The Baltimore Ravens have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and have for several years.
Their offense is not as prolific as New England’s - few are - but it is a respectable unit, with several weapons that the Patriots will have to account for in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
Baltimore averaged 23.6 points per game, which ranked 12th in the league; the offense averaged 338.7 yards per game, which was a middle-of-the-pack 15th.
During yesterday’s conference calls with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, secondary coach Josh Boyer, and director of player personnel Nick Caserio, much of the talk centered on the Ravens offense - including quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, receivers Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith, tight end Dennis Pitta, and even old rival Lee Evans, a receiver the Patriots know well from his days with Buffalo.
“They have a great complement of receivers and tight ends and backs. They get the ball to everybody,’’ Belichick said. “The receivers are productive, their tight ends are very productive, and, of course, Rice is their leading receiver. I think it’s a little bit like the passing that we’re familiar with.
“You take one guy away and they can beat you. They have a lot of different guys. Boldin is a tough matchup - he’s strong, he’s really physical, he’s got great size, tough guy, tough after the catch. You give him too much space and he’s strong and physical and can hurt you with the ball in his hands.’’
Boldin, listed at 6 feet 1 inch, 223 pounds, came to Baltimore in 2010 after pairing with Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona for several seasons.
Smith, a first-round pick out of Maryland this year, was brought in as a needed deep threat, and averaged a shade under 18 yards per catch, with eight touchdowns.
Rice is a dual threat. As Belichick noted, he had a team-high 76 receptions, but he also rushed for 1,364 yards, averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry.
Though the talent is there, the wild card often is Flacco.
Now in his fourth season as the starting quarterback - he was a second-round pick in 2008 - his numbers this year weren’t pretty: Flacco’s 57.6 completion percentage and 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions are average at best.
In some games, including both of Baltimore’s regular-season wins over rival Pittsburgh, he was solid. But in others, he had observers scratching their heads.
One of those games came last weekend against Houston in the divisional round. In the days leading up to the contest, Flacco groused that if the Ravens won, reporters would say that he had nothing to do with it.
Flacco was actually correct; he completed just 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards and was sacked five times. Some of those numbers were a credit to the strong play of the Texans defense, but at other times Flacco simply held the ball too long or made a questionable decision.
He did throw two touchdowns against zero interceptions, however.
To Belichick, the only stat that matters is victories.
“They’ve won a lot of games and I think that’s the big thing,’’ he said. “A quarterback has to do what his team needs him to do to win and Joe has done that.
“He’s been a solid guy since his rookie year in terms of managing the game and using the clock and making good decisions and those types of things.
“I think he can make all the throws that you need a quarterback to make. He can run the team and manage it well. He can make checks and decisions that the offense needs to have a good flow and take advantage of defensive alignment.’’
“Joe Flacco is a very capable quarterback,’’ said Boyer. “He is a guy that can throw the ball 65 yards down the field. He can hit the intermediate routes. He is very smart; he understands when to go to the check downs. Even at times he takes some good sacks; he doesn’t put his team in bad situations. I would say the passing game really starts with him.’’
While Patriots coaches were praising Flacco, his teammate, safety Ed Reed, went on Sirius XM NFL radio yesterday and criticized his quarterback.
“I think Joe was kind of rattled a little bit by that [Houston] defense,’’ said Reed. “They had a lot of guys in the box on him. And, I mean, they were getting to him. I think a couple times he needed to get rid of the ball.
“He could have made audibles or anything like that, checks or whatnot.
“It just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense. You know, it was just kind of like they were telling him [what] to do, throw the ball or get it here, you know, get it to certain guys. And he can’t play like that.’’
Because of a reporting error, this story mistakenly referred to Joe Flacco as a second-round pick in an earlier edition.