January 18, 2013

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: New England DBs wary of long ball

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots have cut down on the long completions they allowed early in the season. The Baltimore Ravens keep making them.

On Sunday night, New England's progress will be tested against Baltimore's strong-armed Joe Flacco and his speedy receivers in the AFC championship game.

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib saw just how dangerous the Ravens' deep passing attack can be in their 38-35, double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos in last Saturday's divisional playoff game.

"That game summed it up, man," he said. "They started the game taking shots and they ended the game taking shots. So that's what you're going to do against guys like that, play that deep ball."

On the Ravens' second series against the Broncos, Flacco threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. On their last series of regulation, he heaved a 70-yard score to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.

That was the Ravens' longest completion of a season in which Flacco keeps connecting with targets far downfield. He has completed passes to receivers 13 times on gains of 40 yards or more. The Patriots, meanwhile, had just five completions to receivers that picked up that distance -- and two were caught by players now on injured reserve.

"We can't allow them to just throw the ball over our heads," safety Devin McCourty said. "The biggest thing is understanding how strong Flacco's arm is because I think we already know how fast some of the receivers are over there. So it's just being aware and making plays down the field."

They Patriots (13-4) didn't do that very well in the first half of the season. They allowed 21 completions that gained at least 25 yards in their first eight games. A season-high five came in a 31-30 loss to the Ravens in Week 3.

They lowered that to 15 in their last eight regular-season games. Talib, who played in the last seven after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, helped.

"He's a good football player, good teammate," coach Bill Belichick said. "He's very well respected because of his professionalism. He studies hard and prepares well. He's tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him. The team likes him. He's a good guy to be around."

His addition allowed the Patriots to move McCourty from cornerback, where he struggled at times, to safety, where he's solidified the secondary.

But the Ravens (12-6) have hurt teams with the long ball all season -- from their very first offensive play. That was a 52-yard completion from Flacco to Smith that started a 44-13 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.

"One of (Smith's) biggest strengths is his speed," McCourty said. "If you give him a step or two, it will turn into three or four. You just have to be aware of how fast he is."

Two weeks later against the Patriots, Smith caught passes of 38, 32 and 25 yards, Jones had receptions of a 41 and 24 yards and Anquan Boldin added a 24-yarder. And in the final minute, McCourty was penalized for defensive pass interference, moving the ball 27 yards to the Patriots 7-yard line. Two plays later, Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 31-30 win as time expired.

Flacco will be facing the Patriots for the third time in the postseason and sixth time overall. So he knows how Belichick likes to defend Baltimore's passing game.

"They're going to probably come up and put pressure on our receivers," Flacco said. "They always, throughout the years, 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 the outside guys.

(Continued on page 2)

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