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Setting the scene: Championship Sunday Patriots-Ravens

01.22.12 at 11:02 am ET
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FOXBORO — Mother Nature has cleared her slate while the Gillette Stadium crews have cleared the several inches of snow that fell between Thursday and Saturday, and the stage is set for the Ravens and Patriots to battle for the first ticket to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.

Partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 30s are expected at 3 p.m. ET. Winds out of the northeast between five and 10 MPH will produce a wind chill in the low 20s. Still, it won’t be nearly as cold as last Saturday night when the wind chill dipped near zero.

The Patriots are hosting their fourth AFC championship. They have won their previous three, beating Jacksonville in the 1996 contest at old Foxboro Stadium, beating Indianapolis in 2003 and besting San Diego in 2007.

Overall, the Patriots are making their seventh appearance in the ultimate AFC game, losing only in 2006 when they blew a 21-6 halftime lead in Indianapolis and lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Today, the team will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 1996 AFC champions when they introduce four members of that squad as honorary captains. Troy Brown, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi and Drew Bledsoe will head to midfield for the coin flip while baseball hall of famer and Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken will do the honors for the Ravens.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced on the Patriots All-Access show on Saturday night that if the Patriots win, Bledsoe will have the privilege of handing off the Lamar Hunt AFC championship trophy to coach Bill Belichick and the team.

A game of hard hitting figures to get off to a rocking start as Aerosmith lead vocal and superstar Steven Tyler will sing the national anthem.

As for the game itself, the inactive list shouldn’t be a big factor as both teams are relatively healthy.

The Patriots took quarterback Tom Brady off their injury report on Friday. He missed practice on Wednesday but was back to full participation on Thursday with a left shoulder injury. The NFL Network’s Albert Breer reported Friday Brady is dealing with a sprained AC joint in the shoulder that will require six weeks of rest and treatment to get back to full strength. Brady – who set an NFL postseason record last Saturday with five first-half TD passes – hasn’t seen his performance fall off. Brady and the team are monitoring the shoulder as Brady deals with the discomfort.

The Patriots listed 14 players as questionable in their final injury report on Friday, including Patrick Chung (knee), Wes Welker (knee), Deion Branch (knee), Aaron Hernandez (concussion) and Nate Solder (concussion). All are expected to play.

The Ravens, meanwhile, listed just one player – Ed Reed – on their injury report all week. The perennial Pro Bowl safety injured his left ankle on Houston’s “Hail Mary” at the end of the game last Sunday. He was limited on Wednesday and Thursday but returned to full participation on Friday and was listed as probable. He will almost certainly will start today for the Ravens at free safety.

Here’s the full rundown of the Patriots in the AFC championship game:
1/12/86 Patriots 31, Dolphins 14 in Miami
1/12/97 Patriots 20, Jaguars 6 in Foxboro
1/27/02 Patriots 24, Steelers 17 in Pittsburgh
1/18/04 Patriots 24, Colts 14 in Foxboro
1/23/05 Patriots 41, Steelers 27 in Pittsburgh
1/21/07 Colts 38, Patriots 34 in Indianapolis
1/20/08 Patriots 21, Chargers 12 in Foxboro

Some other notes:

  • The Ravens are the only NFL team to have won a playoff game in each of the last four seasons, including last Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Texans in Baltimore.
  • Ravens coach John Harbaugh is the first NFL coach in history to win a game in each of his first four seasons in the playoffs. He had been tied with Cowboys’ Barry Switzer at three seasons.
  • Patriots are 12-3 overall at home in the playoffs.
  • Read More: 2012 playoffs, Aerosmith, AFC Championship, Baltimore Orioles

    Final preparations on Saturday night can mean a lot of different things for Bill Belichick and the Patriots

    01.21.12 at 5:50 pm ET
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    So while the rest of us sit and wait for kickoff Sunday at 3 o’clock, what’s going on with the Patriots as they sit and make final preparations for the AFC championship game for the Ravens? Players and coaches are going through several different meetings at the team hotel, making sure that everyone is on the same page for Sunday.

    But coach Bill Belichick said that when it comes down to Saturday night, each situation is different.

    ‘€œThere are games, Saturday night where I can remember staying up and wanting to go through something one more time,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œThen, there are other Saturday nights where you watch a college game on TV or you just go to bed early and get a good night’€™s sleep and start in the morning. I think it’€™s just how you feel at that point in time.

