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Championship Sunday: New England Patriots scouting report

After two rounds of postseason play, four teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. On Championship Sunday, two teams will punch a ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. has prepared a comprehensive scouting report for each of the surviving squads.



The setup

The New England Patriots will be making the seventh AFC Championship Game appearance of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Now, the new young nucleus -- headed by 20-somethings like Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty -- has experience at this level of postseason play, as well, thanks to last year's Super Bowl run. The sand in the hourglass might be running for the coach and quarterback, but this team has gotten younger at most every other spot.

Player to watch

Aaron Hernandez, TE: The Patriots were playing their first game of the season without Hernandez when they faced the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, and they still put up 30 points. Now, though, fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski is down. Hernandez's middle-of-the-field presence will be important when it comes to testing the Ravens' banged-up linebacker group.

Under pressure

Nate Solder, LT: The second-year player has developed into a very solid blind-side protector for Brady. This week, the challenge is different, with the Ravens likely to throw the kitchen sink at Solder. Back in Week 3, Terrell Suggs was out and Paul Kruger had yet to emerge as a force on the edge. When the Ravens have been able to slow Brady and the New England offense, it has usually related back to their ability to generate pressure on the quarterback.

Matchup to watch

Patriots CB Aqib Talib vs. Ravens WR Torrey Smith: Belichick has shown a willingness to match Talib up, something he's rarely done with corners in the past. So it'll be interesting to see if he has his best corner follow Smith, who went off on the Patriots for six catches, 127 yards and two touchdowns back in Week 3, before New England acquired Talib. If Belichick has to overcompensate to deal with Smith, that could open things up for Ravens running back Ray Rice -- as it did in September.

Did you know?

The Patriots have a chance to play in their eighth Super Bowl, which would tie them with the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for the most appearances in NFL history. ... Brady's record as a starter in AFC title games is 5-1. The only other quarterback to win as many conference championships in the Super Bowl era? John Elway. The only other quarterback to have started seven conference title games is Joe Montana. ... Brady needs 227 more postseason passing yards to become the all-time leader in that category; he's currently fourth on the list with 5,629, behind Peyton Manning, Montana and Brett Favre.

How the Patriots will win...

If they can quicken the pace. Turning this into their type of game and playing fast would take the Ravens out of their comfort zone. If the Pats can build an early lead, they'll have an easier time protecting Brady, avoiding the big turnover and taking Rice out of the equation. In that regard, the first 10 minutes will tell us plenty.

How the Patriots will lose...

If the Ravens drag this game into a dark alley, New England will be tested. Keeping it close early gives Baltimore a better chance to get Rice established and set up shots to Smith and Jacoby Jones. It will also allow Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees more flexibility in what he can throw at Brady and Co. And the Ravens have supreme confidence in their ability when things go down to the wire, regardless of what happened at Gillette Stadium last January.

The pick

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