The AFC Championship game has a slew of interesting storylines, but one of the most interesting is whether the Baltimore Ravens vaunted defense can shut down Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' high-flying offense.
Tom Brady had a fantastic opening playoff win over the Denver Broncos; throwing for a NFL record six touchdown passes and 363 passing yards. Brady relied heavily on his two-headed tight end monster -- Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for four touchdowns -- but it won't be nearly as easy against the Ravens.
The Ravens defense isn't quite as good as the one that guided them to a 2000 Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants, but still only give up 16.6 points per game. The Ravens were fourth best in the NFL in opposing passing yards in 2011, but it is their defensive line that is really the gem of the team.
The Ravens have the best defensive front in the NFL, according to Cold, Hard Football Facts, and are counting on Haloti Ngata and Co. to get a lot of pressure on Brady. The Patriots quarterback has been known to struggle a bit when varied defensive blitzes are thrown at him -- last year's playoff loss to the New York Jets is a prime example -- but is on quite the roll right now.
On the flip side, embattled Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will need to find a way to capitalize on the porous Patriots pass coverage unit. The Patriots have struggled all year defensively, but Flacco might be incapable of guiding the Ravens to victory through the air.
Flacco has been in the news this week for all the wrong reasons -- a neighbor tattling on him for skateboarding is an example of the absurdity -- and hasn't inspired a lot of confidence amongst his teammates.
Ravens safety Ed Reed, one of the elder statesmen on the defense, questioned Flacco's recent play to reporters this week.
I think a couple of times he needed to get rid of the ball. It just didn't look like he had a hold on the offense, Reed told reporters.
The Ravens will likely rely on Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to move the offense up the field, but they will need some passes down field to keep the Patriots defense on their feet.
The Patriots defense seems to be coming together in recent weeks =- the Patriots swarmed Tim Tebow and the Broncos in a 45-10 beat down last week -- but will rightfully never get the hype that the Ravens defense gets.
We just have to come out and play well, said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. They get a lot of talk and they should -- it's not the first year the Ravens have come out and played great defense.
We have to play well on defense, match up, and try to help keep (our) offense on the field.
If the Patriots defense can get pressure on Flacco and avoid giving up the big plays, it could be a long day for the Ravens.
Three Key Questions:
1) Can Flacco Capitalize on Patriots defensive deficiencies?
The Patriots defense has struggled all year in pass coverage and it will be imperative for Flacco to capitalize on that. He has some solid options in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith; and will need to utilize the two for some big plays down the field.
2) Can the Ravens slow down Gronkowski and Hernandez?
The Patriots tight ends have emerged as Brady's favorite targets and will be a tough assignment for Ravens linebackers. It's impossible to completely shut down the dynamic duo, but the Ravens can't allow the two to combine for four touchdowns again.
3) Can the Patriots move the ball through the running game?
The Patriots have always struggled at an efficient running game, but will need to be able to get first downs on the ground. The Patriots clearly hope to score enough points through the air that the running game is just an added bonus, but the Ravens will clearly be working toward a slow, grind it out type game.
WHO: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
WHEN: Sunday at 3:00 p.m. EST
WHERE: At New England (Foxboro Stadium)
HOW to WATCH: CBS