Touching All the Bases

Patriots Should Not Be Concerned With Ravens -- or Any Other Potential AFC Opponent


Maybe I'm listening in the wrong places, or maybe all the wrong places are finding their way to my eyes and ears. But we're not even a day past the Patriots' meaningless, just-get-out-of-this-alive regular-season finale against the Bills, and already I'm sick of hearing about the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens are not a threat to the Patriots this year. They probably will not even play the Patriots this year. And yet some of you guys are talking about them with the kind of fear that should be reserved for when Ray Lewis is chasing you down the boulevard while wearing a white suit.

Enough with the out-of-context flashbacks and the preemptive concerns, please. Enjoy watching the potential competition beat the hell out of each other this week while the Patriots recuperate, prepare, and relax.

Hey, you. Relax too.

Sure, the Patriots have had some mild hiccups on offense lately. They've let Tom Brady get hit too much, though it should be noted he was sacked nearly half as much this year (21 times) as a year ago (40).

You know what they also have? The league's fourth-best scoring offense, which was the No. 1 scoring offense until Jimmy G and the Jayvees got their turn during the nine-point performance Sunday. The Patriots scored 41 points just two weeks ago. It's not as if the offense has been in hibernation.

They have their most well-rounded and talented defense in at least seven years and perhaps a decade, one that allowed just 19.2 points per game. And they have this week off while the Ravens have to visit Pittsburgh, a team that beat them by 20 points the last time they met.

I do get the genesis of this concern. The Ravens have had relative success against the Patriots, winning playoff games at Gillette Stadium during the 2009 and 2012 seasons. Brady is 6-3 in his career against the Ravens, but just 1-2 in the postseason. Few franchises have had even limited success against the Patriots over the last 15 years. So when a team has beaten Brady and Bill Belichick in a meaningful game more than once through the years, it resonates.

But those victories should not resonate to the degree that it clouds how you view this year's edition of the Patriots. This is not the 2009 team -- in fact, defensively, it's pretty much the opposite, with rising stars (Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins) and established acquisitions (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner) fitting in seamlessly. There is not an Adalius Thomas or a Shawn Springs in this group. There's no quit here.

There was quit on the field in '09 when the Ravens rolled up a 24-0 first quarter lead. (It's a wonder Roger Goodell hasn't had Ray Rice's 83-yard run on the Ravens' first play stricken from the NFL highlight ledger). As we came to learn from the Belichick episodes of "A Football Life,'' he realized he wasn't getting through to that particular team long before we had confirmation.

But this season has nothing to do with that one. Four years ago might as well be 40. In 2009, Rob Gronkowski was an injured junior at Arizona, Julian Edelman was the rookie stunt double for the injured Wes Welker, and contributors on defense included James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Derrick Burgess and Junior Seau.

It's pretty remarkable, really. The 2009 Patriots went 10-6, lost in the wild-card round, and it was the closest thing to a lost season the franchise has had in the Belichick era. Lost causes don't often win so much.

The Jets, who doused their soon-to-be-fired coach with Gatorade after their fourth win in 16 tries this season, and the Bills, who tweeted a photo celebrating their first win in a stadium they've played one game per season in every year since 2002, daydream about the kind of success that is designated as failure by the Patriots' incredible standards.

The 2012 loss was tougher to take in a different way. A trip to the Super Bowl was at stake, and the Patriots had a chance to take a big lead in the first half. Instead, they sandwiched two short Stephen Gostkowski field goals around a Wes Welker 1-yard touchdown reception and took a 13-7 lead into halftime.

Who knows how this one might have turned out had the Gronk-less Patriots offense not left points on the field in the first half. All we know is how it did turn out -- the Ravens outscored the Patriots 21-0 in the second half en route to a 28-13 win and one final and karmically unjust Super Bowl victory for Lewis.

Even in the Patriots' most recent postseason win over the Ravens -- a 23-20 win in the 2011 AFC Championship Game -- the Patriots were undermanned, at least in the defensive backfield.

They are not undermanned anymore. The Patriots are much better team now than they were then. The Ravens, having lost Lewis (whose irrational, look-at-me sermonizing did seem to benefit the team from time to time) and Ed Reed, are not a better team than they were then. Their talent base shriveled right around the time Joe Flacco's salary grew exponentially.

They have a good coach -- the better of the Harbaugh brothers, in my opinion -- and a good defense. They are what they look like they are -- a team that sneaked into the postseason and won't stay long. They have earned respect, but are no longer worthy of concern.

I've already spent too many words here explaining why we should not spend so many words (or thoughts) on the Ravens. Allow me just one more point. The Patriots have had four mutual opponents with Baltimore this year:

The Patriots beat the Bengals in Week 5, 43-17. The Ravens lost twice to the Bengals, 23-16 at home in Week 1, and 27-24 at Cincinnati in Week 8.

The Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 15, 41-13. The Ravens won at Miami the previous week, 28-13.

The Patriots beat the host Chargers, 23-14, in Week 14. The Ravens lost to the Chargers at home the previous week, 34-33.

The Patriots beat the host Colts in Week 11, 42-20. The Ravens lost at Indy in Week 5, 20-13.

I don't know if that's a trend. But it's certainly a hint at how these teams compare. What's amusing is that the Steelers, who host the Ravens in the wild-card round, are a superior team to Baltimore, and one that beat them 43-23 in November.

But Patriots fans do not regard them similarly, in part because they cannot meet until the AFC title game, but mostly because the Patriots have played the hammer to the Steelers' nail in their recent postseason history.

It's virtually the opposite effect, and it seems to be leading a vocal segment of the fanbase to root for the favorite in this matchup. I'm cool with that -- hell, if La'Veon Bell is in rough shape come gameday, I'm fine with loaning LeGarrette Blount back to Pittsburgh for the weekend to make sure they have a decent running back.

But ultimately, it does not matter who wins. The Patriots are better than both the Steelers and Ravens. They are better than anyone in the AFC.

During this January ahead, they are built to -- and will -- prove it.

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