Sunday kickoff: Flacco's better than you think

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Sunday kickoff: Flacco's better than you think

BALTIMORE -- Joe Flacco is either fifth or sixth in line when it comes to media tongue baths among Baltimore Ravens.

Theres, of course, Ray Lewis. Then Ed Reed. Then Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs. Then comes either Flacco or head coach John Harbaugh. By that time nobodys listening anymore.

Looking at his value as a fantasy football option or as a guy who will move the needle in terms of name recognition, hes weak. Just Joe.

But if you look at Flaccos actual resume record, hes better than okay or pretty good. Hes one of the leagues most effective quarterbacks.

The Patriots arent concerned tonight about how many fantasy points Flacco amasses. Theyre concerned about the player who is 45-21 as a regular-season starter, the guy who has thrown 83 touchdowns and 47 interceptions in his four-plus seasons (69 and 35 if you take away his rookie season, when he was a 23-year-old out of Delaware). He has never missed a game and his output is bizarrely consistent 3,613, 3,622 and 3,610 have been his regular-season yardage totals the past three season. At 27, Flacco has played in as many big games as any quarterback in the league in his first four years.

The Ravens have gone 5-4 in Flaccos nine postseason games. Hes played in two AFC Championship games 2008 as a rookie, and again in 2011 and while he spit the bit against Pittsburgh in 2008 with three picks, he did everything he could eight months ago to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl. The name Sterling Moore will forever haunt him if Flaccos career ends without a Super Bowl appearance.

Flacco got lampooned earlier this year when he asked where he ranks among quarterbacks. He said I think Im the best.

To me, that answer was less about hubris and more about Flacco articulating the mindset he believes EVERY quarterback has to have.

The whole response?

I assume everybody thinks theyre a top-five quarterback. I mean, I think Im the best. I dont think Im top five, I think Im the best. I dont think Id be very successful at my job if I didnt feel that way. I mean, cmon. Thats not really too tough of a question.

"But that doesnt mean that things are gonna work out that way. It just means that thats the way it is, thats the way I feel it is, and thats the way I feel it should be.

Flacco hasnt had to be the best in Baltimore because the team hasnt been constructed around the quarterback. Its been defense first and Ray Rice second. After that, its been Flacco throwing to old guys like Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and Todd Heap.

This year, more is on his plate as the Ravens have gone up-tempo offensively and Flaccos got some more talent on the outside, especially with promising young targets like wideout Torrey Smith (who may not play tonight after the tragic death of his brother in a motorcycle accident) and tight end Dennis Pitta.

Im not sure if Flacco is in the top-five, top-three or top-10. All that stuff is week-to-week anyway, it seems. What I do know is that, more often than not, Joe Flacco is part of the reason the Ravens win. And that as opposed to Q-rating is what matters.

When the Patriots started populating their roster with players Josh McDaniels coached in Denver or St. Louis (or, in some cases, both), the connection was duly noted. Now, the performance ought to be as well. So far, tight end Daniel Fells has been a non-contributor, Brandon Lloyd has been the Patriots' top target in the passing game but has a way to go to satisfy his potential, Greg Salas was released and re-signed to the practice squad, and Michael Hoomanawanui was horrendous last week. Im not sure what the expectation level for each of these players ultimately is, and theres a long way to go, but mining for gold on the roster of a 2-14 team (thats what the Rams were last year) is an aggressively counterintuitive move.

If the Patriots beat the Ravens tonight, the career record of Tom Brady as a starter including playoffs will be 142-42. The 142 wins (and counting) amassed by Brady and Bill Belichick is going to be extremely hard to break. And it would be even higher if the ACL injury of 2008 never occurred. Consider, Don Shula and Dan Marino are running in second place at 117 wins as a duo. Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy are 47-24. To get to 150 when Rodgers is 35, the pair would have to win 103 more games by 2018. Thats an average of 14.7 per year.

Waaaaayyyy too much air and interest expended on the way teams treat the kneeldown play. Think about it: The one play out of about 140 in each game on which there is literally almost nothing happening, and we get a weeks bluster and focus on it because its sensationalistic and conversation generating. A day? Two days? Sure. I like to see personalities revealed too Greg Schianos and Tom Coughlins being the two in this instance. But the inanity of fixating on it and asking coaches about the end-of-game KNEELDOWN play for a week? As my buddy Mike Reiss often says when the media poop hits the fan, What are we doing here? Can we step back for a second?

Can someone please make a cogent argument about why the Patriots would be pissed off at Wes Welker for signing the franchise tag and showing up for minicamp, training camp, preseason, etc? Like one that trumps this argument: The Patriots are NOT pissed because they can now go year-to-year with a 31-year-old slot receiver, they're not on the hook for 2013, and still get all of Welkers services in 2012 (such as they decide to use them). Co-hosting in August 2011 on WEEI, I said that Welker - while incredibly talented - was not a unique talent. That slot receiver is a replaceable position and that Julian Edelman could approximate Welkers work. After last years 122-catch season, I had to admit that Welker is unique. And maybe the best slot receiver ever. But my initial inclination that slots are replaceable remains the Patriots belief.

Youre not going to find a bigger proponent of sleep than me. Im a world-class napper. I placed third in the Southeast Massachusetts Sleep-Off held in 2008, in which I had to fall asleep on a bed of nails while sailing on a garbage scow sailing through the Cape Cod Canal. I sleep while driving. And I still dont have any idea why the Jets would broadcast their consultations with a sleep specialist this week. It may do a world of good. So might a hypnotist, witch doctor or group cry. When youre running a team, you have to measure how news will reflect on the brand and be spun. For instance: It seems Bart Scott needs a nap.

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."