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 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.