For the moment, at least, there will be no talk of postseason losing streaks, of imbalance on the field, of bad draft classes and organizational decision making. The Patriots are back in the AFC title game for the sixth time in 11 seasons under coach Bill Belichick, and they are there thanks to a thoroughly dominating effort on Saturday night that may have been the team's best performance of the season.
Waiting for the Patriots now are the Baltimore Ravens in what will be a true clash of philosophies and cultures.
Less than 24 hours after the Patriots vaporized the Denver Broncos by a 45-10 score on Saturday night, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the pesky Houston Texans by a 20-13 count yesterday in Baltimore. The best offense in the AFC now meets perhaps the best defense, the Patriots instilled as 7-1/2-point favorites for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVI.
May the best doctrine win.
"I think Bill [Belichick] and [Tom Brady] and them know,'' said Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, according to The Baltimore Sun. "They know they are going to definitely see a totally different team, just like we know we're going to see a totally different team. We're not the Denver Broncos. We're the Baltimore Ravens, so I think we're both up to the task.
"I think all we have to do is be the team that we are. We don't take the game from this week into next week. There's a 24-hour rule -- win, lose or draw. You're going to see a totally different Ravens team next week because we're going to be playing a totally different team in the Patriots. That's just the way the playoffs are."
In this modern-day NFL, of course, that is the way football is. The game changes week-to-week. No two games are ever connected. Just ask the New Orleans Saints. Or, for that matter, the Green Bay Packers.
Under the circumstances, this is particularly good news for the Patriots, who turned in the kind of defensive outing on Saturday night that fans have been waiting for all year. (At least since Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko passed for 230 yards against New England in Week 11.) The Patriots spent the large majority of the regular season running into one another on the defensive side of the ball, often making even ordinary quarterbacks look like a collection of surgeons and gunslingers.
But on Saturday? On Saturday, albeit against the erratic Tim Tebow, the Patriots looked rather, well, ferocious. New England's only real blip in the game came after a poorly executed throw by Tom Brady in the first quarter, after which the Patriots allowed a 24-yard touchdown drive. Excluding that, the Patriots allowed only 96 yards of offense during a first half in which they built an insurmountable 35-7 lead.
Following that score, which made the score 14-7, the Broncos managed just 29 yards on their next six possessions and never once crossed the 50-yard line. By the time the Broncos again saw the other side of the equator, their season had been scorched.
Now here's the obvious question:
Can the Patriots do something remotely as impressive to quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens? Will they need to? Can Baltimore slow down Brady, who will never be compared with T.J. Yates? Can the Patriots run on the Ravens the way Arian Foster did? Won't Baltimore running back Ray Rice be far more of a factor in this game than he was yesterday? Is there any real reason to compare this game with Baltimore's last postseason trip to Foxboro, a 33-14 Ravens victory in which the Patriots got steamrolled?
Again, for the moment, let's all agree on what the NFL playoffs have told us thus far: offense is as important as ever, but defense is hardly irrelevant. Of the top three offenses in the NFL this season, two (the Packers and Saints) were eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend while allowing a combined 73 points. New Orleans twice had the lead with fewer than two minutes to play and allowed a pair of touchdowns to a San Francisco offense that is hardly prolific. The Packers got their faces pushed in by a New York Giants club currently playing better defense than perhaps any other team in the league.
In their last four games, the Giants have allowed 12.5 points per game to the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers. During the regular season, those clubs ranked a respective 13th, 15th, 7th and first in the NFL in points per game.
The conclusion? Though hardly impossible, the Patriots are not likely to put up 45 points against the Ravens. They will need to stop Rice. They will need to mess with Flacco. And if the Patriots are able to do both, all while Brady performs at a level we have grown accustomed to seeing over the last 11 years, then the Patriots will be boarding plane in roughly two weeks with a single destination in mind.
And they won't be going to visit the Colts.
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