— The Baltimore Ravens did nothing this year to tarnish their reputation as the sneering bullies of the NFL. They finished the regular season ranked third in total defense, allowing a total of just over 288 yards per game. They were also third in scoring defense, giving up 16.6 points per contest.
They can still hold their fearsome heads high while they smack passersby out of the way and seize the best tables at restaurants through intimidation. Their place as denizens of defensive destruction is secure.
Yet they might want to hold off just a tad on uninhibited sack dancing and muscle flexing until they vanquish a real offense. And one of those is on tap for Sunday.
The New England Patriots, with valiant Tom Brady at the quarterback position, represent the greatest challenge of the season for the Ravens’ defense. The Pats were No. 2 in the NFL in total offense, averaging 509 yards per contest. They also were No. 3 in scoring, at 32 points per game. And last weekend Brady & Co. chopped up the Broncos’ defense like a Benihana chef, resulting in a 45-10 New England victory.
Sure, the Ravens are tough. Of course, they’re frightening. Indeed, they’re difficult to beat.
But take a look at their schedule for 2011. Examine the opponents they left in their wake. It’s as if they beat the snot out of the chess club.
They did defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, I’ll give them that. Those were two fine victories. The first, a 35-7 win at home in the season opener, was killer, but it seemed somewhat fluky given the rabid nature of this brutal rivalry. It was as if the Steelers all got the same late wake-up call at the hotel. The second was a 23-20 victory in Pittsburgh that was far more impressive if you’re a Ravens honk. Yet even in that one Baltimore gave up almost 400 total yards.
The rest of the Ravens’ slate is the issue. Ruffians though they may be, they only got to face one other “elite” quarterback. That was Philip Rivers on Dec. 18. I think we’re all aware that early in 2011 the real Philip Rivers was kidnapped and replaced with a defective avatar -- he threw for 27 TDs but also 20 picks and seven lost fumbles this year -- and yet he still solved the Ravens’ defense in a 34-14 trouncing.
Aside from the two meetings with Roethlisberger, it was the one other time the Ravens faced a so-called elite quarterback -- and he dropped 34 on them, the most points the Baltimore D allowed all year.
Take a gander at the other arms the Ravens had to face. Andy Dalton had a strong year for a rookie in Cincinnati, but he’s a rookie, and the Ravens barely beat him twice. They also halted Cleveland twice -- once with Colt McCoy at quarterback, the other time with Seneca Wallace.
The Baltimore defense defeated the Jets with a struggling Mark Sanchez; the Colts without Peyton Manning; the Cardinals with a shaky Kevin Kolb; and the Rams with a defenseless Sam Bradford.
They also beat the 49ers on Nov. 24, and while I’m generally impressed with the rejuvenation of Alex Smith, he's not elite yet.
It should also be noted that the Ravens are playing in New England.
The Ravens have four losses, and they all came on the road. Aside from Rivers in San Diego, the Ravens lost to Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee; to rookie Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville; and to Tarvaris Jackson in Seattle. To be fair, Hasselbeck is a quality signal-caller. And the Jaguars actually won their game by holding the Ravens to seven points while kicking four field goals; Gabbert’s major contribution consisted of remaining ambulatory.
But the overall point still applies. These mean, rugged, no-nonsense defensive Goliaths from Baltimore haven’t faced anything like the passing attack of Tom Brady, and they’ll be doing it before a hostile crowd. If they can’t cope, the goose of the Ravens will be cooked, and so will their reputation as league’s preeminent muggers.
The Patriots certainly have defensive issues of their own. They managed to silence the din generated by the Tim Tebow faithful when they desecrated the Broncos last week.
But Joe Flacco is at least a capable quarterback, and Ray Rice is a formidable rushing threat. Unlike their game against Denver, stopping the Ravens’ offense will be a grown-up task for the Patriots, and it will reveal whether New England’s defense is rising to the occasion at the right time after a disappointing showing in 2011, or if it simply rose to one occasion against an inept offense.
Also, Baltimore inside linebacker Ray Lewis is 36, in his 16th season. Safety Ed Reed is 33, in his 10th campaign. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, 22, stands 6-6, 265. You do the math.
The Ravens definitely are deserving of a berth in this AFC Championship Game. They have the talent, experience and coaching necessary to stymie the Patriots and reach the Super Bowl.
But as bullies, they still have a lot to prove. They’ve been smacking around 98-pound weaklings this season -- relatively speaking, of course -- with little concern for taking one on the chin in return. If they don’t produce the kind of pass rush on Brady that the Giants generated against the Packers, for instance, they’ll join the Packers on hiatus.
You never really know how tough a bully is until he gets bullied himself.