OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- All the talk surrounding the Ravens this week has been about Ed Reed's critical comments regarding quarterback Joe Flacco and how they will affect the team's heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
In reality, Reed is a bigger problem for the Patriots than he'll ever be for the Ravens. No one draws more respect from the Patriots than Reed and no one gives them more reasons to worry than the eight-time Pro Bowl safety.
There's no certainty when it comes to Reed. He can be anywhere on the field. Reed can even make it look like he'll be on one side and end up on the other before the ball gets there.
When it comes to stopping the Patriots' passing game, the Ravens have to keep an eye on Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch. When it comes to having success against the Ravens' pass defense, all eyes are on Reed.
Having Reed playing center field in the secondary is the biggest reason that the Ravens allowed an NFL-low 11 passing touchdowns this season (four fewer than any other team). He's also the biggest reason that no quarterback has thrown more than one touchdown pass against the Ravens in any game this season.
The biggest compliment that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can give Reed is that the free safety is always at the forefront of his mind.
"When you break the huddle, you find where he's at and you make sure you're not lobbing the ball up in his zones, because as you saw in the Houston game, he's going to go up there and make the plays," Brady said. "He's just an exceptional player. I don't think there is a weakness that he has."
Reed is coming off one of the worst regular seasons of his career, at least statistically. His three interceptions and eight passes defended are his lowest in a full 16-game season.
But the postseason has always been Reed's best season. His eight interceptions is one shy of tying Ronnie Lott, Bill Simpson and Charlie Waters for the most in NFL playoff history.
Reed's latest came last Sunday with 1:51 left in the game and the Ravens ahead by a touchdown. Knowing the Texans would look deep to wide receiver Andre Johnson, Reed held his ground in the middle of the field even though quarterback T.J. Yates was trying to make the safety move left by staring in that direction.
When Yates cocked his arm back, Reed jumped to the right side toward Johnson before Yates even released the ball. Reed was there in time to intercept the pass in front of Johnson at the Baltimore 4-yard line.
Reed's instincts and awareness have led to 57 interceptions, the most among active players.
"I've just been playing football for a long time," Reed said of having a nose for the ball. "I've been playing football since I was a little kid, so it's just some natural blessings that God has blessed me with to get to the ball and understand what I've been doing over the years."
With 11 seconds left in last Sunday's playoff game, Reed made the play that allowed the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship Game. On that play, Reed was playing over the top against Johnson on the left side, which forced the Texans to throw the Hail Mary to the right. Reed raced all the way across the field to knock down the pass, preserving a 20-13 victory.
"I’m not sure that if he hadn’t made it, I don’t know what would have happened there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Those are the kinds of plays he makes. He probably covers more field back there as a single safety than most teams can cover with two. He’s got great instincts; he’s a tremendous player.”
Belichick's affection for Reed is well-known. He called Reed one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Last year, Brady joked that Belichick wanted to adopt Ed Reed and change his name to "Ed Belichick."
"He has said that to us before, and then constantly threw the ball back there at him," linebacker Suggs said. "I don't know how much that holds weight."
Suggs is right that the Patriots' adoration doesn't mean they fear Reed, who has broken up five passes in four career games against New England and intercepted Brady in the 2009 wild-card playoff game.
While the Patriots were praising Reed all week, the Ravens had to answer questions about his comments every day. Reed went on national radio this week to say Flacco was "rattled" in last Sunday's playoff game and "just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense." He doesn't believe those comments will distract the team leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
"It's about the Ravens and New England playing football," Reed said. "All that other stuff is to the side. That was about the last game. It's irrelevant to what we're doing right now, getting ready for the Patriots. What was said was something I said about the whole team, and it wasn't just about Joe. We were critical about ourselves in that game. That's every teammate of mine talking about the game we watched on film. We weren't satisfied with our effort."
Reed won't be satisfied until he wins a Super Bowl, and the years to capture one are starting to dwindle for him. He'll turn 34 less than a week into next season, and he's contemplated retirement before because of a nerve impingement between his neck and shoulder.
Does Reed sense the window of opportunity closing?
"We'll cross that bridge when that happens," Reed said. "Right now, we're focused on playing football and winning this game. That's what it's about at the end of the day. It's about us going out and trying to win this game to the best of our ability, and that's what we're going out there to do."