Defenses take center stage in AFC Divisional Playoffs

MIAMI -- Go ahead. Try to pick the best defense in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Don't use your heart. Use your head. And don't just rely on NFL rankings. Look at the talent, look at the coaching, look at the temperament. Do all that, and then identify the defense you'd most like to have on your side.

Having just watched the way the Ravens' defense performed in Baltimore's 27-9 victory over Miami, my choice is easy. When you force the league's most efficient offense and the game's most efficient quarterback into a flood of turnovers, you have to be the best. Period.

The Ravens separated the ball from the Dolphins five times, nearly half as many as they lost it all season (13, giving them a share of an NFL record for 16 games along with the Giants). They intercepted Chad Pennington four times, more than double the amount he had thrown all year.

"Hey, you hit 'em hard enough, every team will turn it over," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We were in (Pennington's) face. We knew that if we could get him to have to try to make throws down the field that we'd get our opportunities and we'd try to punish him as much as we could."

The operative word there is "punish." That's what the Ravens do to their opponents. When members of their front seven hit people, they stay hit. They lose their grip on the ball. They start hesitating to run or catch the area where the hitters deliver their fiercest blows -- the middle of the field.

Then, of course, there's Ed Reed, who is by far the top safety in the NFL and arguably one of the best in the history of the game. He had two interceptions Sunday, making an incredible, winding, 64-yard return for a touchdown on the first. Reed returned three interceptions for touchdowns during the regular season, bringing the total for his seven-year career to six. He also has returned two fumbles for scores.

The Ravens finished the regular season ranked second in the league in overall defense, third against the rush and second against the pass. But it wasn't their stats that bothered the Dolphins. It was their physicality. It was their intensity. It was their refusal to wilt with the thermometer showing 79 degrees at kickoff. It was their take-no-prisoners attitude, which begins with Ryan.

"Defense wins championships, and it always has," Ryan said. "I mentioned to (Ravens coach) John (Harbaugh), 'What team would you rather be with in this tournament than our own?' This is our football team, and these guys are built to win it all. I don't care what people think. If we're coming to your town, then it's going to be tough."

The Ravens are heading to Nashville next to face the Titans on Saturday. The Titans have a pretty good defense of their own, ranked seventh overall.

In the AFC divisional-round game next Sunday, the Steelers, who have the NFL's top-rated defense, host the Chargers, whose defense was expected to perform much better than its 25th ranking but did come up big in a 23-17 wild-card triumph over the Colts.

Although the Ravens, as the sixth and final seed, have to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco) and a first-year coach, they firmly believe they have every bit as good a chance to win it all as any of the remaining teams. And it's their defense that gives them that supreme confidence.

"You feel like you can play through anything," defensive lineman Marques Douglas said.

"We've got a bunch of guys that don't care what the environment is, what time they play, where they play," Harbaugh said. "We've been talking about it all year, and that's what they do."

Here's a closer look at the AFC divisional-round games:

No. 6 Baltimore at No. 1 Tennessee, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET

The Titans beat the Ravens 13-10 on Oct. 5 at Baltimore. Tennessee's offense was far from overwhelming but made just enough plays to pull out the win in a game that lived up to its billing as a defensive battle.

As they proved against the Dolphins, the Ravens are built for the playoffs, with that dominant, play-making defense and a power running game.

However, Baltimore will have a difficult challenge trying to run against Tennessee's defensive front, provided tackle Albert Haynesworth has recovered from his knee injury. But you can count on the Ravens to be persistent in running the ball, regardless of whether they're successful. When the teams met in October, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain combined for 33 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown.

Titans QB Kerry Collins, who threw one touchdown and two interceptions in the earlier meeting, will watch plenty of tape of what the Ravens did to Pennington because Collins and Pennington are kindred spirits. Both had their careers revived this season, and, like Pennington, Collins relies on efficiency. He, too, threw just seven interceptions this season. The Ravens likely will have a harder time applying pressure to him than they did against Pennington, because the Titans' pass protection is stronger.

The Titans have the ability to take pressure off of Collins and softening Baltimore's pass rush by pounding the ball on the ground, although their leading rusher, rookie sensation Chris Johnson, had a mere 44 yards on 18 carries in the previous meeting.

It helps that the Titans, who have been banged up, have had an extra week to rest for the game.

