The Ravens are 7-point underdogs in Foxborough this Sunday at 6:30 PM EST kickoff. You'd logically think the Ravens would be "due" to beat the Pats since it's their "turn" after basically blowing the winning or tying points in the last minute of last year's championship match. But the NFL does not carry over good intent, nor does it always reward long-suffering effort in ways that seem "fair". The fact is, the Patriots are "due" to have a breakout monster game at home, something they have not accomplished against the Ravens in a while.
For all of these reasons and more, the Ravens must have the game of their lives on Sunday---and a bunch of Raven "Action Heroes" will need to emerge to rip the game away from the big-play guys on the other side.
"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 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.
ESPN.com got this telling quote from Ray in their AFC Championship preview coverage:
"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."
Now Ray Lewis 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.
Joe Flacco is trying to reach his first Super Bowl after coming so close last year.
Flacco continues to solidify 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 time 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."
So you're telling me there's a chance Department:
Tom Brady is 6-of-22 (27.3 percent) with four interceptions on passes more than 10 yards downfield against the Ravens in their last two postseason meetings. Brady has thrown six interceptions on passes more than 10 yards downfield against the Ravens since the start of 2008 (including playoffs), two more than he's thrown against any other opponent during that time.
Tom Brady's effectiveness has dipped this season when Rob Gronkowski has been off the field. Brady has thrown an interception once every 128.0 attempts with Gronkowski on field this season, but has thrown a pick once every 58.6 attempts with him off the field.