Welcome to the 18th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the Patriots, one win from their sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001, host the tough Baltimore Ravens in a much-anticipated rematch of last year's AFC Championship.
RAY LEWIS: "So gonna mention me or what, son? You wrote all those words and didn't mention ol' No. 52. [Twitches.] I'm retiring, you know. Seventeen years, thousands of tackles, endless inspiration. Seventeen years. Seventeen. Years. Amen. I've believe I've told you time and again, through my football sermons and selfless leadership and interpretive dance, you'd better respect me. I've left my heart and soul on that field. [Twitches.] Seventeen years. And yet, all those words, no mention. No respect. Hmm. I see. If you don't pay proper respect to the most fearsome linebacker ever to dance like a squirrel, I'll catch up to you just like I do every running back after 12 yards of down field pursuit. Kinda wish I was wearing my home whites -- a white suit, if you get my drift. Ha ha, just kidding, son. Ray forgives. We're good. [Twitches.] Now, if you'll excuse me, I must ...
... DANCE! LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME IS THE RED LIGHT ON THE RED LIGHT HAD BETTER BE ON ... YOU'RE JUST A SQUIRREL TRYING TO GET A NUT SO SCRAM .... LOOK AT ME HERE WE GO SOD-TOSS SOD-TOSS FOX TROT LEFT FOX TROT RIGHT SPASM SPASM HOKEY POKEY ALL AROUND ... I SEE YOU IN THE BACK THERE FLACCO WITH YOUR ANTHONY DAVIS BROW ... DON'T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME ED REED I SAW THAT ... ANDDD ROAR, FLEX, FLEX, CONTORT, CONTORT, ROAR, BOOM. NAILED IT. ... BERMAN IS GONNA LOVE IT WHEN I DO THIS ON SET NEXT SEASON.
(Too much? Probably. But he did, as Drew Magary pointed out on Deadspin, essentially take credit for Joe Flacco's miracle completion to Jacoby Jones in the win over the Broncos. Which is somewhere between absurd and insane, and yet totally predictable. Enough Ray Lewis. Let's get to the details.)
THREE PLAYERS I'LL BE WATCHING OTHER THAN TOM BRADY
Joe Flacco: He's 7-4 in the postseason, has won five playoff games on the road in his career, threw just 10 interceptions this year, dropped 382 pass yards on the Patriots in Week 3 and 973 total in their last three meetings, and unlike Matt Schaub, doesn't habitually throw the ball away on third down after dodging the first wave of pass rushers. He may not be elite, but he's getting there, and he's earned his respect.
Devin McCourty: I was surprised that he got a vote for the AP All-Pro team as a safety this year, since he just shifted over to the position after Aqib Talib's arrival. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get many more in the future. He's found his ideal role at safety, and I fully expect him to make at least one big play ranging to cut off a deep ball thrown down the right sideline by Flacco on Sunday.
Ed Reed: Lewis is getting all of the attention, and the tributes to his various accomplishments on the field are just, but it should also be acknowledged that Reed, one of the premier defensive playmakers in league history, could be playing his final game with the Ravens Sunday. He's 34 and has a little bit of gray in his hair now, and maybe he doesn't have much left to add to that highlight reel. But he deserves his share of tributes, too, and you can bet Bill Belichick has been giving him one during team meetings and film sessions this week. I hope it's Chung out, Reed in next year.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
After Reed and perhaps Ray Rice, there may not be a player on the Ravens I respect more than Boldin, the talented, trustworthy, and extremely tough 32-year-old receiver. Boldin finished with 921 receiving yards during the regular season, but he has been at his best in the postseason, with 11 receptions for 216 yards and a touchdown in wins over Indianapolis and Denver. Presuming Talib's assignment is to spend Sunday evening running with deep-threat Torrey Smith, Boldin will likely be a difficult matchup over the middle of the field -- and it wouldn't come as a total shock if the former short-timer at quarterback during his Florida State days is an active participant in a trick play or two.
I think we'd all agree that it's coincidence more than a tribute to his abilities that James Ihedigbo is playing in his third consecutive AFC Championship game, particularly since there's the telling fact that he's doing it with his third team (Jets, Patriots, Ravens, and yes, the Jets, that butt-fumble of a franchise, really were in the AFC Championship game just two years ago.) He's a good teammate and a capable special-teams player and sub-replacement level at safety, which is sort of what I'm getting at here. Ihedigbo started at safety for the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game. So did Patrick Chung. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were the cornerbacks. Sterling Moore saw significant time, and of course, made a game-saving pass breakup. In effect, they had two underachievers surrounded by journeymen. This year, it's so much better. With the arrival of Talib, the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard, and the shift of McCourty to safety, the Patriots defensive backfield is far superior to the one that was a couple of minutes from winning a Super Bowl a season ago.
PREDICTION, OR IS DEAN PEES A DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR OR A DECLARATIVE SENTENCE?
There's some sentiment that Pees, who lost his job as the Patriots' defensive coordinator after the embarrassing no-show against the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, might gain some measure of revenge against his former team, what with his presumed relative knowledge of their offensive preferences and tendencies. Uh-huh, good luck with that revenge fantasy. Maybe the habitual spouters of conventional wisdom haven't noticed, but this isn't 2000 and the Ravens aren't the defensive terrors they used to be. Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Lewis are aging and injured. Cornerback Lardarius Webb, arguably their best defensive player earlier in the year, is out for the season. They are coming off a double-overtime game in the high altitude of Denver, have been on the field for 186 plays over the past two weeks, and should be in no condition to deal with the Patriots' accelerated hurry-up offense in which Tom Brady should have no trouble identifying mismatches, especially if Lewis can't get off the field. The Ravens, with a deep, versatile offense, will score their share of points, but they won't be able to keep pace with the Patriots long enough to create much suspense. It's back to New Orleans, where the first championship of this extraordinary run began. Patriots 38, Ravens 27.
(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 38, Texans 27. Final score: Patriots 41, Texans 28. Season record: 13-4. And for what it's worth, I'd have picked against them for the first time this season had they gone to Denver.)
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.