BALTIMORE — Every NFL game is important; we know this. There are only 16 of them.
But some have a little bit more, shall we say, intensity than others. Sunday night is one of those games for the Patriots.
It isn’t meant as a slight to the Titans and Cardinals, the Patriots’ first two opponents, but this showdown against the Ravens carries a bit more weight on the emotional scale.
In Baltimore. In prime time. Against one of the best teams in the conference. And the team you had a battle with for the AFC Championship eight months ago.
“They’re going to be very excited to finally get us in their place, on ‘Sunday Night Football,’ ” said Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “It’s going to be a good football game. That whole stadium will be riled up.
“We know these guys. This is a rivalry. It’s almost like a division game because we’ve played so much. We’ve played some pretty tough football games that mean something. We know that, they know that. If you like a tough, physical football game, well, here it is because Sunday will be one.”
Several New England players said after last Sunday’s loss to Arizona that the week of practice leading up to that game was not as crisp as they needed it to be.
Knowing they were heading to Baltimore helped the players keep focused this past week.
“It helps a lot,” said receiver Wes Welker. “I mean, it’s a hostile environment, we understand the type of place it is and how hard it is to play [there], especially on Sunday night. And the crowd’s going to be into it, the whole city’s going to be into it, and the Ravens are going to be into it.”
One thing that comes into play in a hostile environment, particularly for a team that can run the no-huddle offense as New England does, is crowd noise. The Patriots were pumping concert-loud music at practice to get used to communicating over the din of a packed stadium.
There are several players on the current New England roster who did not play in last January’s AFC Championship, including rookie Dont’a Hightower. Hightower did watch the game and said it was “the definition of a football game. Hard-nosed, coming down to the wire, guys making big plays when they needed to.”
Hightower was asked about extra excitement on Sunday night.
“I’m living my dream now, just being able to play in the NFL,” he said. “But I’m definitely looking forward to this game. It’s definitely going to be a big game.
“Those guys have a chip on their shoulder from this past season, so it’s going to be a real good game.”
On Saturday night, the Patriots downgraded defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick (ankle) and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring) to “out” for the game.
Both players had been listed as questionable. They join tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and defensive end Justin Francis (ankle) as out for the contest.
Hightower, like fellow rookies Chandler Jones and Tavon Wilson, has made an impact in his first two games, with 13 total tackles and a tide-turning fumble return for a touchdown in the opener against Tennessee.
He is smart enough to know, however, that he still has a lot to learn, and leans on fellow starting linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to gain knowledge.
“They’ve been really fun to play off of because they know what it takes to make it in the league, so definitely just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I can from them.”
Moving on — whether from a win or a loss — is a frequent mantra around Gillette Stadium, and Hightower definitely has that down.
“Just like in the game — if you have one bad play, you can’t hold it against yourself, you have to forget that play and make up for it,” he said.