The New England Patriots could not be facing Joe Flacco at a worse time. That's evident in the way he has played over the past two games, posting the two highest postseason passer ratings of his career.
Not only that, but they also couldn't be facing a worse (for them) quarterback than Flacco.
His numbers are better on average than other quarterbacks the Patriots have faced since 2009, and while the stigma around Flacco is that he's not very efficient or safe with the ball, he's been both against the Patriots.
He's earned his share of big plays against New England, and while you might assume a lot of those come from yards after the catch, that's not necessarily the case. Over the past three years, the Ravens have earned 353 YAC out of 976 total receiving yards (36.2 percent).
They also haven't been heavily reliant on yards after catch this season, according to Gary Marbry of WEEI.com:
— Gary Marbry (@nuggetpalooza) January 18, 2013
Indeed, Flacco has done more damage with his arm.
The same arm that was largely the reason the Ravens were able to defeat the Denver Broncos in the divisional round, thanks to two bombs of 32 yards to Torrey Smith and 70 yards to Jacoby Jones, with each coming inside the final 45 seconds of the first and second half, respectively.
It wasn't "luck," as some might call it, but it was first an athletic play by Smith and then a complete fundamental meltdown by Broncos safety Rahim Moore that allowed the Ravens to tie the game at each juncture.
These are the only reactions that the announcers could give after the catch:
Greg Gumbel: How does that happen in the Broncos secondary?
Dan Dierdorf: That. Is. Stunning.
Say what you will about them as announcers, but they were saying what everyone was thinking. The Broncos were burned by big plays all day, as Flacco averaged 18.6 yards per completion (the league average in 2012 was 11.6).
If it comes down to stopping big plays, the Patriots are much better equipped to do so this time around than they were last time. Cornerback Aqib Talib has brought a new scheme and a renewed confidence along with him. The Patriots have improved in nearly every mark of pass defense with Talib at cornerback over where they were before his arrival.
It hasn't been all about the big plays, though.
Their three most recent performances against Flacco have been particularly troublesome. They have been unable to hold Flacco below a 95 passer rating in any of those games.
That's thanks to a 2.25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in comparison to a 1.25 TD-INT ratio for all other quarterbacks. Plus, while other quarterbacks have struggled to be safe with the ball, averaging over one interception per game, Flacco has been picked off just four times in five games.
The Patriots defense has not lived off turnovers quite like it used to, though, and has improved in other areas to help it get off the field. One of the biggest areas of improvement has been on third down. The Patriots were allowing opponents to convert on 39.09 percent of their third downs this season, but have brought that number down to 30.23 percent over the past three games.
Conversely, the Ravens offense has lived and died with big plays. The Ravens were averaging 37.3 percent conversions on third downs this season, but have dipped to 35.56 percent over the past three games.
Make no mistake, shutting down Joe Flacco is not easy-squeezy Cover 4. But shutting down the big plays will vastly improve the Patriots' chances of winning, and they are far more well-equipped to do so this time than last time.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.