Patriots Should Be Confident Heading Into AFC Championship, But Divisional Round Provides Cautionary Tale


Patriots Should Be Confident Heading Into AFC Championship, But Divisional Round Provides Cautionary TaleThe common notion over the years used to be that defense wins championships. Yet somewhere along the line — seemingly around the time Indianapolis finally achieved Super Bowl glory following the 2006 season — that idea changed.

It suddenly became apparent that not only was a shutdown defense not a prerequisite for playoff success, it was hardly a requirement at all. Instead, it's become a matter of fielding a defense that's "good enough" rather than a unit that's simply "good."

On the surface, this weekend's slate of football action went a long way toward dispelling that suddenly prevalent notion and restoring the faith lost in the importance of defense, which is both a breath of fresh air for some and a cautionary tale for others. But the NFL's divisional round also went a long way toward showing the importance of limiting turnovers, a concept that's obvious but still very much at the root of any team's success.

Watching two teams — Green Bay and New Orleans — with high-powered offenses so frequently compared to New England's this entire season falter, it would be easy for Pats fans to feel a little wary about next week's AFC Championship tilt with the defensive-minded Ravens despite the Patriots' easy 45-10 dismantling of the Broncos on Saturday. After all, New England is built somewhat similar to Green Bay and New Orleans, in that the offense is expected to carry the load. The question that the Pats — like those two teams — have faced the entire season is whether their defense fits that "good enough" mold and whether it can hold true if the offense is slowed by an opposing defense. That question remains, as the Broncos hardly proved to be a worthy opponent.

Most seasons, a team of Denver's caliber wouldn't have been in such a position, so to get overconfident following Saturday's win would be a massive mistake — and one you can bet Bill Belichick is going to do his best to ensure his team doesn't make. That's not to discredit anything the Broncos accomplished this season, but they were simply outmatched by New England, meaning next week's showdown with Baltimore presents the Patriots with the first real challenge they've had since Week 10 against the Jets, which marked the beginning of their current nine-game winning streak.

Since that Week 10 matchup, the teams the Patriots have faced feature a 42-71 combined record, with New England hanging more than 30 points on its opponent eight times and more than 40 points on three occasions. Against Baltimore, achieving either of those feats will be a much greater challenge for the Pats, as the Ravens feature the league's fourth-best pass defense and the second-best rush defense.

Over in the NFC, both the 49ers and Giants were able to move the football effectively on the suspect defenses of the Packers and Saints this weekend, while forcing their opponents to make mistakes. As a result, not even the mighty Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees could overcome the failures of their supporting cast.

The Packers and Saints were such strong regular-season teams in large part because of their ability to hang on to the football, and that simply wasn't the case this weekend. Green Bay's backs and receivers routinely let Rodgers down, and the Packers turned the ball over four times. The Saints lost three fumbles and turned the ball over a total of five times. The Texans, meanwhile, behind a subpar T.J. Yates, gave away the bacon four times.

As is the case with any time turnovers play such a pivotal role, it can be looked at in one of two ways. Either the defense made plays or the offense coughed up the football. The truth, not surprisingly, is that it's usually some combination of both. But either way, expect winning the turnover battle to be a message driven home repeatedly in the New England locker room this week.

The Patriots have perhaps the easiest road they've ever had to the Super Bowl this season. Baltimore's defense will certainly be a test for the high-powered New England offense, but the defense's limited passing yards against is also a reflection of the lack of good quarterbacks the Ravens have faced throughout this season. The Ravens didn't face Tom Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan. They did, however, face Andy Dalton twice, Seneca Wallace, Dan Orlovsky, Matt Hasselbeck, Blaine Gabbert, Tavaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.

You can only play the teams on your schedule, but none of those names illicit much fear in any opposing defense. Really, Sunday will be as much a test for the Baltimore defense as it is for the New England offense. And if Brady's supporting cast can keeping playing at its current level and limit mistakes, and the defense can be "good enough" once again, there's no reason the Patriots can't punch their ticket to Indianapolis. In essence, they'll be playing as much against themselves as they are the Ravens.

This weekend's NFL action proved that defense does still matter. But what it showed more than anything is that ball security reigns supreme.

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