There have been few offensive performances more impressive than that of the New England Patriots in the first half of last Saturday's game against the Denver Broncos. But for a couple of difficult drives in the middle, the Patriots were out for blood in the first round, and showed that between Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and of course Tom Brady, they were not about to be stopped. With Tim Tebow and the Denver offense incapable of even coming close to matching New England's torrid production, the game was over by halftime.
In the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots will not face something new so much as a supercharged version of the Broncos. On defense, there's no question that they are amongst the best. Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Ray Lewis provide the big-name backbone, but there's talent throughout which provided the Ravens the top ranking against the pass and a top-10 ranking against the run according to Football Outsiders.
Since Saturday, however, the focus has been elsewhere: on an offense which managed just 20 points, led by a quarterback who has regressed in 2012 to the point where Ed Reed questioned whether he had "a hold on the offense" against the Texans. While the presence of Ray Rice could help take the attention off of the 4th-year quarterback, conventional wisdom says you need to pass to stay alive against the Patriots. Can Joe Flacco and Baltimore keep up, or will they be buried like the Broncos?
There's no question which team has the greater weapon under center. Tom Brady is a future Hall of Famer, while Flacco can only really be called average. If Flacco is hoping that the differences in the defense can completely cover that gap, though, he might get his wish. While Brady is entirely capable of picking apart a top-flight defense-he put up 650 yards in two games against the New York Jets and their second-ranked pass defense, scoring 67 along the way-Flacco can put up some numbers against one of the last-ranked pass defenses in the game.
Still, the Patriots' defense looked like a completely different unit last week, getting after Tim Tebow with impressive regularity. And while the secondary is still far from perfect, the impressive performances of Sterling Moore, when combined with the return of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty's renewed contributions, has given the defensive line the time they need to get to opposing quarterbacks of late. Bringing pressure on Flacco seemed to work for the Texans, and while their pass rush is certainly superior to New England's it would be a mistake to underrate the likes of Vince Wilfor and Mark Anderson.
The same can be said for Baltimore's pass rush against Tom Brady, but if the offensive line can keep Brady safe the way they've been doing all year long-and the health of Logan Mankins will be a big factor in that-then the Ravens simply can't match up past the line of scrimmage. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are quality targets for Flacco, but they don't come close to the combination that is Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski on his own is nearly unstoppable-he hasn't had fewer than 50 yard since early October-but when Wes Welker is able to either long or short and the ever-elusive Aaron Hernandez can hurt you either as a tight end or coming out of the backfield as a hitch in the no-huddle offense, how do you stop that? Baltimore is consistently good against all sorts of receivers, but when a team has three #1 receivers (backed up by 700-yard receiver Deion Branch), suddenly the players who are adequate to stop the second best guy and the average tight end find themselves up against receivers with their names in the record books.
The one place where the Patriots are clearly outclassed is in the backfield. Simply put, Ray Rice is a monster, and with the best parts of New England's defense seeming stretched against Willis McGahee, Rice could be in line for a big game. The key for New England will be wearing him out if Baltimore relies too heavily on him, and going after the ball as they have all year. Rice has only given it up three times so far this season, but the Patriots can strip a few balls when they need to.
The Ravens are not the Broncos, but it seems as though the challenges for New England will be fairly similar. Getting to Flacco will help cover up the (somewhat diminished) weaknesses of their secondary, while a well-protected Brady throwing to Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker can make even the best defenses in the league seem helpless. The X-factors in all this are likely Ed Reed and Ray Rice. Can a strong performance from the running back carry the Ravens' offense? Can a hurting Reed do what the rest of the league has not in limiting the New England tight ends? If not, then it's going to be nigh-impossible to keep up with Tom Brady.