PLAYOFF-TESTED RAVENS ARE PATRIOTS' BIGGEST HURDLE IN THE AFCBy Mike Reiss
That 33-14 loss in the playoffs following the 2009 season left a mark at this address, and it's one of the main reasons why I view the second-seeded Ravens as the Patriots' most dangerous potential postseason foe this year.
But it's not the only reason.
The Ravens have played the Patriots tough each of the last four times the teams have met. Furthermore, when thinking of the defenses that knocked the Patriots out of the postseason in three of the last four years, the Ravens have that type of unit. They are physical. They attack. They won't back down or be intimidated versus Brady and an attack that can put a lot of pressure on the opposition.
You could make a similar case for the Steelers, who have already beaten the Patriots this season. But with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hobbling and top running back Rashard Mendenhall out for the playoffs, the Steelers look beaten up on offense. Also, I have doubts that Pittsburgh's defense would be able to hold down Brady & Co. for a second time. The Patriots' offense has been operating at a higher level since the Oct. 30 meeting between the teams.
The Ravens, on the other hand, might be hitting their stride after a regular season that included some surprising road losses (Jaguars, Seahawks), raising the question of why they're a different team away from home, where they posted an 8-0 record. Don't buy it.
They might be lacking speed at receiver, and quarterback Joe Flacco might not inspire confidence on a week-to-week basis, but running back Ray Rice is formidable and the Patriots' run defense has been shaky of late.
Also, the Ravens don't turn the ball over as much as the Steelers; they have a plus-2 turnover differential on the season, while the Steelers are minus-13. Yes, seven of the Steelers' turnovers came in the season opener, which skews the numbers. Then again, those turnovers came against the Ravens.
Overall, the Ravens look battle-tested and their playoff win over the Patriots two years ago should give them confidence that they can do it again if that's the way the matchup unfolds in the AFC Championship Game.
It would be a potential classic. It also would be the toughest possible matchup the Patriots could face in the AFC playoffs.
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STEELERS HAVE THE FORMULA FOR BEATING PATRIOTSBy Chris Forsberg
Yes, the Steelers are banged up and recent history suggests New England has their number in the postseason. But make no mistake: The Patriots absolutely want to avoid the Steelers.
Especially when you consider that the Patriots stiff-armed the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game after the 2001 and 2004 campaigns. History would seemingly be leaning heavy on New England's side.
Alas, we can't even take a page from Bill Belichick's playbook and implore you that past success means nothing in this potential matchup. After all, history is exactly what makes the Steelers such a scary opponent for New England.
Consider this: Pittsburgh hasn't lost a game in January since 2007 (though, to be fair, they didn't make the playoffs in 2009). The Steelers own a 9-2 mark in their last 11 postseason games, winning two of three trips to the Super Bowl (2005, 2008) during that span.
Unlike any other playoff foe, the Steelers have been here before and know how to win.
The Steelers are playing inspired football right now, even amidst bumps and bruises. Take away a 20-3 loss to San Francisco in Week 15, and the Steelers haven't allowed an opponent to reach double figures since their Week 11 bye. They allowed a mere eight points per game over the final six weeks of the regular season, going 5-1 during that stretch to finish 12-4.
If not for a pair of losses to AFC North rival Baltimore, Pittsburgh would have been the No. 2 seed in the conference, joining the Patriots with a bye this week. Instead, with a win Sunday over the Broncos, coupled with a Texans win over the Bengals, Pittsburgh will visit Gillette Stadium next Saturday night.
That's a somewhat sobering thought for Patriots fans because New England's offense looked mortal against the Steelers this season. It didn't hurt that Pittsburgh played keep-away, sitting on the ball for nearly 40 minutes and eventually hanging on for a 25-17 win in late October.
Yes, quarterback Tom Brady has been otherworldly against the Steelers during his career, but that didn't help him much a couple of months ago. Conversely, you get the feeling that Roethlisberger can hurt this Patriots defense even on just one leg.
The Patriots have been slow starters in recent weeks and have shown little to suggest that will change in the postseason. The idea of Pittsburgh coming into Foxborough and claiming an early lead -- and then keeping the ball out of Brady's hands again -- has to be frightening for Patriots fans.
It's exactly why most Patriots fans should be rooting for the Broncos and Bengals this weekend.