The Ravens have made it to the AFC championship. It wasn't pretty against Houston, but a win is a win. Now, the purple and black are one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl. Standing in their way are the Patriots. Let's take a closer look at 'em, shall we?
Earning that top seed: During the regular season the Patriots racked up 13 wins, enough to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They had the best record in the conference, although looks can be deceiving.
On the one hand, New England struggled against stronger teams. Of their baker's dozen collection of victories in the regular season, none came against teams with winning records. Let me repeat that: zero Patriots wins came against teams with winning records. Their three losses came at Buffalo, at Pittsburgh and at home against the Giants.
On the other hand, however, the cotton-like schedule wasn't chosen by the Patriots and even with several mediocre opponents on the slate, Tom Brady and Co. did their job of simply winning football games. After dropping back-to-back contests against Pittsburgh and New York, New England ended the season on an eight-game winning streak before easily disposing of the Denver Broncos in last week's AFC divisional round.
Don't believe the hype: Sports fans tend to get caught up in the moment. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We sports media folk are famous for it. Yet with all of the talk of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, even Eli Manning, little conversation was had about Brady. Maybe it's because we're all used to him dominating under center, or people are simply sick and tired of hearing all about the former sixth-round pick's huge success story.
But whether or not people want to hear about it, Brady put together another masterful campaign in 2011. During the regular season, No. 12 threw for a career-high 5,235 passing yards and tallied 39 touchdowns, three more than his MVP season of 2010. Then, if 16 games weren't enough, Brady put on a display a week ago against one of the league's better defenses. In New England's 45-10 win over Denver, Brady threw for 363 yards and tied a postseason record with six touchdown passes. Most impressively, he completed more than 76 percent of his passes, leaving little doubt as to the leader of that offense.
Time to "tight-end" things up: It's impossible to tell how impressive Brady's numbers would've been with different receivers in his arsenal, but up until this season, the quarterback has received extra credit for finding success with less-than-high-profile pass catchers. Guys like Deion Branch, David Givens and Danny Woodhead aren't your typical No. 1 weapons, making Brady's ability to boost their success all the more stunning.
This year, however, Brady has been delivered a pair of tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom have added another wrinkle to the Patriots' offense. Gronkowski, in particular, is already off to a fast start in his pro career. His campaign this season was the most impressive in history by a tight end. His 90 catches went for 1,327 yards and a league record 17 touchdowns. He had seven games in which he caught multiple touchdown passes, not including hauling in three touchdown receptions in the first half of the team's divisional round victory.
Hernandez, mind you, was no slouch himself. He caught 79 passes during the regular season, good for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. And what's been most impressive, is that no defense has yet to figure out how to stop these guys. That'll present a big challenge for Chuck Pagano and the Ravens defense.
History tells us ... The Ravens and Patriots have played each other seven times. New England has never lost to Baltimore during the regular season, but has never beaten the Ravens in the playoffs. Interesting.
1996: New England 46, @ Baltimore 38
2000: @ New England 20, Baltimore 3
2004: @ New England 24, Baltimore 3
2007: New England 27, @ Baltimore 24
2009: @ New England 27, Baltimore 21
2010: Baltimore 33, @ New England 14 - 2009 AFC wild card
2010: @ New England 23, Baltimore 20
Early advantage: It's easy to look at last week's results and say the Patriots are the better team. But as we know, anything can happen in the playoffs, particularly from week to week. Brady has been in this situation many times before, but coincidentally, a road playoff game in Foxboro is nothing new for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, either. Can the Ravens defense stop the Patriots' high-powered offense. I say they can and they pull off the upset.