After all the ups and downs of the 2011 season, here we are. Four teams are left in the NFL's tournament and the New England Patriots are one of them. They've won nine in a row, building momentum along the way.
One of the elements in play Sunday could be precipitation. While temperatures are currently projected to be in the 30s or 40s, there could be a mix of snow and/or rain over the weekend.
Both teams will be ready for conditions that could affect the game. As Bill Belichick pointed out this week, the Patriots have had more than 100 practices over the course of the season in a variety of elements. That's why Belichick often has the team outside regardless of the forecast.
If you're a follower of the team, what more can you ask for than this?
Your team is in the hunt, in striking distance of another Super Bowl championship. Given the year-to-year changes in the NFL, it's a credit to the Patriots that they have been able to consistently remain in the championship hunt. Players seem to sense this is their best chance in recent memory to bring home another title, so they'll take their best shot.
Q: Mike, would you agree that the Pats have the edge this Sunday? Everyone talks about the '09 playoffs but compare the WR's Tom Brady was passing to then compared to this year. Lest we forget the Patriots DID beat the Ravens the last time they played and hold a 6-1 record versus that team. -- Benjamin (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
A: Benjamin, I do think the Patriots have the edge Sunday, but I don't think that necessarily means they win the game. They have to go prove it over 60 minutes against a tough Ravens team. So to me, the question is more this: Based on what you've seen this year from the Patriots, do you believe they have what it takes to rise up in those 60 minutes? I do, but it's not going to be easy. As for the 2009 playoffs, there are 16 players on the current Patriots active roster who dressed for that game. It's not a huge factor, although I agree that the pass-catchers on this year's team are at a much higher level than that '09 squad. The main thing I take from the '09 game is that the core veterans for the Ravens can have a little added confidence that they've done this before, winning on the road in a tough spot.
Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering about the atmosphere in the locker room. It's hard for the coach to do all the motivating without external factors playing in. Last week, in particular, the players were very focused and businesslike as noted because the coaches had a great game-plan and they were tired of hearing "Tebow-time" and "playoff-losing streak." I am concerned that after a blowout win, some of that focus may dissipate. In a best-case scenario, I see the Patriots faring similar to how the Saints fared in 2009, blowing out the Cardinals and then barely fending off the Vikings in the championship game. Thoughts? On a side note, the Giants look like they're in the "zone" right now. Hard not seeing them in the Super Bowl. They also arguably have the most balanced team in the league. -- Steven (Raleigh, N.C.)
A: Steven, that's a strong locker room and the Patriots have established a nice rhythm over their nine-game winning streak in which they wipe the slate clean and start all over again each week. I don't see them breaking stride. Rookie offensive lineman Nate Solder described it as a "routine machine" on Monday, which was a unique way to put it. So while we can't guarantee results on 3 p.m. ET Sunday, I feel confident telling you that the Patriots' preparation will be focused and solid. Most players know what's at stake and the rare opportunity in front of them.
Q: Mike, I may be way off base but I see a favorable matchup for the Patriots this week. The Ravens remind me a bit of the 2006 Patriots. A lot of good talent that might be a bit past their prime and some talented younger players sprinkled in on the defensive side of the ball. However, when the game is on the line, I'm not sure they can answer the bell against such an explosive offense. These Ravens, like those Patriots, are good enough to make some plays but are overmatched here. Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I can see where you are coming from because the Ravens don't score a lot of points. Asking them to keep up with the explosive Patriots might be too much for them. The main reason I hesitate to feel as strongly as you do is that I could envision a scenario where that defense finds a way to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the Patriots' lethal passing game to stay within striking distance. I have the Super Bowl against the Giants in my mind along those lines. When you're talking about players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, there is a lot of big-game experience and big-play ability there.
Q: Hey Mike, what a great offensive and defensive game-plan against Denver, and the players executed it to perfection. While there are no right/wrong answers, if you had to pick one personnel grouping that would decide the Ravens game, what would it be? I'd pick our d-line. If they can put pressure on Joe Flacco, make him uncomfortable, AND maintain strong gap control vs. the run, #PatriotsNation should be very happy Sunday. -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)
A: Bill, I'll stay on the line of scrimmage but look to the offensive side. I think the offensive line holds the key. If quarterback Tom Brady has time to throw, and the Patriots can put up 27 points, I think they win the game. The one area I see that could stand in the way of that is if the line struggles to hold up against a challenging, attacking Ravens defense. We saw what happened in the Super Bowl against the Giants when the line didn't hold up consistently as it paralyzed the offense.
