is a safe bet that Harewood will not be the only Ravens lineman responsible for him. According to a recent Baltimore Sun article, center Matt Birk and right guard Marshall confirmed that they have been sharing some of their analysis on Wilfork with Harewood. He will need all the help he can get and while the rookie has performed well in his first two starts, tonight he will need to elevate his game to what they say is another level. If the Ravens block Wilfork, this could be a lot easier than many expect tonight. If Wilfork has another game in Baltimore as he did last Jan. in New England, the Patriots may leave with their streak of 145 straight weeks of having a winning record intact.

3) The Baltimore Ravens defense must continue to pressure Tom Brady and maintain their success vs. the chosen one.

Even without Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots are very formidable on the offensive side of the ball. Former LSU standout running back Stevan Ridley is starting to make a name for his self on a roster loaded with talent.  In the season opener at Tennessee, Ridley had five runs of 15 or more yards (17, 17, 16, 15, and 15). No Patriots running back in at least the past 25 years has done that in a single game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It is the first time under Bill Belichick that a Patriots running back had five runs of 15 or more yards rushing in the same game. Teams have found success rushing between the tackles against the Baltimore defense.

Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis gashed the Ravens for 68 crucial yards during the AFC Championship game. I’m pretty sure Pats coach Bill Belichick noticed his former back had success in Week 1 against the Ravens as a member of the Bengals. If Ridley can establish a running game for the Pat, the Ravens may be forced to curtail the pressure they want to bring. If Brady is allowed to stand in his spot, he can pick any defense apart.

The fact that Wes Welker is struggling scares me. Welker leads the NFL with 562 receptions since the start of 2007 and led the NFL in 2011 with 122 receptions. He led the AFC and finished second in the NFL with 1,569 receiving yards. And had had 22 more receptions than the next wide receiver (Roddy White (ATL) with 100). So far this season Welker has just eight receptions for 109 yards and no touchdowns. Questions are surfacing in the Boston media about Welkers whereabouts. He did manage to become the Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions on a 25-yard pass from Tom Brady vs. Arizona last week in the second quarter.

Aside from Welker, the Ravens will need to account for Rob Gronkowski, who finished the 2011 season with 1,327 receiving yards, an NFL record. Gronk also has a knack for finding the end zone. He owns the NFL record for overall touchdowns in a single season by a tight end. He had 17 receiving and 1 rushing last season for 18 total. This season he has 12-receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns but neither Gronk nor Welker lead the team in receptions, as Brandon Lloyd owns that distinction. Lloyd joined the Pats this offseason and along with Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead give Brady plenty of weapons to choose from if the Ravens cannot apply a pressure.

Prediction:

The Ravens have a strong history of bouncing back quickly after a defeat, as do the New England Patriots. Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have posted a 16-4 record in games that immediately follow a loss. Baltimore has won 13-straight games that come the week after a loss, which currently ranks as the NFL’s longest active streak. The Pats’ .875 winning percentage in such contests since 2008 ranks as the NFL’s best. Tom Brady has lost back-to-back games just six times since his career began in 2001. The last time Brady dropped consecutive starts were Week 7 last year in Pittsburgh and then they lost in the final minute at home the following week to the Giants.

The last time Joe Flacco lost two in a row was 44 games ago, when he lost three in a row starting with a loss to the Patriots. All of the experts are picking the Patriots. Every talking head on ESPN chose the purple and black to win. To be honest, there is no reason why the Ravens cannot blow New England out of the Charm City tonight, but they won’t.

The Ravens will continue to run the no-huddle offense, which does not allow an aging Ray Lewis or Ed Reed to catch adequate rest on the sideline. The Ravens average scoring drive is somewhere in the neighborhood of about three and half minutes. No matter how hard you try, hurry up shotgun offenses tend to avoid rushing the football, which tonight the Ravens cannot do.

Tom Brady is still Tom Brady and he must be a spectator for as much as the Ravens offense can make him one. The best defense is to not have to play any defense at all. In other words, if Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are standing on the sideline and watching Joe Flacco lead the offense against the young Pats defense, Tom Brady is not hurting the struggling Ravens defense.

Somehow, the Ravens will allow the Pats to stay close tonight but I do believe in the end, the right thing happens and Ray Rice finishes the Patriots defense off with a long touchdown run.  Flacco will be productive and throw for two scores, matching Brady up and down the field. In the end, it is the Ravens by 10.

Ravens 30 Patriots 20

STATS THAT MATTER:

The Ravens have been dominant at home during the John Harbaugh Era (2008-12), winning 11-straight contests and 19 of their last 20 at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore’s 11-game winning streak at home currently ranks as the NFL’s longest. Additionally, it’s the longest home mark in Ravens history. Overall under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 28-5 in games played in Baltimore, tying New England for the NFL’s best mark. Including the post season, the Ravens have won 12 straight at M&T Bank Stadium.

Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-2 against the AFC East, with the only losses coming to New England (0-2). Since the 2002 division realignment, the Ravens are 8-1 against the AFC East in games played in Baltimore. The only loss came against New England in 2007 (27-24).

The Ravens have forced for opposing QBs into a 62.6 passer rating at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008, the NFL’s top defensive mark. During that span, the Ravens defense is permitting just 13.3 points per game at home since 2008,the NFL’s best defensive mark. (Pittsburgh is second at 14.7 ppg.)

In contrast, Since 2009, the Ravens have averaged 27.2 points per game at M&T Bank Stadium, ranking as the NFL’s fifth-best mark among home teams during this span. In their current NFL best 11-game home winning streak, the Ravens have produced 27.8 points per game in those victories.

While it is not time to panic just yet, the 27th ranked 2012 Ravens defense has quite a reputation to lie up to. Baltimore has finished in the Top 10 in total defense (yards allowed) nine-straight seasons. Since the 1970 merger, only six teams have produced at least eight-consecutive seasons with a Top 10 defense. Baltimore (9) and Pittsburgh (12) boast the NFL’s longest active streaks of ranking in the Top 10.

In each of the past three full seasons (2009-11), QB Joe Flacco and GB’s Aaron Rodgers are the only NFL QBs to throw for at least 3,600 yards and 20 TDs while posting 12 INTs or less.

Dean Pees, a nine-year NFL-coaching veteran, was promoted to defensive coordinator on Jan. 27 after guiding the Ravens’ LBs for two seasons. He is the sixth “D” coordinator in franchise history. Pees, who was New England’s “D” coordinator from 2006-09, now leads the vaunted Baltimore unit, which has finished as the NFL’s third-best scoring defense four-consecutive years (16.6 ppg in 2011). The four-straight years ties an NFL record for consecutive seasons of being in the Top 3 for points allowed.