    “Sometimes you go through the Saturday night meetings with the players and something comes up. If you’€™re not sure then they’€™re probably not sure,” he added. “Maybe you need to go back and do it one more time. ‘I’€™m not going to be able to get to sleep until I really, like I have to get this straight in my head before I can get it to them.’ A lot of times you come out of a meeting feeling like, ‘€˜We’€™ve got it, we just have to go play.’€™

    “Each week is different, for me anyway, every week is different. Preparation is different, the practices are different. What you need to do at the end of the week, whether that’€™s talking to an individual guy, whether that’€™s the way you want to handle the whole team, whatever you want to try to emphasize leading right up to the game in the final meetings or hours, I think that sometimes is a reaction to where you are at that particular point. You don’€™t know that at the beginning of the week, at least I don’€™t.’€

    Read More: Bill Belichick,

    Matthew Slater gets some big game advice from dad

    01.21.12 at 1:45 pm ET
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    FOXBORO — Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater played in exactly one Super Bowl.

    His son is one game away from his first.

    Matthew Slater acknowledged Friday that his dad did offer some advice this week as Slater gets ready to play the Ravens in the AFC championship at Gillette Stadium.

    “I got almost an email every day from him this week, just telling me to really not take this opportunity for granted,” Slater said. “He played 20 years and he only played in one Super Bowl. You realize that this is why we all play the game. Everybody has been brought here for games like this, to win games like this. He just keeps telling me, ‘€˜You can’€™t let anything come between you and what you have to do on the field on Sunday. You have to be extremely focused.’€™ Obviously that message has been echoed around here all week. He knows what’€™s at stake, I know what’€™s at stake, we all do.”

    That one Super Bowl for the elder Slater was Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena, when Jackie’s Rams lost to the Steelers.

    Before last Saturday night, the younger Slater had played in two playoff games, losing both. Both like the team, Slater feels like a weight has been lifted.

    Adding to the confident feeling is the chemistry in the locker room, which Slater said came from overcoming midseason adversity. That’s when the Patriots were 5-3 and had a porous secondary, contributing to the worst defense in terms of yards allowed, in the NFL.

    “I think during the middle of the season we really went through some adversity,” Slater said. “Adversity can do one of two things ‘€“ it can either tear a team apart or really bring a team together. I think looking back on it now and when we lost those two games back-to-back and everyone was counting us out, we really rallied together and showed some resiliency. I think in hindsight that might have been a good thing for our team. It’€™s never a good thing to lose football games, but we really responded and we really showed some mental toughness down the stretch being able to string together wins.

    “You don’€™t find that often, that takes something special and this team has it. We realized that as we went along in the season that you know, we have something here, we think we have a chance to do something special. The guys on this team really get along so well. We all just have that same singular focus and we all just want to win. Any of us are willing to do what it takes for the man next to us so we can go out there and achieve our ultimate goal.”

    What was the biggest thing that had to change?

    “I think our mindset definitely,” Slater said. “We had to start believing that this team is a good football team, meaning us, and we can do something here, we have something here but we had to believe it. Physically everybody has talented players, but I think it’€™s the chemistry and the mindset that puts you over the top. Once you started believing and buying in and kind of ignoring what was going on outside our team and just focusing on the guys in that locker room and the coaches, then I think we started to see things turn around and it’€™s brought us all the way to this point.”

    Read More: 2012 playoffs, AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens, Jackie Slater

    Wes Welker ready to get his ‘physical’ on with the Ravens

    01.21.12 at 1:13 pm ET
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    FOXBORO — Wes Welker is regarded – by teammates and opponents alike – as one of the toughest receivers in the NFL.

    That will likely be in full display on Sunday in the AFC championship against one of the most physical teams in football.

    “They’€™re very physical,” Welker said “They are a physical football team and you have to understand that they are going to come out hitting and you have to come back and hit just as much. You have to understand that it’€™s going to be a physical football game and it always is with this team. You have to make sure you’€™re not backing down from any of that.”

    The numbers show that the Ravens have had a good deal of success in containing Welker in the last two meetings. On Oct. 4, 2009, Welker had just six catches for 48 yards for a eight-yard average per catch. On Oct. 17, 2010, Welker had seven catches for 53 yards. Welker was held out of the end zone in both meetings and of course, he suffered his season-ending knee injury on the final day of the 2009 season, keeping him out of the 33-14 loss to Baltimore in the playoffs.

