AFC Championship fulcrum: Ravens offense vs. Patriots defense
New England's offense and Baltimore's defense are well known. But their opposite numbers could actually decide who goes to the Super Bowl.
Conventional wisdom says those are the key match ups. Those six men will lead their units - Ravens defense and Patriots offense, respectively - in the AFC Championship game this Sunday (3 p.m. ET on CBS) in New England.
To stop the Patriotis offense, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (the only team member with a SuperBowl XXXV ring) must stop Brady from completing passes to Welker and Gronkowski across the middle. Safety Ed Reed's omnipresence is a key reason no team has more than one touchdown pass against the Ravens this season. And outside linebacker Terrell Suggs must move Brady off his in the pocket for Baltimore to have a chance.
The match up between those two groups will be part chess match, and part mixed martial arts. But that match up could also end in a draw. So, the deciding factors may lie elsewhere. It may be left to Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense versus the 325-pound Immovable Object aka Vince Wilfork and the New England defense to determine who the AFC rep in Super Bowl XLVI will be.
When it comes to the Ravens offense, Flacco has the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to Ray Rice. The running back gained 1,364 yards on the ground in 2011. He was also the team's leading receiver with 76 catches for 704 yards on the season.
But, as Flacco goes, so goes Baltimore. The fourth-year quarterback rates in the middle of the pack for NFL quarterbacks in 2011, with 20 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Flacco has talent at the receiving spots, with Anquan Boldin, Ed Dickson, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta each recording 40 catches or better this season.
At this time of the season, the Ravens quarterback recognizes their strengths and weaknesses.
"Obviously we are not very good, statistically, on offense. If you look at the statistics, you can say, 'Hey we don't score a ton of points. We don't put up a ton of yards.' But the bottom line is we get the job done," Flacco said on Wednesday.
On the other side, the Patriots defense has been a revolving door of players, as the result of injury, lack of performance (Albert Haynesworth, anyone?) or both this season. Again, based on yards per game allowed, New England's defensive unit ranked next to last in the NFL.
However, the unit has seen a turnaround in their performance over the last month and a half. And defensive lineman Vince Wilfork says they don't keep track of the numbers.
"We don't pay attention to any stats. That's something we don't do. We know how we feel about this team and we feel really good about this 2011 team," Wilfork said Thursday.
Part of the Patriots success on defense is the versatility that they display. They will adjust to their opponent, playing a defensive front with three or four down linemen and rotating various role players throughout the lineup. And the Pats were tied for third in the NFL in takeaways.
Defensive end Mark Anderson, a new Patriot this season and one of those role players, says the defense is peaking at the right moment.
"I think so, we are playing good team ball right now. Last week, we held Denver to 10 points and it was one of our best performances as a whole with tackling, swarming to the ball and playing with a lot of energy. We are out here making plays right now," Anderson said Thursday.
Will the outcome be the off-cited key six players? Or will the under-rated Ravens offense and the fast-improving Patriots defense determine who will get a ticket to Indianapolis, site of Super Bowl XLVI?