Special to RattleandHumSports.com
The AFC championship will feature the same teams from the year before for the first time in 25 years when the Patriots play the Ravens on Sunday in Foxborough, where New England has never lost with the Super Bowl on the line.
New England (13-4) won 23-20 last year after some late dramatics. Lee Evans nearly caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Flacco in the closing seconds before Patriots safety Sterling Moore knocked the ball loose from the receiver. That set the stage for Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard field goal miss that would have sent the contest to overtime.
Moore, Evans and Cundiff are all gone for this matchup — one that Baltimore (12-6) sees as fitting in its quest for its second Super Bowl appearance.
“I think we personally kind of wanted to play the Patriots again,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “If we go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough.”
New England cruised last Sunday to a 41-28 win over Houston, setting up a chance to improve to 5-0 at home in AFC title games. That cemented the first AFC Championship Game rematch since Denver and Cleveland met following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
This meeting only became possible after the Ravens advanced with a 38-35 double-overtime road win Saturday over the top-seeded Broncos, needing Flacco to come through with a tying 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left in regulation.
The victory extended the season of retiring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is happy to see that his team will be a heavy underdog once again this week.
“My Super Bowl year in 2000, we were never picked one time the entire season to win a game. Not one time,” Lewis said. “But at the end of the day, we held the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs. That alone taught me a valuable lesson — that no one outside dictates how we play on the inside.”
Lewis spent some time after last weekend’s game visiting with Peyton Manning. Now he will get his last look at Tom Brady.
“When you see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up so I think you’ve always got to know where No. 52 is at,” Brady said. “He’s always right in the middle of the defense but whether he’s blitzing or covering or he’s free in the middle of the field, you always have to take him into account.”
Brady completed 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards and three scores last weekend to improve to 17-6 in the postseason, moving past Joe Montana’s record for most playoff victories. He will again match wits with safety Ed Reed, who has intercepted him twice in six games.
While Brady has little to prove, Flacco is trying to reach his first Super Bowl after coming agonizingly close last year.
Flacco continues to carve out a reputation as a solid postseason quarterback after throwing for 331 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Broncos. He’s now tied with the Giants’ Eli Manning on the all-time list with five road playoff wins.
“To see Joe have that kind of a game in that kind of an environment is something all of us who are in Joe’s corner knew was there,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s been the last two weeks, (but) it’s really been throughout the season we’ve seen the growth.”
Baltimore beat visiting New England 31-30 on a Justin Tucker field goal as time expired in Week 3, rallying from an early 13-point deficit. Flacco threw for three TDs and 382 yards — his third-highest career total — while Brady finished with 335 yards and one TD.
Flacco has thrown for 1,271 yards, nine TDs and four interceptions in five games against New England. That includes a 34-yard effort in a 33-14 wild-card victory following the 2009 season in which he was asked to protect the ball after the Ravens built a 24-0 lead after one quarter.
Flacco is 7-4 in the playoffs, winning at least one game in each of his first five seasons.
“Joe’s done a great job since he came into the league,” Brady said. “I’ve played against him a bunch of times and he’s always played really well.”
Brady will be without a major weapon in Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the season after the tight end re-fractured his forearm against the Texans. Gronkowski was tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 TD receptions.
There are numerous differences between these teams since they met in September, most notably that reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs is playing for Baltimore after being out following a torn Achilles. The Ravens’ secondary also has a different look with Corey Graham establishing himself as a starter at cornerback.
Baltimore also has a new offensive coordinator, turning to Jim Caldwell after firing Cam Cameron on Dec. 10. New England has added a playmaker on defense in cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1.
One area of concern for the Patriots is on special teams after they allowed Houston kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards — the longest against them all season. Now they must try to slow down the dangerous Jones, who averaged a league-best 30.7 yards on kickoff returns but did not run them back in Week 3.
“We have to do what we’re doing better,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s definitely a point of emphasis and I’m sure it will be important in this game. We’ll definitely work on it.”
Five of the last six meetings between these teams have been decided by six points or fewer. This will be the teams’ fifth matchup in just over a three-year span.
“It’s definitely grown into quite a rivalry, we would like to say,” said Harbaugh, who is 0-2 in AFC title games. “I don’t know how they feel about that. We have tremendous respect for the New England Patriots (and) their coaches.”
Scott Boyter’s Take
Playing one for Ray Lewis might help motivate the Ravens headed into the game, but it won’t mean a thing come kickoff. The Patriots, much like the 49ers in the NFC, are on a mission themselves to cleanse the taste of their Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The Ravens have their own taste to cleanse – that of losing to New England in last season’s AFC title game due to a dropped TD pass in the final seconds.
So the motivation factor is a wash.
Without supplying a bunch of Xs-and-Os arguments, for me this game boils down to the idea that I just can’t see the Patriots losing at home to Baltimore with so much on the line. There’s a great chance this will be another classic, and a great chance the Patriots will once again triumph.
Scott’s prediction: New England 27, Baltimore 24