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Playoff debate, Part III

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 7, 2010 07:33 PM

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Before the Patriots and Ravens face off in the AFC playoffs on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, I'll be facing off with Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Van Valkenburg. Kevin and I will be talking about one topic related to the game each day leading up to it.

Tuesday, we discussed who had the advantage in the passing game.
Wednesday, we discussed which team will complain more about the calls.

Today's topic: Which team has the edge on defense?

Gasper:  Kevin, I thought I'd go Jacoby Ellsbury on you today and take a turn in the leadoff spot.

No need to get defensive, Ravens fans. I think even the most ardent Patriots' supporters -- the ones that sleep in Belichick hoodies and have Pat Patriot alarm clocks -- would have to admit the Ravens have the edge on defense. The Ravens are synonymous with great 'D'. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are among the best to ever play their positions, period, and Terrell Suggs sacks more people than Donald Trump. When the Ravens defense gets a lead it closes out like Mariano Rivera. Baltimore is 9-0 this season when leading after three quarters.

The Patriots' defense is improved from last season, but is a unit in transition without Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel. It looks good on paper, only allowing a point-and-a-half more per game than the Ravens (17.8 to 16.3), but it has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush most of the season and has bent like a wire hanger with games on the line. New England has blown four fourth-quarter leads this season, including one in Miami, where they made Chad Henne look like Dan Fouts in a 52-pass effort.

Belichick once coached a cornerback with the Giants, Elvis Patterson, whose nickname was "Toast" because he got burnt so often. Well, Patriots cornerback Jonathan Wilhite makes Patterson look like warmed-over bread at times. I know the Ravens corners are nothing to write home about either and Baltimore has given up some big passing days to elite QBs -- I think Philip Rivers just completed another pass somewhere -- but Baltimore managed to hold Peyton Manning and the Colts to 17 points. Indy scored more than that against the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the infamous fourth and 2 defeat. Plus, picking against a Lewis-led defense is like picking against a Brady-led offense. It's difficult to justify if you're a rational sports observer.

Van Valkenburg:  Chris, I think in their hearts, Ravens fans want to believe this defense will rise up and be the playoff monsters of old, but your assessment is probably a lot more favorable than people here would view it. Midway through the season, first-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was Public Enemy No. 1 in this town, and most fans were ready to put Terrell Suggs and Domonique Foxworth -- and their big contracts -- on the next Mayflower truck headed out of town. John Harbaugh's honeymoon, which you think would have been lengthy after getting to the AFC Championship in his first season, was over by the fourth game.

The frustration with the defense has faded somewhat in the second half of the season, but it's still bubbling under the surface. People in this town have probably been spoiled by watching so many great defenses for a long time. But watching Philip Rivers and Brett Favre light them up did not sit well with anyone. Ray Lewis is still a big hitter, big talker, and respected leader, but he's probably better at pre-game dancing than he is pass coverage.

That isn't to say the Ravens won't have the advantage Sunday. Haloti Ngata might be the best defensive tackle in football. And as you point out, these ain't exactly Tedy Bruschi's Patriots. After watching Drew Brees fricassee the New England secondary a few weeks back, I kept hoping Belichick would snap and pull a Rick Petino in the post-game presser. "Rodney Harrison's not walking through that door, people! Mike Vrabel's not walking through that door!"

By the way, did Adalius Thomas enter witness protection up there? I think the last big play he made, he was wearing purple.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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