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Playoff preview: Ravens-Patriots


1. Joe Flacco picked a bad week to face Tom Brady.

There's no doubt Flacco is under plenty of pressure this week, even in his own locker room.

"It just didn't look like he had a hold on the offense," said Baltimore safety Ed Reed in an interview with SiriusXM NFL radio after the team's 20-13 win Sunday over Houston. It was a rare case of a teammate calling out his quarterback after a playoff victory.

Flacco is the first quarterback to reach the playoffs each of his first four years in the NFL. In fact, he's won at least one game in each of those four postseason appearances. Over that same period, bigger name QBs Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Matt Stafford have all entered and exited the playoffs without a single win. But it's hard to look at Flacco as anything but an ancillary part in the Baltimore machine.

His struggles at quarterback have been well documented. He regressed badly in 2011, from a strong 93.6 passer rating last year to a below-average 80.9 passer rating this year.

Meanwhile, Flacco is 5-3 in the playoffs, but it's hard to find a moment when his play was the difference. He's had one great playoff game, last year in a 30-7 wild-card victory over the Chiefs that the Ravens dominated in all aspects. Flacco set personal postseason records for completions (25), attempts (34), completion percentage (73.5), yards (265), yards per attempt (7.8) and passer rating (115.4). It's the only time in eight opportunities that Flacco led the team to more than 300 yards of offense (390).

The rest of the playoff record is less than mediocre: In four of those games he's completed half his passes or less, and he's not reached 200 passing yards in any of his other seven games.

Meanwhile, future Hall of Famer and two-time MVP Tom Brady leads the New England offense on the field looking as sharp as ever, armed with more weapons than a street gang and battling for more than just his fourth Super Bowl ring.

Brady has a chance over the next two games to make his case as perhaps the best quarterback of all time. He's the greatest winner in modern NFL history, he owns countless regular season records and he's rapidly closing in on every postseason record (team and individual) in history -- a list far too long to mention here.

The mismatch could not be more dramatic. Consider these two nuggets:

-- Flacco has thrown 22 touchdown passes in 17 games this year. Brady has thrown 20 touchdown passes in 17 games to tight end Rob Gronkowski alone.

-- Flacco has thrown six touchdown passes in his eight career playoff games; Brady threw six last week against Denver alone, tying a single-game postseason record.

Super Bowls are typically won by teams with great quarterbacks. And in this game, only one team has a great quarterback.

2. If Baltimore wins, credit the trenches.

So Baltimore is handicapped at quarterback. Meanwhile, the defense is good, but nothing like the lights-out unit that propelled the team to a Super Bowl title in 2000.

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Ray Lewis and his defensive mates surrendered 16.6 points per game in 2011. Lewis and his 2010 championship-winning defensive mates surrendered a full touchdown less in each outing, 10.3 PPG, the fewest by any team in the Live Ball Era (1978-present).

So these are not your 2000 Ravens.

This Baltimore team is led instead by dominant units on both sides of the trenches. Haloti Ngata & Co. comprise the best defensive front in football, No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index used by Cold, Hard Football Facts to rank each team in the NFL.

Every down lineman can collapse a pocket: Ngata (5.0 sacks), Pernell McPhee (6.0), Paul Kruger (5.5) and Cory Redding (4.5).That's a lot of pressure out of your defensive front. And, of course, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs may be the most devastating all-purpose defender in football, with 14.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles, two interceptions, 76 tackles and a nasty demeanor.

That dominance on the defensive front is critical: Teams better in the Defensive Hog Index dominate in the playoffs. In fact, they are 37-15 (.712) in postseason play since the indicator was introduced in 2007, including 6-2 so far this year.

Baltimore's dominant offensive line, meanwhile, is flying under the radar. The Ravens rank No. 2 on the Offensive Hog Index used by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. Only the Saints and their dominant offense were better.

The Ravens run the ball effectively (4.35 YPC), they protect the passer well (just 7.8 percent of dropbacks end in a sack or interception) and they're very good at converting third downs (42.4 percent success).

With the productive Ray Rice running behind that line, it gives the Ravens a formidable advantage against a New England defensive front that was abused much of 2011. The Patriots surrendered 4.62 YPC (24th) and were among the worst in football at getting off the field on third down. Opponents converted 43.1 percent of attempts (28th).

3. Tight ends are New England's not-so-secret weapon

Tom Brady set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes when he was paired with the gazelle-like Randy Moss in 2007. Moss famously caught 23 of those scores, also a record. But Brady may never have had the same deadly assortment of weapons like he has today.

It begins with a devastating pair of tight ends. The Patriots are the first team in history to get more than 2,000 yards in a season out of the tight end position.

Rob Gronkowski is fresh off the greatest year ever by a tight end, with 1,327 yards and 17 scoring receptions, both records for the position. He also averaged an impressive 14.7 yards per reception. One of the defining scenes of New England's 13-3 season was the mammoth pass-catcher rumbling over and through helpless defenders. He added three more TD receptions against Denver last week.

Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, a more elusive ball-carrier, nearly hauled in 1,000 yards worth of catches himself, with 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven TDs -- a great season by the standards of the position.

Amazingly, both receivers fell far short of the status as Brady's favorite target. That honor went to Wes Welker, who caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine TDs, including a record-tying 99-yard touchdown reception against the Dolphins early in the year. Only three players in history caught more passes in a season -- and one of them was Welker himself (123 catches in 2009). The others were Marvin Harrison (143 in 2002) and Herman Moore (123 in 1995).

Deion Branch, who only happens to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns, about an average season for the wideout. And coming deep off the bench is Chad Ochocinco, one of the most prolific receivers of his time. Ochocinco was rarely used this year (15 catches). But, for what it's worth, he did average a team-best 18.4 yards per reception.

Oh, by the way, the Patriots ran for 18 touchdowns in 2011, third most in the NFL.

It's one of the greatest assortments of weapons on one team since Dan Fouts led Air Coryell back in the 1980s. It's hard to double-team three different guys -- even for a defense as talented as Baltimore's.

Baltimore sports radio personality Drew Forrester of WNST inadvertently caused a firestorm up in Boston this week when he declared of the Ravens, "All we've done is win."

Sports radio WEEI in Boston has been mocking him all week, like a group of teens calling out the rival high school. The battle has made its way back to Baltimore, too.

Certainly, the Ravens have a history most teams in the NFL would envy. But the truth is that it pales in comparison to a Patriots team that has won over the past decade like few of any teams in history.

New England's run since 2000 has been nothing short of historic. And there's still plenty more history to chase. If the Patriots beat Baltimore, for example, Brady will tie Joe Montana for most postseason wins by an NFL quarterback (16).

Baltimore was the better team top to bottom in 2011. Most notably, the Ravens did it against better competition. They went 6-1 against teams with winning records this year; the Patriots faced just two teams with winning records and lost to both (Giants, Steelers).

But homefield advantage means something in the NFL, and it especially means something in New England. Tom Brady's Patriots are an incredible 38-3 in their last 41 home games. One of those losses was a devastating 33-14 beat-down at the hands of Baltimore in the 2009 divisional playoffs. But the Patriots won the most recent game against these two teams, a 23-20 overtime victory last season. That playoff win remains Baltimore's only victory over New England in seven opportunities since joining the NFL in 1996.

Given that ability to win at home, and an endless supply of weapons in the offensive arsenal, the Patriots will overcome their deficiencies on defense and win a close game.

New England 26, Baltimore 23