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Here's a key matchup to watch in the AFC championship game between the Patriots and Ravens:
Patriots' defense vs. Ravens RB Ray Rice
This is the most important matchup for the Patriots to win on Sunday if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. Eliminate Rice as a weapon for the Ravens, and Baltimore will struggle to keep up with Tom Brady on the scoreboard.
Rice, the league's second-leading rusher this season, has great balance and is able to use his short stature to slip behind offensive linemen and get free. He was second among running backs with 76 catches for 704 yards, so the Patriots' linebackers can't forget about him during passing plays.
It's not just the 83-yard, back-breaking touchdown run that Rice reeled off to open the wild-card game in Foxborough two years ago that still haunts Patriots fans (and members of the team). In three career games against New England, Rice has averaged 145.7 total yards (rushing and receiving).
In last season's meeting, the Patriots' run defense bottled him up for the most part. Rice had 88 yards on 28 carries — the 3.1-yard rushing average was his fourth-lowest that season. He also had a season-high-tying eight catches, but the Pats didn't let him break any big gains. His longest reception of the day went for 11 yards; his longest run — eight yards.
On the Ravens' final drive in the fourth quarter of last year's meeting, Bill Belichick introduced LB Dane Fletcher to the NFL. In Fletcher's first significant action, he covered Rice out of the backfield. Joe Flacco targeted Rice three times on that drive, and only one went for a completion, on which Fletcher held Rice to four yards.
Last week, the Texans' physical front gave Rice problems. He had 21 carries for 60 yards and four catches for 20 yards.
The Patriots' defense enters Sunday with some confidence, as well, after putting together its best performance in the divisional-round win over Denver by forcing 14 negative plays. Flacco is a better quarterback than Tim Tebow, but he is someone the Patriots will want to force into 3rd-and-long situations.
Similar to what the Patriots did to Denver, the outside 'backers will need to set the edge, and Rob Ninkovich did a great job of that on Saturday. DEs Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick have to do their part, as well, and funnel Rice into the middle, where Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Spikes will be waiting.
Fletcher did not play much against the Broncos (only 14 snaps, per ESPN Boston), but Belichick may use him more than just on third downs if the Ravens start targeting Rice often out of the backfield.
The Patriots were successful in being very physical against the Broncos and need to do that again to slow Rice down. "Guys that are built like that, you really have to wrap up and gang-tackle because they will break some arm tackles because of the power that they have in their legs," Ninkovich told reporters on Monday about Rice's low center of gravity. Spikes and Jerod Mayo are two of the team's surer tacklers, and the Pats can't afford any of the missed tackles that we saw at times at the tail end of the season.