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The Boston Globe

Sports

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

Key positional battles for Patriots and Ravens

Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin, and Aaron Hernandez could be three key playmakers in Sunday’s AFC title game.

Globe, Getty Images, AP photos

Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin, and Aaron Hernandez could be three key playmakers in Sunday’s AFC title game.

Where will the key battles be in Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Ravens? The Boston Globe looks at some of the matchups that could prove critical:

QUARTERBACK

Patriots: Tom Brady became the third quarterback to ever reach 5,000 passing yards in a season, and will be in the conversation for the NFL MVP award. Brady opened the year with a 500-yard game, and rallied the Patriots on multiple occasions as they finished 13-3. The Patriots ranked second in the NFL in passing offense.

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Ravens: Joe Flacco seemingly always faces criticism, although he is 5-3 in the playoffs, which he has visited in each of his four seasons. He’s not on Brady’s level, but (with 3,610 passing yards and 20 TD passes vs. 12 INTs this year) he is probably the best quarterback New England has faced since Eli Manning on Nov. 6.

Edge: Patriots

TIGHT ENDS

Patriots: Bruising sure-handed behemoth Rob Gronkowski set an NFL record for receiving yards and touchdown catches by a tight end and gave opponents all they could handle. Aaron Hernandez plays a different game, but is equally dangerous, especially in the open field.

Ravens: Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were two of Flacco’s favorite targets, as each collected more than 400 receiving yards and combined for eight touchdowns.

Edge: Patriots

RUNNING BACKS

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Patriots: They rushed enough to keep defenses honest. The Patriots ranked 20th in the NFL using a running back-by-committee approach that saw three players pass 350 yards on the season, but none reached 1,000.

Ravens: The Ravens rushed for nearly 2,000 yards thanks in large part to Ray Rice, who ran for 1,364 yards. Rice added 12 touchdowns while losing two fumbles. Ricky Williams was a strong backup, too, gaining 444 yards on the ground.

Edge: Ravens

RECEIVERS

Patriots: Wes Welker set a franchise record for receiving yards and Deion Branch had his moments in 2011, but Chad Ochocinco was a disappointment with his worst year since his rookie season.

Ravens: Longtime Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin led the Ravens in 2011 with 887 yards, averaging 15.6 yards per catch. Torrey Smith is a deep ball threat, and he led the team with seven touchdowns and was second to Boldin with 841 yards.

Edge: Patriots

DEFENSE

Patriots: Never has the bend-but-don’t-break label been better suited for a defensive unit. The Patriots ranked second-to-last in the league in total defense, but were second-best in takeaways and 15th in points allowed.

Ravens: Baltimore, always known for its strong defense, ranked third in points and yards allowed. Terrell Suggs had 14 sacks and Lardarius Webb led the team with five interceptions.

Edge: Ravens

KICKER

Patriots: Stephen Gostkowski has been solid all season, and went 10-for-13 on field goal attempts of 40 yards or longer.

Ravens: Billy Cundiff made 28 of his 37 attempts this season, but struggled on long kicks. He hit just 1 of 6 from 50 yards and beyond.

Edge: Push

PUNTER

Patriots: Zoltan Mesko played a key role in the field position battle, and 24 of his 57 punts pinned opponents inside their own 20. He was not blocked all season.

Ravens: Sam Koch averaged 46.5 yard per punt, the same as Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, and pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 21 times. Koch wasn’t blocked all season.

Edge: Push

COACH

Patriots: Bill Belichick is 10th on the NFL’s career wins list, and has three Super Bowl rings. His choices in recent drafts, though dotted with several misses, have provided him with some of the NFL’s best young talent, including Gronkowski at tight end and Mesko at punter.

Ravens: John Harbaugh doesn’t have near the same playoff pedigree as Belichick, but he has beaten him in the playoffs. In 2009’s AFC wild-card round, Harbaugh’s Ravens defeated the Patriots, 33-14.

Edge: Patriots

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