Matchups to watch

Collins vs. Ravens' fifth-ranked pass defense: Collins isn't very mobile, and the Ravens will look to keep him in the pocket and force him to throw toward the middle of the field ... where Reed will be hovering in search of an interception. Collins had one of his more forgettable games this season in the October matchup, completing 17 of 32 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

McClain and McGahee vs. Haynesworth and Co.: If the Ravens are going to have any success offensively, it's imperative that their two primary running backs have some success against the NFL's foremost run-stuffer (presuming he's healthy). Otherwise, that will put greater pressure on Flacco, who will have his hands full against the Titans' secondary.

Titans CB Cortland Finnegan vs. Ravens WR Derrick Mason: Finnegan is easily among the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He doesn't always have man-to-man coverage, because the Titans like to play a lot of zone behind a four-man rush. However, you can bet he will see his share of Mason, the Ravens' top receiver, who managed to catch 80 passes during the regular season and a team-leading four against Miami, even though he's Baltimore's only true game-breaking threat. Mason is crafty in running routes and knows how to use the sidelines to his advantage. But Finnegan is a tremendous athlete always capable of making a big play.

No. 4 Chargers at No. 2 Steelers, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET

The Steelers beat the Chargers 11-10 on Nov. 16 at Pittsburgh. What made the score a bit of a surprise is that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 308 yards but no touchdowns, and Willie Parker ran for 115 yards but never reached the end zone.

The health of two key players on both sides will get plenty of attention this week.

LaDainian Tomlinson's groin injury limited his play against the Colts on Saturday, but it opened the door for his exceptionally quick and talented backup, Darren Sproles, to show his stuff. Sproles' outside speed was surprisingly effective against the Colts' defense, which is designed to handle quicker backs, but the Steelers have much more talented athletes and should be able to make it harder for Sproles to break the long runs he had against Indy.

Roethlisberger's health will be one of the biggest stories heading into the game. He's expected to play but didn't practice last week after suffering a nasty concussion in the Steelers' regular-season finale against the Browns. If Big Ben is healthy, he's capable of managing the game well, even if he doesn't throw any touchdown passes, which was the essence of his performance when the teams previously met.

Regardless of Roethlisberger's health, the Steelers will look to establish a fairly strong running game, with Parker leading the way. The Chargers did a pretty decent job in shutting down the run in the regular season (102.6 yards per game), and on Saturday, the Colts managed just 64 yards on the ground against them.

The Steelers' offensive line, which has struggled in pass protection all season, could have issues trying to stop the Chargers' blitzing defense. Of course, Hines Ward and Heath Miller do a nice job of finding holes in coverage when the blitz is coming.

An extra week of rest figures to give the Steelers an advantage because the Chargers were forced into overtime against the Colts and have to travel cross-country. The Chargers were 1-3 this season when traveling to the Eastern time zone.

Matchups to watch

Roethlisberger vs. the Chargers' front seven: Although Roethlisberger is expected to play, he could wind up making an early exit if the Chargers are able to deliver hard hits on him. And, because of his poor protection, Big Ben has been taking a lot of hard hits all season. Look for the Steelers to try to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible to minimize unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

Philip Rivers vs. the Steelers' defense: As the Chargers' quarterback demonstrated with his two interceptions in the teams' previous meeting, he has issues when being pressured and when facing the Steelers' complicated zone-blitzing scheme. Rivers will have to spend a great deal of time this week studying the many nuances of the Steelers' defense. Rivers must look for his opportunities to exploit seams that tight end Antonio Gates will consistently find, as he did against the Colts. If Tomlinson isn't healthy, Rivers also will need a big performance from Sproles as both a runner and a receiver.

Chargers punter Mike Scifres vs. Steelers' special teams: In San Diego's wild-card victory over Indianapolis, the rest of the country got to see what the Chargers have known all along -- they have a tremendous weapon in Scifres. His ultra-strong leg and incredible hang time allowed him to consistently pin the Colts deep in their own territory, giving the Chargers favorable field position throughout the game. Although the Steelers had a 92-yard drive to beat the Ravens to clinch the AFC North, they aren't a team that can make a habit of successfully negotiating such marathon marches. Scifres' leg literally led the Chargers to one playoff victory. Can it happen twice?

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