Q: Mike, call me a traditionalist, but I've always believed "defenses win championships." Things have changed, of course, Super Bowls are no longer played in Green Bay, and it's a passing league. But two of the top three scoring teams in the league will be watching games from their living room on Sunday. Both relied on offense to win games. The Giants operated similarly throughout the season, but are getting healthy at the defensive line and are winning that battle. We're the highest scoring team left, and our defense has left little to admire. Are we built to win a championship? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)
A: It's a fair question, David, and I think the answer is an easy one. If the Patriots play like they did Saturday night, they absolutely are built to win a championship. That was complementary football at its finest -- offense, defense and special teams. When a defense forces 14 negative plays like the Patriots did, it's an impressive night's work. I think back to the 2006 Colts defense which struggled against the run in the regular season but turned the switch in the playoffs, so it's happened before.
Q: Mike, which Super Bowl storyline would be the most interesting going into the game for the four teams left? 1. A Patriots-Giants rematch? 2. A Harbaugh Bowl? 3. A Giants-Ravens rematch from the 2000 Super Bowl? 4. Tom Brady going against his old favorite team in the 49ers? -- Chase (New Canaan, Conn.)
A: Chase, I'd rank them this way: 1. Patriots-Giants rematch; 2. Harbaugh Bowl (Ravens-49ers); 3. Brady vs. his 49ers; 4. Giants-Ravens rematch from 2000 Super Bowl.
Q: Hey Mike, watching Tom Brady's intensity Saturday, it's apparent he's on a quest for his fourth Super Bowl ring. How everything is unfolding, it seems he'll have to face roadblocks from his entire career. Coming off a divisional round loss to the Jets in 2010, he and the Patriots return to sweep them in the 2011 regular season. On Saturday, Brady defeats the only team that has a winning record against him in Denver who knocked him out the playoffs in 2005. Next Sunday, New England faces Baltimore, which knocked him out from the playoffs in 2009. If all goes according to plan, he'll be in Indianapolis playing one of two teams: Either the New York Giants, the team that denied him the undefeated season in 2007, or the San Francisco, his hometown team that passed on him for Hofstra great Giovanni Carmazzi in the 2000 draft. It may be a coincidence, but if Brady wants to hoist the Lombardi next month it's only fitting he'll have to succeed where he's failed since 2004. Any thoughts? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Alvin, we could call it Redemption Tour '11. Brady is the ultimate competitor and he knows this type of opportunity can't be taken for granted. He's dialed in right now.
Q: Mike, it seems as if the stars have been aligning all season with the Patriots. Every team that has a scary passing game is being eliminated. Roethlisberger, Brees, Rodgers, the latter two I think would be nearly impossible for the Patriots to beat. Not to mention the Jets didn't make the playoffs. I think if the 49ers can beat the Giants, it would have been the best scenario you could have hoped for. Obviously the Pats need to take care of their own business, but it's obvious their major weak link is stopping the pass, and all the good passing teams are getting knocked out. Also, I like your redemption idea, but the thought of another Giants Super Bowl will give me a heart attack. -- Adam Z (Windsor Locks, Conn.)
A: Adam, when we talk about the stars aligning, I think of that "MHK" patch on the team's jersey. As Tedy Bruschi said, the Patriots are now "playing for the patch." These remaining four teams are all tough, and there are no givens, but I agree that the two toughest Super Bowl matchups would have been Green Bay and New Orleans because of the explosiveness on offense presenting the toughest matchup for New England. Still, take nothing away from the remaining teams. They're all there for a reason. They're playing very well right now.
Q: Hi Mike, what is the biggest Pats win of the year? [To me it's] that first playoff victory and they did it in style. I believe it will propel them all the way to Indy to play a tough NFC team. You called the Pats and Giants at the beginning of the year and it looks completely possibly. I like Brady and the boys to take it all. Thoughts? -- Lonster (SoCal)
A: I think the Patriots have as good of a chance as any team left in the tournament. You want to be playing at home and with Tom Brady at quarterback, that's a nice combination. As for the biggest win of the year, I view the turning point as Nov. 13 at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. Coming off a two-game losing streak with a short-handed roster, and facing a Jets team that had won three straight, the Patriots showed a lot that night in posting a big win. I'd put the playoff win against the Broncos right there, too.
Q: Hey Mike, with the Ravens, Niners and Giants left -- all teams that can pressure with just 4 rushers -- wouldn't you think there would be a strong emphasis in practice on Tom Brady running the offense with very limited time in the pocket? What do you think the Patriots do in practice to simulate a good pass rush by an opposing team and what can they do schematically to help Brady and the O-line with this pressure? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Tron, there are a couple of things that come to mind with this topic. One thing the Patriots have done in the past when preparing to face strong edge pressure is line a defensive player a half-yard offside so he gets there quicker when the ball is snapped. Overall, the idea in practice is to tailor the scout team to mimic what that week's opponent does and give the best possible look, so what the Patriots do this week might be different than next week based on the scheme of that foe. If they were really concerned with it, they could work on Brady getting the ball out quickly.
