FOXBOROUGH — If Sunday’s AFC Championship game goes the Patriots’ way, Monday will begin a 13-day buildup to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
It would be the eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, sixth in 11 seasons, and second in two years. If they can beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Monday will likely see the Patriots and their fans planning for an upcoming visit to the French Quarter, listening to jazz music, sampling some spicy Cajun gumbo.
However, Monday is significant for another, lesser-known reason. It marks the six-year anniversary of the last time the Patriots played a true road playoff game. They lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 21, 2007, in the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots have played nine playoff games since losing to the Colts that day: Seven have been held at Gillette Stadium, and two were neutral-site Super Bowls.
In those seven home games, the Patriots are 5-2; the Ravens, incidentally, snapped an 11-game home playoff win streak by the Patriots when they marched into Gillette Stadium for a wild-card game on Jan. 10, 2010, and left with a convincing 33-14 victory.
The other loss came a year later, when the Jets kicked the Patriots out of the postseason with a 28-21 win in the divisional round.
Three home playoff victories have followed since the loss to the Jets: two last season — over the Broncos and Ravens — and one this season. One more would elevate the season to a much loftier level, and the fact that it’s in front of the home crowd at Gillette Stadium could be the difference. The oddsmakers seem to think so: Despite losing to the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this season, the Patriots are 8-point favorites.
“We have great fans always coming out, high energy,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “It’s going to be another huge game here at Gillette, so I think that everyone’s going to be jacked up.”
Added receiver Wes Welker, who like Ninkovich has never played in a road playoff game while with the Patriots: “Any time you are playing at home this time of year is a key thing. Getting the fans into it and being able to play at home and practice at your own field and your own stadium and prepare for the game at your own place and all those things are good. We just have to make sure to take advantage of it.”
This marks the first time in the last six years in which the Patriots benefited from a playoff upset to get a home game, and they have the Ravens to thank for it. In the 2007 season — and also in 2010 and 2011 — they were the AFC’s No. 1 seed, guaranteeing them home games until the Super Bowl, should they advance. That’s the path the team followed in 2007 and 2011, when two home playoff wins each season were followed by Super Bowl losses to the Giants.
They were the No. 3 seed after the 2009 season, but lost their wild-card home game to the Ravens.
Last Saturday, the Ravens knocked off the AFC’s top-seeded Broncos in Denver. It moved Baltimore (the No. 4 seed) a step closer to the Super Bowl, but also meant that the AFC Championship game would once again be played in Foxborough, since the Patriots are the higher remaining seed.
They’ve also never lost an AFC Championship game at home, going 4-0.
“This is what we’ve worked all year for, this opportunity, and I know that everybody wants to make the most of it,” coach Bill Belichick said. “The attitude is good, we’re looking forward to playing a great football team, going out there and knowing we need to play our best to beat them, but that’s the way it should be.”
The Patriots aren’t expecting it to be easy. Baltimore already has one road playoff win this season, and they’ve made a habit of winning away from home this time of year.
Since the Patriots’ last true road playoff game the Ravens have played nine of them, and won five. In addition to last week’s win over the Broncos and the 2010 victory at Gillette, the Ravens own road playoff wins against the Dolphins and Titans (2008 season), and the Chiefs (2010 season).
Road tested? The Ravens definitely qualify.
“Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re going to be more prepared than the team that’s on the road,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “I think the team we’re playing now shows that. They’ve won a lot of road playoff games over the last couple years, so I don’t think the home-field advantage will really be that much of a difference as far as [assuming] since we’re at home we’re going to win.
“But as a player, you always love playing in front of your fans.”