The New England Patriots are vulnerable

Tom Brady leads the Patriots into the AFC title game on a nine-game winning streak. David Butler II/US Presswire

Adam Schefter answers reader questions in his mailbag twice a week. Got a query of your own? Submit it here.

Q: Adam, with Jim Caldwell now out in Indianapolis, how do you see this affecting Peyton Manning's future? Who are some candidates to replace Caldwell?

-- Jorge (Mexico)

A: Don't see it affecting Manning's future there very much, Jorge. There are a couple of issues to remember with Manning. The first is whether he will be healthy enough to play, which right now he's not. The nerves in his neck still haven't regenerated and no one knows when they will -- or if they will. If he's healthy enough to play again, then Manning will meet with Colts owner Jim Irsay to determine what each side wants. None of this is related to whether or not Caldwell was retained, and none of this will pertain to whom Indianapolis chooses as its next coach. As for who it is, typically general managers look for a connection they have from the past. It wouldn't be surprising if the Colts' new coach has worked before at some point with new Colts general manager Ryan Grigson.

Q: My New England Patriots looked dominant on Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Do you think the Baltimore Ravens have the personnel to match up with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski? How can they slow them down?

-- Quinton (Colorado)

A: They've done it before, Quinton, and they can do it again. The Ravens usually rise up for challenges such as this. Of course, this is a formidable one, and Hernandez and Gronkowski are the men Baltimore must figure out a way to stop -- along with Wes Welker. But Baltimore has weapons like Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin that New England also will have a tough time slowing down. It's why this game has all the makings of a close one, one that goes down to the end. And New England does have the edge -- it has the better quarterback and home-field advantage. But the Ravens are going to be a tough out.

Q: Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense looked awful against a strong Houston Texans defense on Sunday. How many points do you think they need to beat New England?

-- Kerry (Washington D.C.)

A: I think they're going to have to score 21, minimum, Kerry. Baltimore could win this game 21-20, or something like that. But as long as Baltimore scores 21 -- three touchdowns -- it will have a chance to pull the upset in Foxboro. Look at the scores of the last two games the Patriots lost -- 25-17 to Pittsburgh, 24-20 to the Giants. So 21 points would have beaten New England on either day, and that's the type of game the Ravens need to figure out a way to play on Sunday.

Q: The Texans seemed to be sitting on screens to Rice. Can Baltimore move the ball if its screen game isn't effective? They don't have an explosive offense if Rice is taken away.

-- Darren (Idaho)

A: Darren: Here's what we do know. The one player the Patriots are going to key on is Rice. He will make some plays because he's the Ravens' best offensive player. But to win this game, the Ravens are going to have to get plays from some of their other offensive weapons -- Boldin, Smith, Ed Dickson and others. With New England's weakness in the secondary, some of these Ravens are going to have to find a way to make it happen. Trust me, going into this game, New England's No. 1 mission is to slow down Rice.

Q: Adam, this year it seemed like the mantra "defense wins championships" should be thrown out, yet here we are with three excellent defenses among the final four teams. I know New England's offense is great, but is this defense championship-caliber?

-- Howard (New Jersey)

A: No it's not, Howard, but it might not matter. New England's offense is prolific enough that it could overcome the Patriots' defense, just as other great offenses have done in recent seasons -- Indianapolis and New Orleans to name a couple of examples. But keep in mind that no bottom-three defense ever has won the Super Bowl, and New England ranked 31st in the league in total defense, ahead of only Green Bay, which has been eliminated from the playoffs.

Q: Torrey Smith was absent against the Texans while being blanketed by Johnathan Joseph. Is he the Ravens' X factor for this game? If he isn't, who is?

-- Larry (Connecticut)

A: Never know who an X factor is going to be, Larry. It could be Lardarius Webb on a big return, or Ed Reed on a big interception, or Evans coming through like he did with that great one-handed catch Sunday. That's the great part of these playoffs. Forty-six different players each have the chance to become an X factor. Think anyone thought David Tyree would be one in the Super Bowl? Or Kevin Dyson would be one in the Music City Miracle? It's the great part of these games, the mystery of it and the chance for a nobody to become a somebody in football history.