The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will meet in the AFC Championship game for the second successive season. The Ravens shocked the Denver Broncos last week, while the Patriots convincingly swept past the Houston Texans in order to set up a rematch of last year’s game in Foxboro. Even though both sides are still led by the same big names, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh for the Ravens against Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Bill Belchick for the Patriots, this game has a very different dynamic to it than last year’s version.
One of the most pivotal changes is the Patriots’ talent level in the secondary. In the 2011 version of the AFC Championship game, the Patriots started Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo on the backend of their defense. Only McCourty remains a starter at this point and he now starts at safety. Chung and Arrington are now backups, while Ihedigbo will be in Foxboro on Sunday, but playing for the Ravens. In order to reverse their fortunes at this time of the year, the Patriots actively pursued upgrades for their secondary both in the offseason and during the regular season.
McCourty has been allowed to move to free safety because of the emergence of two cornerbacks. Alfonzo Dennard was a seventh round draft pick who was considered a very talented player with a questionable character coming out of college. The Patriots have had no issues with his character so far this season, while his play on the field has been even better than advertised. Dennard isn’t big, standing at just under 5-10 and weighing roughly 200 lbs, but he is quick and fast with the ability to recover when beaten in coverage. He may not have the speed to stick with Torrey Smith in press coverage, but unlike Champ Bailey, the Broncos cornerback who was repeatedly burned by Smith last week, Dennard should be able to stick with him while giving him some sort of cushion. He can also expect to see safety help on a regular basis.
Smith had six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots back in Week 3 of the regular season, but Dennard didn’t play that day.
Dennard has developed over the season and should continue to do so into the offseason. However, the other cornerback who has emerged did so after a mid-season trade. Aqib Talib was another player with a label of trouble but talented. For that reason, as well as his contract coming up, the Patriots were able to acquire the bulky cornerback for a relatively small price from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib was acquired to not only give the defense a number one cornerback to rely on, but to also give the secondary a much needed physical presence. Talib is 6-1 and 205 lbs with 4.4 speed. He is big, but more importantly he plays big. Talib won’t shy away from any physicality that any receiver offers him at this level of the game. This weekend, he will face off against one of the most physical receivers in the whole league.
Anquan Boldin has been an explosive player during his time in the NFL. Even though his speed has somewhat departed from him at this point in his career, he is still built like a running-back and has the attitude of one in the open field. Boldin has been able to use his sheer mass against smaller defenders this season on a consistent basis. He creates leverage with his athleticism and powers through players with his strength to still make plays even though he is noticeably a step slower. Boldin was able to beat up on the Patriots’ secondary(minus Talib) last season when he caught six passes for 101 yards.
Talib and Dennard may not shut down either of Boldin or Smith, but they will both feel like they can contain them to the point the Patriots will win the game.
Against the Broncos, the Ravens relied on deep passes throughout the game to put points on the board. If Joe Flacco looks to play a similar game this week, the Patriots will feel confident in the instincts of McCourty roaming to create turnovers. If the Patriots’ cornerbacks play well underneath, McCourty will be able to read and bait quarterbacks the way he has since moving to that role.
All in all, the Patriots should feel confident of stopping the Ravens’ passing attack on Sunday.