    But now, Welker could benefit from defensive schemes designed to control Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

    “Hopefully it creates a lot of them,” Welker said of the potential man-to-man coverage in the slot and on the outside. “Any time you have great players on the field, it helps everybody out. We’€™re all in this together. When they get open like they do, it’€™s going to free-up other guys when they want to try and cover them. I just have to do the best job I can to get open whenever I get an opportunity.”

    Welker, in turn, believes the Patriots can handle any pressure situation – physical or mental – because of their offensive leader, Tom Brady, who is playing with a reported sprained AC joint in his left shoulder.

    “He’€™s always got a great mentality,” Welker said. “He’€™s one of the toughest guys I’€™ve ever been around. I can’€™t think of too many quarterbacks that don’€™t have a low completion percentage against the Ravens. I think that pretty much goes across the board in the NFL. I wouldn’€™t say he was the first or would be the last either. He’€™s obviously Tom. He’€™s going to fight and keep coming at them. We’€™re going to be right there with him.’€

    Read More: 2012 playoffs, Aaron Hernandez, AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens

    Nuggetpalooza: Stats you need to get ready for the monster Patriots vs. Ravens game!

    01.21.12 at 9:19 am ET
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    AFC championship game. The top two seeds. In Foxboro. All the marbles. What more needs to be said, except: “Get yer numbers heyah!”:

    ————————————————————————————————–

    * – Patriots tight ends have combined for 100 or more receiving yards in 15 of their last 17 (and 11 consecutive) regular season games (not including their 200 yards last Saturday night against Denver). Since 2000, no other team has had more than seven such games in a season.

    Now take a look at the longest active streaks without ALLOWING an opposing team’s tight ends to amass 100 or more receiving yards:

    69 – Ravens
    28 – Bears
    21 – Saints

    SIXTY-NINE GAMES!

    Note this: Baltimore’s defense has allowed two games of 100+ yards by tight ends in their last 144 games (dating back to 2002): In Week 3 of the 2006 season, the Ravens allowed 110 yards to the Browns’ tight ends (Kellen Winslow, 92; Steve Heiden, 18) in a 15-14 win, and allowed 105 yards in Week 12 of the 2007 season to Antonio Gates of the Chargers in a 32-14 loss. Both of those games were Ravens’ road games.

    Note this, too: It’s been 76 games since the Ravens allowed a pass play of more than 40 yards to an opposing tight end. The Patriots completed a pass for a 40+ yard gain to either Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez in four of their last six regular season games.

    ————————————————————————————————–

    * – The Ravens pass defense was the best in the league this season (using “my” rating, which is based on a rating used by The New York Times in the past which compares net yards per pass play to the league average and is explained in more detail at the end of this post):

    -1.35 – Ravens
    -1.34 – Texans
    -1.32 – Steelers

    But hang your hats on this Patriots fans: Their defensive passing rating ON THE ROAD this season ranked just 14th, at -0.16, compared to a ridiculous -2.98 at home. Let’s dig a little deeper into thes splits:

    Completion percentage allowed: 57% on the road; 51% at home.
    Net yards per pass play: 6.43 on the road; 4.47 at home.
    Sack Effect (% of gross yards lost due to sacks): 5% on the road; 12% at home.
    Interception percentage: 1.5% on the road; 3.6% at home.
    Touchdown percentage: 1.8% on the road; 2.0% at home.
    Big play percentage (25+ yard gains): 5.8% on the road; 2.9% at home.

    So with the exception of touchdown percentage allowed, the Ravens’ pass defense was SIGNIFICANTLY better at home, allowing many more yards per pass play and big plays, with interceptions and sacks reduced greatly.

    ————————————————————————————————– Read the rest of this entry »

    Drew Bledsoe ready to return to Foxboro for a chance to help his old team

    01.20.12 at 10:42 pm ET
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    FOXBORO — All things being equal, it’€™s good to be Drew Bledsoe.

    When he was reached by phone on Friday, the former Patriots quarterback was out skiing, hanging out on a chair lift in between runs. He’€™ll climb down off the hill sometime this weekend and return to Foxboro, as he will join former teammates Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law as honorary captains for the AFC championship game Sunday against the Ravens on Sunday.

    ‘€œOne of my very best buddies from grade school is turning 40 [years old] tomorrow,’€ Bledsoe said. ‘€œI had to call and apologize, but I told him I would wave to him during the coin toss. Hopefully, he’€™ll forgive me.’€

    Bledsoe is enjoying something of a renaissance with Patriots’€™ fans. The last guy to be a regular starting quarterback in New England before Tom Brady, he was inducted into the Patriots’€™ Hall of Fame last year, and was cheered loudly at the ceremony. And when he was honored at halftime of the home opener against the Chargers, he received a sustained ovation from the Gillette Stadium crowd. It’€™s clear that any enmity that existed between Bledsoe and the franchise or the fans and the former quarterback has disappeared.

