By Michael Huberman
What a difference a year makes.
Earlier this week, the NFL Network replayed last year’s AFC Championship Game in New England. If you didn’t know it was a replay, you’d think you were watching footage from tomorrow’s game. From Joe Flacco dueling Tom Brady, to Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed doing all they could to stop the Patriots high-powered offense, much of what we saw last year we’ll probably see again tomorrow.
Except one notable difference sticks out.
Last year Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady, going 22-for-36 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. But looking back at the game, the secondary Flacco thrived against has undergone a major makeover.
For one, Flacco won’t be able to pick on Julian Edelman, the wide receiver and punt returner who was forced into action last year as a defensive back. Edelman, who averaged 15.5 yards on punt returns this year, was placed on injured reserve on December 4. He also won’t have to deal with Sterling Moore, who depending on what you choose to believe, knocked the ball out of Lee Evans’ hands for what looked to be the game-winning touchdown last year. Moore was waived by the Patriots in October, and on November 30 signed with the Dallas Cowboys.
The leading tackler for the Patriots in last year's matchup was safety James Ihedigbo. Ihedigbo will be at Foxboro again on Sunday, but this time as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, the Patriots top corners during last year’s AFC title match, are both being used differently this year, a result of the Patriots upgrading their defensive backs.
Before this year’s trade deadline the Patriots made a bold move, acquiring the talented but troubled Aqib Talib. Talib has provided a stabilizing presence for the Patriots, using his cover skills to prevent the big plays that had plagued the Patriots for most of the season. While the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson had eight catches for 95 yards with Talib covering him last week, the receiver didn’t have a catch over 22 yards.
Alfonzo Dennard, a rookie from Nebraska, has taken over the other starting corner spot. A projected early round pick who slid due to legal concerns, Dennard has displayed the talent that had scouts high on him, with three interceptions and seven passes defended during his rookie season.
Kyle Arrington was never really built to be a starting corner. With the acquisition of Talib and the emergence of Dennard, Arrington has shifted to the nickel back, or “star” role for the Patriots, and so far has excelled in his new role.
Ravens fans will most recently remember their receivers abusing Devin McCourty in the teams’ matchup earlier this season. But McCourty, who has played cornerback for most of his brief NFL career, has moved to safety where he has regained some of the form that made him a Pro Bowler during his rookie season. McCourty has taken Patrick Chung’s spot in the starting lineup and will team up at safety with Steve Gregory, who intercepted Flacco earlier this year.
With the way he played last week in Denver, it’s doubtful an upgrade in the Patriots’ personnel is going to impact Joe Flacco’s confidence or play. But the Patriots’ secondary has been a work in progress for the past two years, and tomorrow for the first time Flacco will be facing the finished product.