- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Trick question: Which team has the top-rated defense in the NFL playoffs? If you answered the New England Patriots, you are correct.
The much-maligned Patriots' defense had the best performance of the playoffs thus far in a 45-10 win against the Denver Broncos. A group that was mostly on its heels during the regular season attacked Denver and quarterback Tim Tebow, allowing just 252 total yards. Whether the one-game performance was a fluke or a sign of things to come is a subject of intense debate.
We will find out Sunday when the Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. When it comes to defense, the Patriots stand out in a group that includes the Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants in the conference championships. Baltimore and San Francisco were both top-four defenses. The Giants were injured on defense all season, but are finally healthy and playing like the talented unit most expected.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, New England is trying to become, by far, the worst-rated defense ever to win a Super Bowl. New England was ranked 31st in total defense in the regular season. Only the Green Bay Packers -- who were 15-1 but one-and-done in the playoffs -- were worse. Is this Patriots' defense good enough to win a championship?
"Everyone is real easy to jump on the Patriots' defense and say they're so terrible and they can't win a Super Bowl being this bad. But I don't agree with that," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I don’t think it's great. It's clearly the worst defense still in the playoffs. They allow all these passing yards, but they don't allow that many points, and that's more important."
The Patriots continue to challenge the longstanding theory that "defense wins championships." Three of the past four Super Bowl champions -- Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis -- were led by dynamic offenses. But this season, defense is making a comeback.
The Patriots have the best offense and worst defense remaining in the field. Yet they are the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.
"Big defenses will stand up in playoff situations. So it's still relevant," NFL analyst Steve Young explained in a conference call this week. "It's just not quite as relevant as the old days, in my mind. It's a big deal, and I think the Giants and 49ers playing each other is interesting, because [they have] two really great defenses. The Patriots will have to be proven wrong, that they can't go the distance in this pass-happy era. ... I think the question is going to be answered on the field. Phenomenal offense against a great defense and we'll see in this era who can pull off championship football.”
The matchup between Baltimore's offense and New England's defense is an intriguing one. Both groups have been the weaker links of their respective teams. With Baltimore's passing game inconsistent, the key to slowing the Ravens will be corralling Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. In many ways, Rice is to Baltimore what quarterback Tom Brady is to New England. Rice led the Ravens in rushing (1,364) and receptions (76). Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually attempts to take away an opponent's best weapon and force a team to win with its second and third options. Similar to last week, expect New England to gear up heavily against the run and see if Baltimore can keep up with New England's high-powered offense by passing the football.
"I'll tell you what, he’s probably one of the toughest guys to bring down in this league because he always keeps those wheels spinning," Patriots Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "He always comes up with big plays for his team, if it’s in the pass game or the running game. When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him. I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That’s first on our list; we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense."
If things go as planned for New England, there will be a lot of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to keep up. Flacco's performances in the playoffs have been inconsistent. Last week he completed just 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards in a 20-13 win against the Houston Texans. Flacco also was sacked five times. That also happens to be the same amount of sacks New England registered against Tebow last week. You also cannot ignore the "Brady Factor" when talking about New England's defense. The future Hall of Famer is playing some of the best football of his career, and is coming off a six-touchdown performance against Denver, which tied a playoff record.
New England's high-scoring offense is averaging 40.5 points in the past four games and has complemented the defense well. Despite all of New England's defensive issues, the team is pretty solid in the red zone and is 15th in points allowed (21.4) per game.
"The Patriots are not great [defensively], but they don't need to shut teams out either with Brady and the offense that they have,” Williamson said.
For months many have wondered if the Patriots' struggling defense can step up in the playoffs if the offense cannot light it up against an elite defense. This is probably the week we find out against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.
Perhaps no group in the playoffs has more to prove this week than New England's defense, which might or might not be turning the corner.
"It's playoff time," Patriots starting cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "Our records, our stats go out the window this time of year. We're fully committed to play for one another."