The Ravens opened a lot of eyes with their offensive outburst against Miami, but they'll need their defense to carry them against the New England Patriots Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
Oh, sure, they'll also need Joe Flacco and the offense to continue what they started against Miami, at least to some degree. You can't settle for field goals against the Patriots, who rank among the NFL's highest-scoring teams. You have to put up points, possibly quite a few.
But the secret to beating the Patriots is to somehow slow down their quarterback. Even at 39, Tom Brady picks apart most defenses he sees. Since coming back from his Deflategate suspension, he has generated the NFL's top quarterback rating (113.1) and thrown 19 touchdowns to one interception. In other words, he's nearly been perfect.
The Ravens know their chances of topping New England are tied to their ability to slow down Brady. They've won two of the four postseason games between the teams since 2010, and they allowed an average of 13.5 points in the wins and an average of 29 points in the losses.
In their two most recent games against New England, both losses, Brady and the Patriots put up 41 points in a regular-season contest at M&T Bank Stadium in 2013; and then he passed for 367 yards and three touchdowns as New England scored 35 points and won a 2014 playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens obviously can't allow a reprise of those fireworks.
They should be helped by the fact that Brady's favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is on injured reserve after suffering a back injury, but the Patriots are notorious for overcoming such setbacks, primarily because they have Brady.
Even with just a reasonably tight pass defense, the Ravens probably would have won that 2014 playoff game in New England. Flacco was on another Super Bowl-like roll, and he tossed four touchdown passes as the Ravens twice built 14-point leads. But their cornerback depth chart had been decimated by injuries and they lost because they couldn't stop Brady.
Twenty-three months later, they're returning to Gillette Stadium with a better defense. Baltimore has yielded the fewest yards in the NFL. Only Seattle has allowed fewer points.
But doubts about the secondary persist. Not that long ago, it allowed several big-play touchdowns in losses to the New York Giants and New York Jets, and also failed to control the Dallas Cowboys' passing game in the second half of another loss.
The secondary is gaining momentum, though. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is back after missing several games with injuries. Rookie Tavon Young has earned the starting corner job opposite Smith with aggressive play. Eric Weddle is the league's top safety in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. And safety Lardarius Webb is stepping up after being challenged by his teammates.
"We put a lot of pressure on him about four, five weeks ago, and said, 'Hey, you've got to pick it up. You've got to be a great player for us. He's the rangy free safety type that we need in this defense to make plays, to erase plays in the back end, and he's really coming into his own," Weddle said after Webb recorded his first interception of 2016 Sunday.
It takes more than just a secondary to slow down Brady, of course. The whole defense needs to pitch in. Brady is all about playing in rhythm, orchestrating a rat-a-tat short-route attack. You slow him down by disrupting that rhythm, forcing him to hold the ball and move off the "spot" he throws from. That's how the Ravens have beaten him before, with pressure.
But the key to disrupting that rhythm is to jam his receivers at the line and keep them from getting open quickly. That forces him to hold the ball. It's up to the corners to make that happen.
When the Ravens lost the playoff game at Gillette Stadium 23 months ago, Rashaan Melvin and Webb were their cornerbacks and Darian Stewart and Will Hill III were their safeties. They're hoping to fare better with Smith, Young and nickel back Jerraud Powers manning the corners in front of Weddle and Webb.
Brady is the ultimate test for them, even without his most dangerous target.