    ‘€œIt’€™s been a real honor this year to, first of all go through the Hall of Fame thing, and then to get the call the other day from Mr. Kraft to have me come back and be an honorary captain,’€ Bledsoe said. ‘€œIt’€™s been a real honor and a lot of fun.’€

    Bledsoe certainly holds no ill will toward Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the man who handed his starting job to Brady. On Friday, he had nothing but kind words for Belichick, saying that if he wasn’€™t one of the top NFL coaches in history, ‘€œhe certainly has to be in that conversation.’€

    ‘€œI don’€™t know who you put up there with him in terms of his record with the Patriots, and what he did as a defensive coordinator with the Giants prior to that,’€ Bledsoe said. ‘€œThen coming back and being a defensive coordinator with the Patriots in ‘€˜96. Obviously the run he’€™s had as the head coach of the Patriots has been unmatched. If he’€™s not the greatest, I like to meet whoever else is in that conversation.’€

    Bledsoe played in two AFC championship games over the course of his career in New England. His first came in 1996 as part of a team that made an unlikely Super Bowl run. The quarterback still has fond memories of that game, an icy cold afternoon where the Patriots beat the Jaguars to go to Super Bowl XXXI.

    ‘€œIt was a really special time for everyone involved and I know it was for our fans as well,’€ Bledsoe said of that postseason run for New England, which hosted two home playoff games that year for the first time in franchise history. ‘€œThe Patriots had been through a lot of years that hadn’€™t been much fun and then to have not just one, but two home games in that run was really neat.’€

    Being around the game at this time of year will almost certainly be bittersweet for Bledsoe. Like Brown said earlier in the week, Bledsoe said Friday he really misses being a player when the postseason rolls around. But he figures he’€™ll get a little taste of how things used to be right before they kick the ball off.

    ‘€œI certainly don’€™t miss training camp and preseason football and all of those things that you have to do to get to this time of year,’€ he said. ‘€œWhen you have the privilege of playing playoff football, it’€™s a really exciting time.

    ‘€œI’€™ve found that my body had a very physical reaction to the National Anthem. That was always ‘€˜go’€™ time. I always found myself standing there with my hair standing up and my body told me that it was time to go again. So I know it’€™s going to be like that this week, and it’€™s going to be very fun to be part of it.’€

    Read More: Bill Belichick, Drew Bledsoe, Tedy Bruschi, Tom Brady

    Bill Belichick talks like a man who knows his team is ready

    01.20.12 at 7:12 pm ET
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    FOXBORO — It was the subtlest of signals but Bill Belichick sounded like man Friday who knew his team is ready for the challenge of the AFC Championship on Sunday against the 13-4 Ravens.

    Belichick was asked if there is a point at the end of the week where he can relax knowing the game plan is in place or does he think about the game plan up until kickoff?

    “I think you get to a certain point here at the end of the week where you’€™re going at a fast pace early in the week, trying to get the scouting report, trying to get the information on the team that you’€™re playing, regardless of whether you’€™ve played them or not, doesn’€™t matter,” Belichick said. “Then you get into the process of the game plan and you try to pull everything together as you go through the week with the game plan Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, there are always things that come up that you need to kind of rethink or now that you’€™ve really had a chance to see this against multiple things, maybe you’€™re thinking of it in one particular situation but what if it’€™s something else? You have problems, things that happen during the week that you have to work your way through and then you see how your team handles all that.”

    Then came the hint that he thinks his team is ready.

    “Sometimes you come out of there on Thursday, like last night, sometimes you come out of there after a Thursday practice and you say ‘€˜I think we can add this, we can add that, this would be good in this situation.’€™ And do that,” Belchick said. “There are other Thursdays where you are saying, ‘€˜We can’€™t handle what we’€™ve got here, we have to get rid of this, this and that.’€™ And, ‘€˜We don’€™t want to add anything more; we just have to go with what we’€™ve got. Let’€™s get rid of this stuff, let’€™s don’€™t make the players worry about these calls, we’€™re not going to call that. We’€™ll call this instead.’€™ But you just don’€™t know that on Monday, you don’€™t know it on Tuesday, sometimes you don’€™t know it until Thursday.” Read the rest of this entry »

    Read More: 2012 playoffs, AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick

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