The Ravens and New England Patriots have been on a collision course since January, when the Ravens got revenge against their AFC rivals en route to the Super Bowl.
The two teams might not have circled today on their calendars when the NFL released its regular-season schedule in April, but throughout the grind of a long season, they have kept an eye on each other, cognizant of the fact that they would clash yet again in late December, likely with much on the line.
"We've had some pretty memorable games against them," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "The thing about it is the games have meant so much, especially over the last few years. You get a little bit of a rivalry and then you're always paying attention to what that team's doing. If you play a team once every four years, you don't pay attention too much."
The two AFC powers, which have represented the conference in the past two Super Bowls, have seen a lot of each other recently -- perhaps more than they would like.
That's what happens when you make the playoffs every year.
The Patriots and Ravens are the two winningest teams in the NFL since John Harbaugh was hired as Ravens coach and quarterback Joe Flacco was drafted in 2008. The Patriots have won 73 games, including the playoffs, during that span. The Ravens have won 71. The teams have split their six games against each other since 2009, including the past two conference championship games.
Despite a genuine dislike among the players developed in several high-stakes games in recent years, a mutual respect is shared between the franchises, which both have winning traditions and similar organizational philosophies. That was evidenced by the verbal bouquets that were tossed like hot potatoes between Maryland and Massachusetts in the days leading up to today's game at M&T Bank Stadium, one that will have major playoff ramifications for both teams.
"You'd like to think the thing that defines rivalries are great games played by great teams over an extended period of time, and there's a lot of stake," Harbaugh said. "I feel like that's been the case in our rivalry with the Patriots. We feel honored to be on that, considered a rival with them, and I'm not sure how they feel about it, but we sure feel that way."
The Ravens have played the Patriots nearly as often as they have the Pittsburgh Steelers and the rest of the AFC North, and they count the Patriots among their fiercest rivals.
Before past meetings, trash talk fanned the flames of a rivalry, with loquacious rush linebacker Terrell Suggs proving to be the perfect foil for Brady, who has personified the righteous, buttoned-up Patriot Way.
Suggs has chided Brady publicly since the quarterback pleaded for a penalty flag after Suggs grazed his leg during the 2009 regular season. Suggs has referred to him as "the pretty boy from up north," bragged about voting for Ryan Fitzpatrick to make the Pro Bowl instead of Brady in 2010, and called Brady and the Patriots "arrogant (expletives)" after last season's AFC title game.
But this week, players and coaches from both teams -- even Suggs -- have been tight-lipped, except for when they are heaping praise on each other. The closest thing to bulletin-board material came when Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty told CSN New England that there "would be no better feeling than us beating them Sunday ... and we eliminate their season."
Harbaugh called Brady "the consummate NFL quarterback" and praised Bill Belichick, saying that he calls the coach periodically for advice. Belichick, known for his curt responses during news conferences, spoke with New England reporters for a half-hour Friday and gave expansive answers when asked about Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, whom he worked with in Cleveland, and about Harbaugh.
"I have a lot of respect for John," said Belichick, who, like Harbaugh, is from a football family and got his start in the NFL as a special teams coach. "I'd love to have a closer relationship with John if we weren't in the same competition."
The similarities extend to their respective organizations. Both teams are owned by men who are hands-off with football decisions. Neither team is particularly forthcoming in its interactions with media. And both teams are unafraid to part ways with established veterans and replace them with young players they have drafted and developed.
Belichick says he doesn't view today's game as a rematch from years past because "there are a lot of players playing in this game that didn't play in either one of the games last year."
The Ravens have said goodbye to players such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk and Patriots nemesis Bernard Pollard, who all played key roles in previous games.
The Patriots have also turned over a sizable chunk of their roster since the Ravens upset them, 28-13, in the playoffs in January.
Of the six Patriots who caught a pass in the AFC championship game, only one, running back Shane Vereen, remains on the active roster. Slot receiver Wes Welker now plays for the Denver Broncos. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is awaiting trail in the Bristol County House of Correction on a murder charge.
Brady has spent much of the season getting acclimated to a new group of wide receivers that includes free-agent addition Danny Amendola and a trio of rookies. Julian Edelman, who was sixth on the Patriots in receptions a season ago, has become Brady's go-to guy.
Flacco can relate to what Brady has gone through. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught two of the quarterback's touchdown passes in the AFC championship game, was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in March. And tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught the other, was on injured reserve for the first 13 weeks of the season.
But while Flacco and the Ravens offense struggled for much of the season, Brady has thrown for 4,049 yards and 23 touchdowns, and the first-place Patriots rank sixth in the NFL in scoring.
"It has definitely probably been similar, and you've got to credit those guys. When they haven't been full strength, they have found ways to win football games. I think we've had a lot of those same situations, and we're just now starting to capitalize on them and win them," Flacco said. "You've got to credit Tom and his ability to just adapt and bring everybody's level up a little bit."
With both teams surging over the past month, this game -- which was flexed out of prime time when the Ravens were 7-6 -- will affect playoff scenarios in the AFC.
If the Ravens beat the Patriots, they will play the Cincinnati Bengals in a winner-take-all game next weekend. A loss would put them in danger of falling out of the AFC's final wild-card spot. Meanwhile, the Patriots can clinch the AFC East title with a win, and it would keep them in position to secure the conference's No.2 seed and a first-round bye.
With so much at stake, the teams are trying to focus on today's game, not on the rivals they have been sizing up for months.
"They have always been big games, and fortunately, we have both been in the hunt all those years, so there has been a lot riding on it, this year as much as ever. So it's a big game for us for that reason," Harbaugh said. "But without looking back too much, it's all been great, but it's all history now. It really doesn't have that much of a bearing -- even game-plan-wise -- on this game. This game stands alone, and this is really the only one we are thinking about."
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