OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Fourteen years ago, Matt Birk was one of the fortunate few to have Wall Street be both his first option and his fall-back plan at the same time.
Birk had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. He was also coming off an All-Ivy League season as the center for a Crimson team that had gone 9-1 and won the league.
There was a job offer on Wall Street. But the NFL was also a possibility.
When the Minnesota Vikings took him with a sixth-round pick in the 1998 draft, he figured he’d put Wall Street on hold for six months, live the dream - however brief it might be - then hit the real world. He never thought he’d make the roster.
His first preseason game was against the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium.
“I thought it might be my last, too,’’ he said. “I really remember it vividly.’’
Since then, he has played 194 regular-season games, made 171 starts, and gone to six Pro Bowls. Now, in his third season with the Ravens, he’ll be back in Foxborough this weekend for the AFC title game against the Patriots.
“Especially as you get a little longer in the tooth, you appreciate these opportunities a little bit more,’’ Birk said. “I’m grateful to be part of a team that has worked and created this opportunity for ourselves.’’
Against a Patriots defense that gave up a ton of yards during the regular season (6,577) but also came up with a number of big plays (34 turnovers), Birk said, the Ravens offense will have to execute.
“We’re not quite sure what we’re going to get from them,’’ Birk said. “They have new wrinkles every week, design things especially for the teams they’re playing. That’s why they’ve been so good for so long.’’
The Patriots defense will also have key pieces back in place, including safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes, who missed significant time during the season.
“It’s big, it seems like it gives them a little bit of a boost,’’ Birk said. “Those guys make big plays - Spikes, blitzing him and him getting pressure and just disrupting the flow of the passing game, and Chung on the back end. So it’s definitely a big boost for them.’’
Conventional wisdom says defense wins championships, but considering that the last two Super Bowl winners were the Packers and Saints, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco disagrees.
“I think offense does,’’ he said. “Look at who has won Super Bowls the last handful of years - great offenses. Yes, defenses can step up and you can be a really good team with good defense, but the bottom line is you have to have both.
“If you were to bet, I would definitely bet in the next 10 years more than five teams are going to win it because they have good offenses, not good defenses.’’
Behind Flacco, the Ravens had the league’s 20th-ranked offense this season. The defense, on the other hand, was third in the league, and when they won the Super Bowl in 2000, they had the league’s top defense.
So for linebacker Ray Lewis, the team’s heart and soul, the answer was obviously different.
“That’s a little trick question,’’ he joked. “You know what? I’ve been doing it for so long, when you do watch how the games are played, nine times out of 10, I just truly believe defense is going to find a way to win the championship.
“You can go back however many years you want to go back, and defenses have a way to come out to make a play that changes the outcome of games.’’
The Ravens will have to try to stop a Patriots offense that led the AFC in points (513) and yards (6,848).
“You’ve got to find a way to stop them and control them,’’ said coach John Harbaugh, “and you can’t just let them go up and down the field on you. That’s true for any game. And we’re going to have to play good offense against their defense.’’
Safety Ed Reed, who hobbled off the field after rolling his ankle on the last play of Sunday’s win over the Texans, was the only player listed on the Ravens injury report. He was limited in practice.