Think back to the start of the season—it may have been Week 1 or 2—to the moment when you realized the New England Patriots couldn't cover receivers or slow opposing quarterbacks.
Remember how your thoughts immediately turned to January. What would happen if this defense went up against Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees? The Chad Hennes and Ryan Fitzpatricks of the world were carving this unit up. The Packers and Saints would put up 45 points and 500 yards. By halftime.
Well, now we're in January, and here are the Patriots, and there are the Packers and Saints. They're as scary as ever.
But, the real nightmare might be the team down I-95—the team that refuses to change how it plays the game of football even as the sport changes around it.
The Baltimore Ravens could be the team the Patriots should hope to avoid at all costs.
After all, what would the Packers and Saints do? March down the field, pick on Devin McCourty and Antwaun Molden and run circles around the Patriots' linebackers and linemen? Isn't that what teams already do? Somehow, the Patriots have learned how to survive when that's happening.
Against the Packers and Saints, a track meet would likely unfold in Indianapolis. But with Green Bay's bottom-ranked defense and New Orleans' passive group, New England would be equipped to go toe-to-toe.
Patriots fans should want to see the New England offense open up. A shootout would be a "bring-it-on" scenario for Bill Belichick's boys.
It'd be different against Baltimore. The Ravens live to play defense. John Harbaugh is most at ease when he has the players on the field to prevent points, rather than score them.
The Ravens are dangerous because they stop teams and force mistakes. They're ranked third in the NFL in points allowed and yards given up. They're ranked 13th in turnovers, but with the league's best safety and ball hawk in Ed Reed and a strip-sack machine in Terrell Suggs, the Ravens have the ability to change the momentum of the game at any moment.
They also have two of the best players in football at their respective positions in Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata. Their secondary, while not filled with the Chris McAllisters and Duane Starkses of years past, is solid.
Furthermore, this is a defense following the exact blueprint designed to stop the Patriots. The Ravens apply relentless pressure, having notched a second-best 48 sacks, and bring the sort of intense rush that has stymied the Patriots in their recent playoff exits. New England allowed 13 sacks over the course of their recent three-game postseason skid, including three to the Ravens in 2009.
Facing the Ravens again would force the offensive line, boosted by the presence of Rob Gronkowski and rookie tight end Nate Solder, to sink or swim. Either the line would finally toughen up as necessary, or Tom Brady will, again, be under siege.
The Ravens do have their Achilles heels, however. One is their concentration, as they went 8-0 at home but only 4-4 on the road, causing them to lose out on the top seed in the AFC and forcing them to travel to Gillette Stadium should these teams meet. The Ravens were unstoppable at home, but were clear shadows of themselves on the road, where they played down to cupcake after cupcake.
But, the splits don't matter with the Ravens the way they would with a younger, more inexperienced team. The Ravens have a veteran core that knows when to play to its potential. It's the same veteran core that went 3-5 on the road in 2009 before stomping New England in Foxborough, where the Patriots were 8-0.
The Ravens' other flaw is their offense, but the Patriots' defense is the great neutralizer. Joe Flacco, for all of his befuddling inconsistency, is plenty good enough to exploit the weak secondary. Anquan Boldin and electrifying rookie Torrey Smith will be tough matchups for McCourty and Kyle Arrington. Ray Rice will be a challenge for a questionable run defense, and the Patriots already know what he brings to the table.
So, the Ravens will challenge the Patriots' offense while still moving the ball against the defense. They're built like the teams that have beaten the Patriots in the playoffs before. They're not as good as they were in years past, but they're still near the top of the league.
Dread the Saints and Packers all you want. You're certainly not alone.
But, just getting to Indianapolis might mean the Patriots get past the most dangerous opponent of all.
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