FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens gets sacked by Vince Wilfork #75 of the New England Patriots during their AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The focus on Super Bowl Sunday will be on the men under center, but two resurgent defenses could have something to say about that.
The AFC Championship Game was expected to be a classic tale of offense against defense: the relentless assault of the Patriots' attack against the at times unmovable wall posed by the Ravens. Given the final score, with a total of just 43 points scored, it would seem as though the Ravens' way of playing had won out.
And yet, it is the Patriots who will, in just a few short days, take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Super Bowl XLVI, and that thanks in large part to some big defensive plays. A stuff that left the Ravens out of field goal range and forced to turn over the ball on downs, an interception which stalled another drive (even though Tom Brady immediately returned the favor), and of course a pair of passes swatted out of a receiver's hands and out of the air by Sterling Moore to set up Billy Cundiff's game-ending miss.
It was a performance reminiscent of the "just win" Patriots of old and indicative of the quality the under-appreciated unit is capable of providing. It is mirrored, however, by a better-noticed and perhaps even more impressive breakout by New York's defense. Since allowing 400 points to be scored against them in the regular season, the Giants have held three strong teams in the Falcons, Packers, and 49ers to just 39 total points in the playoffs.
What's worse for the Patriots is that the Giants defense is stacked in the best way to hurt Tom Brady: on the defensive line. With Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and sophomore phenom Jason Pierre-Paul aiming to put Tom Brady on his back, the strong Patriots' offensive line will be in for a challenge. They managed to stand up reasonably well in Week 9, allowing just a pair of sacks. The issue was that Tom Brady was making unusual mistakes even in the absence of pressure. The Patriots were able to run their offense, with Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski each gaining more than 100 yards, but were done in only by a lack of ball security.
Meanwhile, Eli Manning thrived even while the Patriots' defensive line did solid work. Taking advantage of a then-miserable secondary, Manning was able to lead his team to victory with a last-minute touchdown drive. While the secondary has worked itself out some since then, and the defensive line has similarly come together since the departure of Albert Haynesworth, the Patriots could face some difficulty replicating the pressure they achieved against a typically strong offensive line.
What could help the Patriots is their ability to stop the run. With the Patriots' defense having held Ray Rice in check in the Championship Game, the below average running game of the Giants shouldn't require nearly as much attention. If they can effectively shut down the run, then the play-action pass is taken away as an effective weapon, and the Patriots can focus on the sort of opportunistic pass defense that has given up so many yards, but relatively few points. Eli has performed very well of late, but with the full weight of the offense on his shoulder, he's never been the best protector of the ball.
As with any defensive matchup, it's hard to favor the Patriots. The Giants have a dominant defensive line, and the more solid and proven secondary. That being said, the Patriots are here for a reason, and in the playoffs that reason is as much the defense as the offense. They are not the same deficient team that allowed 34 points to the Bills in Week 3. With two weeks, and the tape from the 24-20 loss, Bill Belichick has the tools he needs to keep the Giants in reach if not in check-so long as everyone does their jobs.