The Baltimore Ravens believe they'll upset New England Sunday, even though nobody else does. In fact, the Ravens are a 9-1/2-point underdog, which makes no sense -- not only because they're soaring on emotion but because their quarterback, Joe Flacco, is playing the best football of his career.
Nevertheless, they're supposed to go away, just as they disappeared a year ago in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens, people tell me, are a great story, but New England is the the better team.
OK, maybe. But I'd be careful here, and it's not just because of Joe Flacco. It's because of Torrey Smith, too.
The second-year wide receiver is more than Baltimore's most dangerous downfield weapon; he's a legitimate threat to New England -- and if you don't believe me I suggest you consult Champ Bailey. The last time I saw Bailey, he was chasing Smith to the end zone.
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That's newsworthy when it happens to someone like Bailey. But it happened to New England the last two times the Patriots played Baltimore, too, and consider that a warning. Because if there's a soft underbelly with the Patriots it's their pass defense, and no one could exploit it more than Smith.
Rewind the videotape to last year's conference championship contest, and you'll find him with three catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Now fast forward it to the New England game this season when he caught six passes for 127 yards and two TDs in a 31-30 come-from-behind victory.
In both instances, he hurt the Patriots with big plays, and that's the norm with this guy. In four playoff appearances, Smith averages 24.4 yards per catch, and, just a hunch, but that has someone's attention in New England.
"He's always been able to run," said Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, "and a guy that makes all the plays down the field. He can also run after the catch on the shorter and intermediate routes. If you give him a big cushion, that's a problem, too. He made a lot of big plays down the field on deep balls, and that's opened up things underneath for him. He's been very productive."
Smith was at his best a week ago when he burned Denver's Bailey for first-half touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards. He was at his best in Week 3, too, when he overcame the death of his brother to score twice on New England as Baltimore rallied from a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit.
A coach I trust told me the Patriots will be wise to Smith this time, trying to smother him with double coverage, which could make guys like Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta more attractive as short or intermediate options.
And maybe he's right. All I know is that New England surrendered an NFL-worst 74 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, or an average of 4.6 per game, and if I'm Baltimore I try to take advantage by looking deep.
Which means I try to get the ball to Torrey Smith.
That's not exactly a revelation to New England, which helped itself with this season's addition of cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib covered Andre Johnson in last weekend's defeat of Houston, and expect to see him on Smith Sunday. The question, of course, is whether he can do what Champ Bailey could not -- which is stay with him.
"They're a good football team," Flacco said of the Patriots, "and they're going to probably come up and put pressure on our receivers. Throughout the years, they like to get up and not allow our tight ends and our inside guys to get off the ball very well and play over the top of our outside guys.
"We'll see. We'll see if they match up them on Torrey or Anquan or anything like that. They've let up some yards in that area, but, at the same time, they do a good job of playing very well and playing some 'man' (coverage) underneath and getting pressure, getting their hands on those guys to kind of re-route them a little bit. So we'll have to be very good this week at combating that a little bit, running crisp routes and making sure we don't allow them to hold us up."
That wasn't a problem the last time these two met here. In last year's AFC Championship Game, Flacco had five completions of 20 or more yards, including two to Smith -- one a 42-yarder and the other a 29-yard TD. It wasn't a problem the last time these two met, period, either. In Baltimore's Sept. 23 victory, Flacco had nine completions of 20 or more yards, including three to Smith -- two of which were TDs.
Now consider this: In his last three playoff games, Flacco has seven touchdowns and one interception and has outplayed Brady, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. If he's to outperform Brady again, he'll need help, and I can think of no better candidate than Torrey Smith.
"(Things can happen) when you have guys that can run, and you have a quarterback that can throw the ball a long way down the field," Smith said. "The thing that people are forgetting about most is the big guys. If it wasn't for those guys blocking up front and giving us time then none of it would happen."
I haven't forgotten about them, and I guarantee New England hasn't, either. But the Patriots better not fall asleep on Torrey Smith. He beat them once. He could do it again.