Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, center, rushes between New England Patriots defenders Dont'a Hightower and Steve Gregory in the second half.
If you spend any time watching the Ravens, their offense seems to revolve around three things: running back Ray Rice, quarterback Joe Flacco, and wide receiver Torrey Smith. Obviously, there's more to it than that, but if we were giving someone from another country a crash course on Baltimore, we'd start there.
Rice is one of the league's most dynamic players -- he's capable of hurting defenses on the ground and through the air. Flacco isn't universally adored by the local fans, mostly because he's been so maddeningly inconsistent, though that's changed over the last two weeks. Then there's Torrey Smith, the second-year wideout who came into the league as a fast, physical down-the-field player who was also extremely raw. After nearly two years, Smith has become a reliable deep threat who has the ability to change games in the time it takes Flacco to throw the ball as far as he can while Smith runs under it.
None of this is lost on Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, who sounds like he's been up nights trying to devise a plan to slow the Flacco-to-Smith hookups that have propelled the Ravens back into the AFC Championship game.
"I'd say (Smith) was a similar player in college: big, fast, vertical receiver," Belichick said on Tuesday. "I would say he’s had more production in the NFL than he had in college. Probably some of that’s a credit to his improvement and the coaching and just his development as a receiver. I’m sure part of it is related to the quarterback. …
"He’s always been able to run and the guy that makes all the plays down the field," Belichick continued. "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’s made a lot of big plays down the field on deep balls and that’s opened up things for him underneath as well. He’s been very productive."
Which brings us to arguably the biggest personnel move of the season for New England: the trade with the Bucs for cornerback Aqib Talib, the former first-rounder who has first-round talent but also had enough off-field issues to get him shipped out of Florida. Talib's been a model citizen with the Patriots, and on Sunday, he'll be asked to shut down one of the league's hottest players.
ESPN.com's James Walker calls the Talib trade the "major difference" between this Pats team and the one that lost to the Ravens early in the season.
"The Patriots knew they needed a better cover corner against dynamic receivers like Smith if they want to make a Super Bowl run," Walker notes.
Last week, Talib blanketed the Texans Andre Johnson, who had eight catches for 95 yards but never found the end zone.