The Baltimore Ravens have what they wanted - another shot at the New England Patriots.
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
"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.
"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
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
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."
There are plenty of NFL hopefuls, including one Heisman runner up playing in this year's East West…