Tom Brady proved last weekend he doesn’t need to be fully healthy to succeed at this time of year. Against the Denver defense (which was the real strength of the team), he threw an NFL record-tying six touchdowns in the Patriots’ Divisional Playoff win, even though he has been and will continue to play through a sprained AC joint in his left (non-throwing) shoulder that will take six weeks to fully heal and rehab, according to news today from the NFL Network.
The Pats defense unexpectedly sacked Tim Tebow five times as well, and held his offense to only 10 points while Brady and company got 45 points (with elite TE Rob Gronkowski on the receiving end of three of Brady’s six TDs).
That’s the type of defense the Pats are going to face this weekend when Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game in Foxboro on Sunday afternoon. The Ravens eliminated the Houston Texans last weekend after capitalizing on a couple of rookie mistakes by rookie (third string) QB T.J. Yates, in their 20-13 win.
Sunday’s game will be a classic test of who the tougher team is and who will come out the victor after what will surely be an intense, physical game. Joe Flacco will face a steadily improving Patriots defense and has to prove he can lead his team to a comfortable victory instead of relying on his team’s defensive stars to do the hard work. And the Pats, especially their defensive front and secondary have to prove they can beat a team with few weaknesses.
Baltimore beat the Pats in their own backyard two playoffs ago, and look to do it again in order to earn a trip to the Superbowl for the first time in over a decade. Sure, the Ravens beat the Pats two years back when the home team was without an injured Wes Welker and didn’t yet have the double tight end threats of Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski.
But if these playoffs have proved any theory to be true so far, it’s that the team with the better defense will win. The New York Giants’ defense was better than Green Bay’s and therefore shutdown Aaron Rodgers’ explosive offense, Baltimore’s veteran D made more game-changing plays than Houston’s young defense, and though it was a thrilling shootout between San Francisco and New Orleans, it was the 49ers who had the better D going into the game, and it forced five Saints turnovers en route to the unexpected win to earn them a trip to the NFC Championship game against the Giants this weekend.
Thus, despite what the Pats defense did last week to Tebow, it isn’t at the Ravens’ level. It was however, a strong showing against an average offense whose only strength is a running game, which the Pats defensive front has been good at containing throughout the year (for the most part), no matter who the opponent is. Brady’s only real chance at getting an off-game from the Ravens defense is to run the mostly successful no-huddle offense in certain spots during the game. It will tire out the D-line for sure, and may even prevent some Ravens player substitutions to get fresh legs.
But it doesn’t always work. And if the Ravens get pressure on Brady, which they definitely will, since they can’t possibly go another week without sacking a QB at least once (having not done that to Yates last Sunday), that could spell trouble for the Pats offense and even force costly turnovers in what I expect to be a close, low-scoring game where the first team to 20 points wins.
The other threat to the Patriots advancing to their first Super Bowl game in four years is Ray Rice, the best all-around running back in the league, who can run for 20 yards one play, and catch a game-changing 20-yard pass on the next. In addition, the Pats can’t sleep on wide receivers like Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, who each caught over 50 passes and racked up over 800 receiving yards this season. Giving up big plays to any of these guys, which the Pats’ secondary does on a regular basis, could be very costly in a tight game. Then again, the same could be said if the Baltimore defense gives up big plays to the likes of Gronk, Welker, or Hernandez.
Having said that, in keeping with my superstition of picking against the (Pats) team I root for, let me just say that history (from two playoffs ago) looks like it will repeat itself Sunday. So let’s just leave it at that.