We’re accustomed to looking ahead, here in New England. When it comes to the Patriots, it’s just what we do.
That’s the result of advancing to the AFC Championship for five consecutive years. So, at 10-2 and as the No. 2 seed in the conference with four regular-season games remaining, you’re only human to be currently sizing up potential playoff opponents.
One of those teams that must be considered is the Baltimore Ravens. And it just so happens that they’re coming to town for a Week 14 primetime showdown at Gillette Stadium on Monday night. And what you’ll see, in my opinion, is the most dangerous AFC opponent the Patriots could face in January.
If the playoffs began after Week 13, the 7-5 Ravens would be the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and they’d be hosting a Wild Card playoff game against the Denver Broncos. If Baltimore won that game and the Patriots remained the No. 2 seed, the Ravens would then be coming to New England for the Divisional Round. So Monday night could very well be a playoff preview.
I’ve been telling you for weeks to watch out for the Ravens. I even told you before the season began, that there was something scary about the fact that nobody was talking about Baltimore. All anybody wanted to do — with regards to the AFC North — was pump up the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers are still very much alive at 7-5, losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ravens. But the Bengals are down and out at 4-7-1. And do I even need to mention the winless Cleveland Browns?
Bottom line is, don’t sleep on Baltimore as one of the more dangerous teams in the league just because the “experts” have been overlooking them all season long. In fact, I saw most national analysts picking the Miami Dolphins to beat the Ravens last Sunday. That was laughable to me. Baltimore has one of the best defenses in the league, and for Miami to go on the road and win that game, I would have been shocked.
Well, the Ravens rolled on the Dolphins, 38-6. That game was over in the second quarter. Not surprising though, they still don’t have the league’s full attention. But they probably should.
They have mine, at least. And that won’t change, even if the Patriots find a way to defeat the Ravens at Gillette on Monday night — which I expect they will.
It could only take nine wins to lock up the AFC North, and with the AFC South champ possibly only needing eight wins to clinch that division, the winner of the North could very well be the No. 3 seed, with just a 9-7 record.
But again, that won’t prevent me from believing the Ravens will be the most dangerous playoff opponent for the Patriots, come January. More dangerous than Oakland. More dangerous than Kansas City. And more dangerous than Denver.
To beat the Patriots, you need to have the complete package. Seattle showed us what it would take, when the Seahawks beat the Pats 31-24 last month at Gillette Stadium. You need to have one of the best defenses in football. You need to have offensive weapons. And you need to have a quarterback with championship experience who can make all the big plays.
There aren’t many teams in the NFL that can put a check mark next to all three of those areas. Seattle is one. Baltimore is another.
Oakland can’t. The Raiders have one of the worst pass defenses in football.
Kansas City and Denver can’t. They don’t have quarterbacks that anybody in the league is truly scared of.
And if you wanted to throw Pittsburgh, or perhaps Indianapolis into the conversation, watch those two teams play defense this season.
Baltimore has a Super Bowl champ in Joe Flacco who has a big arm and likes to throw the ball down the field. The Ravens have more weapons than people think in Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, and Dennis Pitta. And their defense is tied for second in the NFL — with the Patriots — in points-allowed per game at 17.3. The only team that’s allowed less points per game this season is Seattle, at 16.2.
My point is, Baltimore is as close as you’ll come to finding a team that provides everything Seattle does. Along with the Patriots, of course.
The Pats are still working on some things, defensively. And life without Rob Gronkowski isn’t going to make things any easier for Tom Brady. Still, I expect New England to win on Monday night.
After that, I’ll be pulling for Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. Because if the Ravens get into the tournament, they’ll be the Patriots’ most dangerous opponent in the AFC.