The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will rekindle their rivalry this Sunday with a trip to New Orleans on the line, as for the second straight season the two teams will meet at Gillette Stadium for the AFC Championship game.
For the Ravens, it's a chance at redemption after falling just short in last year's contest. While for the Patriots, who are appearing in a ridiculous seventh AFC title game in 12 seasons, it's a chance for head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady to advance to a record sixth Super Bowl.
The oddsmakers in Vegas seem to believe that the latter will be the case when the two teams lock horns this week, installing the Patriots as nine-point favorites, and I'm inclined to agree for one major reason.
That reason, which looms over the Ravens much as it has over the entire NFL this year, is the New England offense, which gave the Houston Texans fits last week and which led the National Football League in both points and yards per game this season.
The Patriots ran 73.9 snaps per game in 2012, up more than six snaps per contest from 2011 and the most in the National Football League. Once the offense gets into any sort of a rhythm, quarterback Tom Brady gets the offense to the line and snaps the ball at a frenetic pace that leaves defenses scrambling to react and back on their heels.
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald recently wrote that the no-huddle offense was on full display in last week's trouncing of the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round. On back-to-back plays in the third quarter, Brady all but toyed with a Houston defense that clearly wasn't ready for the ball to be snapped.
The result? A long run by Stevan Ridley followed by a quick-strike touchdown to wideout Brandon Lloyd.
That wasn't the first time in the game that had happened either. On the Patriots' first touchdown of the game, the Texans' defense wasn't close to being set, and running back Shane Vereen all but walked into the end zone from a yard out.
It happens just that fast. You blink and they're at the line. Blink again and the ball's been snapped. One more time and they're in the end zone.
The up-tempo attack that Tom Brady runs like a maestro directing a symphony was recently derided by Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo as a "gimmick," but ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski not only dismissed Ayanbedejo's claim as "moronic" but also pointed out that an aging Ravens' defense could be running on fumes at this point.
When you watch this Patriots offense in their speed mode, they have high volume. And No. 2, it not only disorients a defense, but it tires a defense. And when you look at the Ravens the last few weeks, 87 plays and 87 plays, you kind of wonder what’s left in the gas tank. Emotion can only take you so far. So I truly believe you’ll see Brady take that speed style early and try to wear the Ravens down early.
Granted, supporters of the Ravens will no doubt point to the absence of star tight end Rob Gronkowski, out for the rest of the season after re-breaking his arm, as a factor that could stall the Patriots' attack.
Or not. According to Peter King of Sports Illustrated, the Patriots averaged 35 points and 433 yards per game with Gronkowski in the lineup this season.
Without him, that dropped all the way to 34 points and 417 yards per contest.
All this isn't to take anything away from what the Baltimore Ravens have accomplished this season, nor is it intended to imply that I think the game will be a blowout.
I think the spread's high, to be honest.
However, when the final gun sounds, it will be the New England Patriots who will move on to Super Bowl XLVII, and they'll have Tom Brady and that relentless offense to thank for it.
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