Q: Hi Mike, the second fumble in two games by Stevan Ridley is an alarm bell. Losing the ball in the red zone makes it worse, and against a tougher competitor like the Ravens, Giants and 49ers, it could well be a quite serious or fatal setback, hurting the team with the loss of valuable and irretrievable time and points. From now on, the RB duties have to be left to the ever reliable football lock, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and almost equally reliable Danny Woodhead, plus the O-Line plow. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, BC)
A: Jake, one of the things I've learned from working with Tedy Bruschi is that when defenders see a running back with two fumbles in two games, it's like blood in the water for a shark. They identify that player as a "ball security" target and are coming after him. In turn, if you're the Patriots coaching staff, this naturally has to shake your confidence in giving the ball to a young player like Ridley. I've heard Bill Belichick say this several hundred times: "When you carry the football, you carry the hopes of the entire team in your hands." I still think Ridley is the Patriots' most explosive runner, but if he can't be trusted to hold on to the football, he won't play. I wouldn't be surprised if his playing time is trimmed back a bit until he wins the confidence of the coaching staff back.
Q: Hi Mike, the Pats have a very good opportunity in the AFC championship game. A key will be to limit the effectiveness of Ray Rice in both the run and pass and to keep the pass rush off Tom Brady, especially up the middle. What other keys do you see to this game? Also how is Aaron Hernandez feeling? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, I'll start with Hernandez. We just briefly laid eyes on him Monday when he walked through the locker room and from that quick look, you couldn't tell much. This is a head injury and you have to proceed with caution there, but my sense is that he'll be OK right now. I think you are right on with Rice. There are only two players in the NFL who led their team in rushing yardage and receptions -- Rice and the Bears' Matt Forte -- and because of that Rice figures to be a big part of the Patriots' focus. Earlier, the importance of the offensive line was mentioned and I'd stress that if looking at other matchups.
Q: Mike, seeing Hernandez in the backfield was a great example of the Patriot coaching staff working on all cylinders. It seems like a tremendous advantage that the opponents don't know whether the Pats are spread with five quick receivers or capable of shifting into a solid running package with Gronk at TE and Hernandez at RB. I'm sure we'll see it against Baltimore, but how much? Hernandez didn't seem like a guy who should be given more than five or six carries. -- Morgan (Vail, Colo.)
A: Morgan, the Patriots had 27 snaps in the 3 WR/2 TE package, and they used the up-tempo no-huddle with it. That was when Hernandez lined up in the backfield at times. They'll surely have it ready to go again, and a lot will depend on the flow of the game. One of the things that makes it so effective is how the Patriots sneak up on opponents with it. They opened against the Broncos with two plays in conventional fashion, then on the third play, it was "boom!" It's so decisive. It's hard to put a number on how much they'll use it this time around, and with Hernandez's head injury, perhaps they don't hand off. But it's still something that Ravens defense has to account for, no doubt.
Q: Hi Mike ... Great win Saturday as the defense came up huge. Offense looked good also but I must say, I am not thrilled at all with the thought of Hernandez being a running back against the Ravens. His ball handling is not great and the Ravens pound people if you know what I mean. I am sure they will attack him if he carries the ball. I would. Your thoughts? -- Ken (Long Island)
A: Ken, I file this one into the category of "as long as the opponent respects the possibility, it's effective" and I think that's what Hernandez's performance Saturday night set up for the Patriots. The offense ran 27 snaps in the 3 WR/2 TE package and as Bill Belichick explained, they wanted to at least keep defenses honest that they might run it out of that grouping. It was nicely done.
Q: I love that Robert Kraft decided that four members of the 1996 AFC Championship team will be honorary captains. The crowd will go wild. Troy Brown was a great first choice. Who would you pick as the other three? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, there are so many choices, you can't go wrong. I'm going to eliminate Drew Bledsoe because he was just back for Patriots Hall of Fame ceremonies. Tedy Bruschi is a no-brainer to me, and yes, I'm a little biased because I've quickly come to learn what a great teammate he can be. Then, for me, it's a choice between Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri, Curtis Martin, Bill Parcells, Lawyer Milloy, Ben Coates, Chris Slade, Adam Vinatieri, Bruce Armstrong, Ted Johnson and Willie Clay. I'd love to see Parcells, but don't envision that unfolding. So I'll go with Law and McGinest.
