New England Patriots: AFC Championship Will Settle Offense vs. Defense Debate

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIJanuary 16, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 17:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots gains yards as he is chased by Haruki Nakamura #43 of the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Terrell Suggs stood by his locker and spoke clearly and pointedly. The Baltimore Ravens' divisional round victory over the Houston Texans was over with, and it was already time to focus on the AFC championship and the New England Patriots.

And Suggs showed his feelings toward the Pats remain the same.

"Tom Brady...he's good looking. Joe's got the Fu Manchu," he said, referring to quarterback Joe Flacco. "They're a good-looking team. We're not a good-looking team."

Translation: The Patriots are finesse, the Ravens are physical. The Patriots like flag football, the Ravens like a trench war.

It's a comparison between the two teams, but it's also a debate that's been building since the regular season started to wind down. Ravens vs. Patriots. "Defense wins championships" vs. an offense-first era.

If the Patriots win, the theory that a team can't be based on offense and win in the playoffs will be debunked. If the Ravens win, that'll mean the three offensive dynamos entering this postseason—the Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers—were all bounced before even making it to Indianapolis. And it wouldn't be a coincidence.

So far, you've been able to score one for defense. The Saints, who became a trendy Super Bowl pick after Drew Brees went on his torrid record-breaking pace in the Superdome, were defeated (albeit in a shootout) by a San Francisco 49ers team that prides itself on coverage, stuffing the run and rushing the passer. In other words, defense, defense and defense.

The other NFC divisional game between the Packers and New York Giants was even more telling. The Packers were at home, 15-1 and one letdown away from pursuing a perfect season, with an offense that threw for 51 touchdowns. They looked unstoppable during the regular season, and were supposed to just be kicking off their Super Bowl run Sunday.

Instead, the Giants, with their world-class front four, upset the Packers' timing and took away Aaron Rodgers' quick reads. The Packers dropped passes left and right, but New York made it difficult for Green Bay to bounce back from its miscues.

So now, the Patriots are offense's hope going forward. Brady and his receiving targets weren't done in by the playoff atmosphere, as Brady threw for 363 yards and six touchdowns in frigid temperatures in an easy 45-10 victory over Denver.

The Ravens will be a bigger test. Their defense forces mistakes. They aggressively pursue ballcarriers and quarterbacks. They have playmakers at every tier of the defense, from 330-pound Haloti Ngata to future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, the best safety in the league.

Simply put, the Ravens are built to beat elite offenses. Like the one in New England.

If the Patriots beat the Ravens, they'll have to do it with offense, and will therefore do something that has been a rarity throughout the years. They'll separate themselves from squads like most of Peyton Manning's Colts teams, which marched into the playoffs with relentless offenses but exited via tougher defenses.

The Patriots don't have to win the Super Bowl to settle the debate. New England has a defense of street free agents and practice squad superstars. For most of the year, they were dead last in yards given up. They've been the subject of jokes, a punchline around the entire league.

If this year is like other years, it won't be enough to win the conference and make the Super Bowl. If defense still wins, New England's road will end Sunday.

If not, what Suggs said won't matter. Maybe the Patriots are a pretty team. If they're going to Indianapolis, looks won't mean what they used to.