After the New England Patriots dropped back-to-back games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants in Weeks 8 and 9, there was chatter that the Patriots, then 5-3, were on the verge of losing their grip on the AFC East to the New York Jets and — gasp! — the Buffalo Bills.
Nine straight wins later, the red-hot Patriots (14-3), who finished the regular season with the AFC's best record, will host the second-seeded Ravens (13-4) in Sunday's AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium. They dominated the Denver Browns, 45-10, on Saturday night.
Tom Brady tossed six touchdowns — setting an NFL postseason record with five in the first half — while completing 26 of 34 passes for 363 yards.
"If he knows what [defense] you're in, he's going to hurt you," linebacker Jarret Johnson said of the "cerebral" Brady, who is 4-1 all-time against the Ravens (but 0-1 in the postseason).
Despite throwing for 5,235 yards in the regular season, the second-highest total in NFL history, Brady was overshadowed by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans' Drew Brees, who is now the NFL's all-time single-season passing yards leader after he also surpassed Dan Marino with 5,476.
But from afar the Ravens have watched the Patriots pile up points — they are averaging 37.3 per game during their winning streak — and they know that both their offense and defense must be fine-tuned in practice this week and humming perfectly Sunday to keep pace with the Patriots.
"You can't make that many mistakes, or else they're going to expose you," linebacker Terrell Suggs said Sunday after a 20-13 win over the Houston Texans that Suggs admitted "wasn't really pretty."
The pass rush will be critical for the Ravens, who had zero sacks against the Texans. They can't give Brady, who was sacked 32 times in 2011, time to stand in the pocket and locate open receivers downfield.
Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker led the league with 122 receptions during the regular season and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were also in the NFL's top 15. Gronkowski hauled in an NFL-high 17 receiving touchdowns, which set a new all-time record for his position.
Gronkowski had a team-high 10 receptions for 145 yards and three touchdowns against Denver.
"If you watch 'SportsCenter,' you've seen their offense," Johnson said of the pass-happy Patriots.
Defensively, the Patriots finished 31st in the league in yards allowed and were also next-to-last in pass defense, surrendering nearly 300 yards per game. But New England led the AFC with 23 interceptions and 34 total take ways, and ranked 15th in the league in scoring defense (21.4).
"They're good enough to be 14-3, so [their defense is] pretty impressive," coach John Harbaugh said.
Both Harbaugh and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday afternoon that they hadn't finished breaking down tape of the Patriots defense. But after joking that he is familiar with the Patriots because his brother always played as them on the "Madden" video games, Smith got serious, saying that the Ravens offense needs to avoid three-and-outs and turnovers and score more points Sunday.
And though their offense sputtered in the final three quarters against the Texans, the Ravens are a game away from the Super Bowl for a reason. They expect to put the Patriots to the test, too.
"It's going to be a great challenge for both [teams]," linebacker Ray Lewis said Sunday. "Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and there is no better mind in football than [New England head coach] Bill Belichick. So with all of that being said, here is our opportunity."