A position-by-position breakdown of the Baltimore-New England wild-card matchup on Sunday.
Joe Flacco enters the postseason looking less comfortable than he did as a rookie last year. Too many of his throws are off the mark, he has not been as quick as necessary to avoid pressure; other times, he's too quick. It doesn't help that his receivers struggle to get open, but that doesn't explain everything.
For most of the season, Ray Rice has been the Ravens' most dynamic offensive force as a runner and receiver. The Ravens will frequently look to create mismatches to exploit the coverage deficiencies of the Patriots' defense. Willis McGahee ran with authority in the playoff-berth-clinching win against Oakland, and is a strong complement to Rice.
Getting separation isn't the strength of this group. Although Derrick Mason will make some nice catches, he isn't a consistent game-changer. Mark Clayton often vanishes. TE Todd Heap remains dependable, but he doesn't make a ton of dynamic plays. Of course, as poor as the Pats are at getting pressure, even these guys will have success.
This group has performed well enough for Rice to average 5.3 yards on 254 carries and McGahee to average 5.0 yards on 109 runs. Veteran C Matt Birk remains a solid anchor. Rookie RT Michael Oher's inexperience makes him vulnerable. Flacco's hesitation in the pocket can compromise pass protection, but not against the Pats' soft rush.
Everything with the Ravens' defense starts with Ts Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata. When they're on their game, the rest of the front seven is harder to handle. E Trevor Pryce is a dependable pro. E/T Dwan Edwards is a solid contributor. This group should be able to shut down the Pats' poor rushing attack.
Ray Lewis continues to be the defensive catalyst, and is playing as well as ever against the run. He has shown vulnerability in coverage, which the Patriots will try to exploit with TE Ben Watson. OLB Terrell Suggs has been a non-factor rushing the passer, which is good news for Brady. But rookie Dannell Ellerbe is a rising talent.
Injuries have rendered this unit unable to stop pretty much any opponent through the air. Despite whatever is bothering him and the absence of Welker, Brady won't be an exception. CB Domonique Foxworth and NB Frank Walker are the weakest links. FS Ed Reed has been slowed by injuries, which has only added to the vulnerability here.
They have some serious problems in their kicking game which could prove particularly costly in the playoffs. K Billy Cundiff is highly inconsistent; he missed two field goals in the Oakland game. He isn't helped by the fact that LS Matt Katula is struggling. One bright spot: Jalen Parmalee has shown he can be dangerous returning kickoffs.
John Harbaugh deserves major props for leading his team into the playoffs in each of his first two years as head coach. Winning at Oakland was no easy task. OC Cam Cameron is losing some of the mojo he had with Flacco last year, but has built an impressive running game and made Rice a huge difference-maker.
This doesn't have the feel of the amazing ride that the Ravens took all the way to the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Yes, the Ravens still run the ball well and they can stop the run. But their passing offense and defense are lacking, and that could prove problematic in a playoff field loaded with elite passers.
Bill Belichick refutes reports that Tom Brady is playing through three cracked ribs, but that doesn't change the fact that something is wrong with the QB. Brady has acknowledged he has a broken bone, and reports say it's in a finger on his throwing hand. Losing his go-to target, Wes Welker, won't help his effectiveness.
Laurence Maroney, the Patriots' most talented back, has been benched because of fumbling. Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk form the rushing committee. The Ravens have the No. 5 run defense in the NFL, so the Pats need to do far better than the 74 yards they had on 19 carries in the season-finale at Houston.
Losing Welker's 123 catches will hurt. The Pats still have Randy Moss, who likely will draw double coverage. That should help create more opportunities for rookie Julian Edelman, who was impressive after Welker left the Houston game. Can he be as reliable on the many hot reads Brady needs to make in the face of the Ravens' blitz?
LT Matt Light is rounding back into form from a knee injury, but the middle of the line is very soft. This group faces an enormous challenge from a defensive front that has stepped up its rush lately. Solid protection is more crucial than ever with Brady no longer able to look to Welker on those quick throws.
With NT Vince Wilfork and DL Ty Warren expected back from injury, this unit should be more competitive than it was against Houston. In the regular-season meeting with Baltimore, New England allowed 116 yards on 17 carries. Anything close to that this time would likely spell a Pats win. But the pass rush remains a concern.
The biggest shortcoming of the Patriots' defense is the lack of a pass rush. OLB Tully Banta-Cain and others have simply not generated enough heat. ILB Jerod Mayo has been inconsistent since returning from a knee injury suffered in the season-opener. However, if the DL does its part, this group could hold up against the Ravens' run game.
Getting CB Shawn Springs and S James Sanders back from injury has given this beleaguered group a boost. But the absence of injured CB Leigh Bodden continues to be a problem. Jonathan Wilhite hasn't done much to pick up the slack. If the secondary can focus mostly on the pass, it should hold up against pedestrian receivers.
K Stephen Gostkowski has been highly consistent and has long-range accuracy, hitting two of three attempts from 50 yards and beyond. The Patriots have done a poor job of covering kickoffs and punts, which was evident once again in the Houston game. That could be a problem, considering the potential Parmalee has to break big kickoff returns.
This has been a rough year for Bill Belichick. He has heard more second-guessing about his decisions, in and out of games, than at any time since the Patriots' dynasty began. Still, he has squeezed enough out of a sometimes less-than-spectacular Brady, an offense with no run game, and a defense that can't get pressure to win another division crown.
How they'll react to the absence of their MVP? That probably won't be answered until the offense faces its first critical third-down situation. Welker's injury could very well kill another crack at a Super Bowl run, but the Patriots do have some history on their side. Belichick and Brady are 8-0 in the postseason at Gillette Stadium.