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Patriots can't be left defenseless against Flacco

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 17, 2012 04:10 PM

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The NFL playoffs have shown us that defense may have been resting during the 2011 regular season, but it's not dead.

Preventing points is still as important as scoring them in the most meaningful football games of the season. Just ask the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers, owners of two of the most prolific offenses in the history of the league and front-row seats in front of their flat-screens for Sunday's NFC Championship game.

As the Patriots prepare to face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the AFC Championship game, they should take heed of the demise of their offensive-oriented brethren. Undone by untrustworthy defenses, New Orleans and Green Bay have franchise quarterbacks, wads of stats, and nothing else to show for this season.

The Saints, Patriots and Packers were ranked 1, 2, 3 in the NFL in total offense this season. They were the three highest-scoring teams in the league with New Orleans, which set an NFL record for total net yards (7,474), scoring 35 points per game, followed by Green Bay (34.2) and the Patriots (32.1).

The Saints, Patriots, and Packers also aligned at the bottom of the league's pass defense -- ranking 30th, 31st and 32d, respectively. The Patriots are the only ones left standing to try to make the case that a great offense can override all in today's fantasy-football inflated NFL.

That's why Sunday's AFC title game isn't going to be decided by strength against strength. We know what Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense can do. We know what Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens' parsimonious defense, which has surrendered an NFL-low 11 TD passes this season, can do. (By the way, it's comical that it's now en vogue to pick apart the Ravens' defense based on competition when the Patriots have been feasting off desultory opposing QB play for nine weeks.)

The AFC Super Bowl representative is going to be determined by weakness against weakness -- Baltimore's inconsistent and oft-critiqued quarterback against the Patriots' double-jointed, bend-but-don't-break pass defense.

Can the Patriots defense befuddle Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who played some defense of his own lately? Or does a Patriots' defense that has been doubted and derided all season long follow the disturbing trend set by New Orleans and Green Bay and exit the playoffs stage left?

One side will earn the respect it has been clamoring for all season. The other will earn the ire and I-told-you-so's of it's disappointed fan base.

The mistake some of the Foxborough Faithful have made the last couple of years after playoff losses is to put all the blame on Brady and the offense. When TB12 ushered in this Era of Good Feelings in Foxborough by winning his first 10 playoff games only twice did his team top 30 points.

The Patriots scored 32 points in Super Bowl XXXVIII to beat Carolina and 41 points the next season in the 2004 AFC title game against Pittsburgh, with one of the scores coming on an 87-yard interception return by Rodney Harrison. Scoring 30 points should not be a prerequisite for playoff victory for any Super Bowl aspirant.

The Patriots did a remarkable job of humbling Tim Almighty and the Broncos last week in a 45-10 victory, but that was a Denver offense as one-dimensional as they come. Tebow is a devout Christian, but he displayed shockingly little faith in his own ability to put the ball between defenders to open receivers.

Going from Tebow to Flacco is like going from fractions to the Pythagorean theorem.

Still, if you administered sodium pentathol to Bill Belichick two months ago and told him the best AFC quarterback he would have to beat to reach the Super Bowl was Flacco, he would have waved his hoodie over his head in celebration and said, "That's it?"

Flacco is a solid quarterback -- he's thrown 20 or more touchdown passes three years in a row -- but he'll never be confused with Johnny Unitas. Even Reed, a teammate, has openly questioned Flacco's play, saying he was "rattled" by Houston, and command of the Baltimore offense.

He is 5-3 in eight playoff games, including a playoff win over the Patriots two seasons ago, but has been an Average Joe in the postseason. He has completed just 53.1 percent of his passes and thrown more touchdowns than interceptions (six vs. seven). When he beat New England, the best part of his game was handing off to Ray Rice. An injured Flacco threw the ball just 10 times.

Flacco has a big frame (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) and a big arm, but he fumbles under pressure more than Rick Perry. Jumbo Joe fumbled the ball nine times this season and once last week against the Houston Texans. He had 10 fumbles combined last year between the regular season and playoffs.

If there has been a saving grace of the Patriots defense this season, it has been their ability to generate turnovers.

Flacco has had his moments this year, like when he led the Ravens to a comeback win in Pittsburgh, throwing for 300 yards and tossing the game-winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left. But his completion percentage dropped five percentage points from last year to 57.6. That number is all the more surprising considering his leading receiver was Rice, who had 76 receptions.

Baltimore was only 19th in the NFL in passing offense this season. That's hardly elite, Joe.

While this is a season-defining game for the Patriots defense. It is a career-defining contest for Flacco, who is coming to Gillette to prove he can be a franchise quarterback.

Despite some flaws, Flacco is the most accomplished quarterback the Patriots have faced since they lost to Eli Manning and the Giants on Nov. 6.

Mark Sanchez. Tyler Palko. Vince Young. Dan Orlovsky. Rex Grossman. Tim Tebow (twice). Matt Moore. Ryan Fitzpatrick. It's been a good run.

If the Patriots allow Flacco to do to them what 49ers quarterback Alex Smith did to the Saints -- have a career-defining day -- then you can cancel that Indianapolis itinerary.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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