Let's not downplay what the Ravens are facing Saturday in New England. Playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh was a high degree-of-difficulty challenge, but this is higher. The Patriots are really good; better than two years ago, when they lost to Baltimore in the AFC title game.
New England was a No. 2 seed that year. This year, they're a No. 1, clearly the AFC's best team. Tom Brady is as sharp as ever. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is a nightmare; he missed the 2012 conference title game. And New England's defense, of dubious mettle two years ago, is more formidable now with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
That doesn't mean the Ravens should just capitulate, take their whipping and call it a season. Hardly. The Patriots do have some holes in their resume. They were one of the NFL's most penalized teams during the regular season. Keep an eye on that. Only four of their regular-season games were against playoff qualifiers. And even with Revis and Browner, their pass defense was just No. 17 in the league.
In any case, the Ravens have won twice in three tries against them in the playoffs, so they have a level of confidence few teams carry into Gillette Stadium in January. For that reason alone, they have a shot. I'm guessing the Patriots wish someone else was coming for a visit.
But while a confident attitude is nice, let's not suggest the Ravens have some mystical mental edge. The last time these teams played, late last season, the Patriots came to Baltimore and humbled the home team, 41-7, ruining the Ravens' playoff prospects.
The Ravens are better this season, but so are the Patriots, which takes us to the big question: This year, this week, can the Ravens win?
I could delve into X's and O's, but honestly, I think it boils down to a more basic struggle. If the Ravens are the tougher team, more physical, as dominant up front as they were in Pittsburgh, they can do it.
The odds are not impossibly long. The Ravens' toughness was set back with the departures of Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard after the 2012 season, but some of that ground has been reclaimed in 2014 with wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., hard-to-handle nose tackle Brandon Williams and the run-first philosophy of Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The Ravens dialed it up in some games more than others (Houston) during the season, but they exhibited a nasty edge in Pittsburgh last week and need to keep that up. The way to slow down Brady is disrupt his rhythm, move him off his spot; not necessarily sack him, that's hard, but hit him. The teams that have beaten him in the playoffs over the years (Ravens, New York Giants) did it with a tough front seven, a quality also possessed by teams that gave Brady trouble in 2014.
A tough front seven is about all the New York Jets had this year, and they played New England tough twice. The Kansas City Chiefs ripped the Patriots with an aggressive front. The Ravens surely like the sound of that. Their front seven is adept at stopping the run and sacking quarterbacks, and it's reaching full strength at just the right time with Chris Canty, Timmy Jernigan and Haloti Ngata all good to go.
The Ravens front seven could have an edge against the Patriots offensive line, which struggled early in the season and dealt with injuries late.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Joe Flacco and his receivers obviously are going to have to make plays against Revis and Browner – not easily done. But as we've learned, the passing game doesn't function well unless the running game also is churning out at least a few yards, as it did early in Pittsburgh. Against New England, which has the league's No. 9 rushing defense, the Ravens must avoid being dominated.
The offensive line is somewhat unsettled. Marshal Yanda is playing out of position. A rookie is at right guard. Either another rookie or a veteran coming off an injury will play left tackle. Center Jeremy Zuttah will oppose rugged Vince Wilfork Saturday after having a rough game last week.
Still, the line was solid overall in Pittsburgh, allowing just once sack as the offense rolled up and down the field. Smith was dominant in the secondary, and the tight ends, Owen Daniels and Crockett Gillmore, played tough.
If the Ravens exhibit the same physical edge, establish a semblance of a running game, disrupt Brady, they'll be dangerous.