Is it possible the Patriots are in the playoffs due to an easy schedule? One question this week…
Patriots Have New Attitude In Postseason
"These are times when coming to work is a lot of fun. There is a lot of joy coming to work," wide receiver Deion Branch said. "Early on when the season started, at the beginning of training camp, I wouldn't say that.\
"But right now, the guys enjoy coming in. We're very relaxed. We enjoy waking up, coming in, getting the game plan and seeing what the coaches have for us."
After what turned into a glorified walkthrough last weekend in the divisional playoffs against Denver, the Patriots will face their toughest test of the season Sunday in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
While they deserve credit for racking up 13 wins during the regular season, there's no denying the Patriots played a relatively soft schedule in 2011; they only faced two teams that finished with a winning record this year and lost both games (at home against the Giants and at Pittsburgh).
The Ravens enter Sunday as the No. 2 seed in the AFC and head to Foxboro looking to duplicate their dominant, 33-14, win at Gillette in the 2009 wild-card playoffs. The Ravens are much older defensively, but still possess their most dangerous weapon with running back Ray Rice, who destroyed New England's defense in that blowout win two years ago.
At the same time, the Patriots are more cohesive on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, where they appeared to have gelled in recent weeks. Their solid effort against the Broncos was arguably their most complete performance of the season. The Patriots are the heavy favorite considering their dominance at home, but this could be a toss-up game depending on which side you favor.
"I have a lot of respect for them and their ability to play and perform under pressure," quarterback Tom Brady said of the Ravens. "They've been in the playoffs the last four years. They've won playoff games in the last four years.
"A lot of my focus and attention is on what I need to do to be at my best this week for my teammates. Hopefully, we go out there and play our best game."
The biggest obstacle for the Patriots will be finding a way to crack the defense, which is led by veterans Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
"I've played against both those guys quite a few times and you always enjoy going up against the best," Brady said. "You can really measure where you're at and you can't take plays off against those guys, you can't take things for granted when you're out there against them.
"You have to see where they're at on every play because they're guys who change the game."
This will be a true measuring stick for the Patriots. A win puts them in the Super Bowl and validates their ability to beat a quality opponent. A loss ends the season, and drastically changes the mood in the locker room. The players aren't ready for the ride to end yet.
"Our team has worked hard this year," head coach Bill Belichick said. "You have to give a lot of credit to the players for all the obstacles that we've encountered and they've endured, and they've played through. We're excited about the game; it's a great challenge going against the Ravens. They're an outstanding football team."
SERIES HISTORY: The 8th overall meeting between the two teams. The series began in 1996 when the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore. The Ravens and Patriots have played six times in the regular season with New England winning all six games. Baltimore, however, won the lone postseason meeting between the two teams, 33-14, in the 2009 wild-card playoffs at Gillette Stadium.
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