Q: Mike, I have never been more confident in picking the Pats to win the Super Bowl as I am today. Here are a few reasons I want to point out. There is real disrespect for the first time in years. ... Next reason, they are healthy and their offensive line (guards in particular) is playing great. When Deion Branch is pass-catching option number 4, I'm not sure how you stop them from putting up 35. The defense is getting players back, and played great last week. They have the players, and they have all the disrespect they need to play tough. If that's not enough, they have the patch to play for. They win this for Myra and Robert. Pats beat Giants by 20 in the Super Bowl. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A: Rick, I think there is a lot to like when it comes to the 2011 Patriots and I could see them winning two more games. When quarterback Tom Brady has that look in his eyes that we saw Saturday night, it's almost like he's possessed. But where we diverge is that I think the next two games (assuming there are two) are going to extremely tough and I don't see the Patriots easily scoring 35 against the Ravens. While I have confidence in the Patriots' ability to rise to the challenge, I also believe they are entering a thin-margin-for-error area and that all it might take is a tipped pass to send them home. So I guess I enter this phase of the postseason with the same outlook for all four teams based on the high level of competitiveness with which they play -- anything is possible.
Q: Mike, all I keep hearing is how the team is really a finesse team like the Colts, but something I think people forget is that they are a tough smack-you-in-the-mouth team with a high-power offense that is physical. The key is if the offensive line is healthy. What are your thoughts? -- Mark
A: Mark, the Patriots might not be the most physical team in the NFL, but to call them finesse is a lazy, scratch-the-surface analysis in my view. It's the easy way out. It's the same thing Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain did prior to the Week 4 meeting between Oakland and New England, and I think he fell into the same trap, making that assumption because the Patriots throw the ball a lot, they're not physical. We saw how that turned out; the Patriots punched the Raiders in the mouth that day. Between Logan Mankins, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung -- and the way the receivers block downfield in the run game -- you might see the Patriots dominate an All-NFL "Most Physical" team at their respective positions.
Q: Am I missing something or are the Patriots adopting an attack oriented 3-4 scheme for their base defense? Seems like the style that suits their personnel best at this point. -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)
A: That's essentially what they played against the Broncos, with end Mark Anderson standing up as an outside linebacker for almost the entire game. One thing about the Patriots, they really do shift up their defense on a week to week basis. Against the Dolphins on Dec. 24, it was more of a heavy 4-3 with Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick at end. I think we'll continue to see them tweak their plan on a weekly basis, tailored to the specific opponent.
Q: I like your stats on snaps by the defense and offense. Can you list snaps played by the offensive linemen? For example, how many snaps did Logan Mankins play, how many did Marcus Cannon play? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
Ashley, Mankins played every series but one in the first half, then just the first series in the second half before he rested his injured knee. It was a total of 39 snaps for him. Rookie offensive lineman Marcus Cannon only came on when the Patriots moved Nate Solder to an eligible position spot, and played a total of four snaps.
Q: Do you see Julian Edelman's role as a slot CB permanent? -- AJ (Conn.)
A: AJ, I don't see it as permanent. On Saturday night, Edelman played 27 offensive snaps and four defensive snaps. If anything, it's back to leaning toward the offense again.
Q: Mike, a few weeks ago I asked when we'd see Tom Brady quick kick again, and Saturday he did it again. I wonder if the Pats showed that simply to make future playoff opponents wary. Now, I wonder when the Pats might actually throw a pass to Nate Solder when he plays tight end. I'm sure they consider that an option based upon his initial collegiate career as a tight end. Will we see it? That would shock some opponents. -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)
A: Steve, when Solder switches to an eligible-receiver position, he's not just staying in to block. He has released into pass patterns. So I wouldn't count this out.
Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering what your thought was about the Texans defense. Seeing guys on defense like Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Cornor Barwin, and J.J. Watt (all linked as good fits for the Pats to draft) putting pressure on Joe Flacco and keeping the game within reach. Can't complain with results of our Pats team this year but have to wonder what this defense could look like if the draft went down different. -- Brian Tweedie (Manchester, Maine)
A: Brian, I think that Texans' defense is a great example of what happens when you hit on some front-seven draft picks on defense and combine it with top-notch coaching (coordinator Wade Phillips) and an attacking style. This isn't necessarily the time to be thinking big-picture, but that's the type of approach I think the Patriots could benefit from in the coming years, focusing a bit more on some of those pressure type players in the draft.
Q: Mike, with the Pats owning the Saints' No. 1 pick this year, where will that fall after the Saints, Packers and Steelers all lost this week? -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)
A: Dan, that pick will be 27th overall. Here is a link with some of the recent No. 27 picks.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.