As rivalries go, Patriots-Ravens isn’t exactly Harvard-Yale, but what it lacks in longevity it makes up for in intensity.
Given what is at stake, Sunday’s matchup, just the eighth in the regular season and 11th overall, promises to deliver as much drama as any of the previous meetings.
New England’s loss to Miami last Sunday made a playoff berth a little tougher to secure, and Baltimore’s win in Detroit last Monday sustained its playoff aspirations.
The Ravens have undergone quite a few changes since winning their second Super Bowl last February, most notably the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis, and safety Ed Reed signing with the Texans (he’s now with the Jets), players who defined one of the league’s stellar defenses for the last decade.
And the Patriots, of course, have undergone wholesale changes, first on the offensive side, with Wes Welker’s departure and Aaron Hernandez’s incarceration plus Rob Gronkowski’s injuries, and then on defense, with key players Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly all on injured reserve.
Once one-sided, with the Patriots winning the first five meetings beginning in 1996, in recent years the Ravens have made things far more interesting, with the results to match their bravado.
Though it took them a while to start beating the Patriots, the Ravens are one of the few teams that have never been afraid of them, a team that doesn’t overthink from a coaching aspect trying to outduel Bill Belichick, and rarely makes silly mistakes in the closing moments to hand New England a winning opportunity — or an outright win.
The usual war of words that precedes their showdowns didn’t happen this past week, though the one bulletin-board comment came from a Patriot, and more surprisingly, it was Devin McCourty.
On Comcast SportsNet New England, McCourty said “there would be no better feeling” than beating the Ravens and ending their season (though Baltimore’s playoff chances wouldn’t die with a loss).
“For me and for a lot of my teammates there would be no better feeling,” McCourty said. “So it’s going to be key to come out and play well on Sunday.”
Even avowed Patriots/Tom Brady hater Terrell Suggs was uncharacteristically proclamation-free this past week, downplaying the rivalry and not biting when he was asked about Brady.
It was a stark turnaround from just a couple of months ago, when Suggs said during an ESPN interview that his thoughts on Brady probably weren’t “appropriate for camera” before he continued in part, “I don’t like him. He don’t like me. I don’t like his hair . . . I don’t like his smug attitude. Everybody just seems to worship the guy. Not me, though.”
On Wednesday, Brady was asked if he’d put a Christmas card in the mail for Suggs, and he said, “No, probably not this year,” before adding with trademark diplomacy, “Maybe one of these years we’ll get together for dinner or something.”
(Oh, to be a fly on the wall if that ever happened.)
The first memorable game between the Patriots and Ravens came in 2007, on a Monday night late in the season. Baltimore was slogging through a 5-11 season in which it used three starting quarterbacks, New England was on its way to the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history.
But the Ravens were intent on ending the Patriots’ undefeated season — they came into the game 11-0 — and nearly pulled it off.
In an amazing few moments during the Patriots’ final possession and with the Ravens ahead, 24-20, Baltimore stopped Kevin Faulk for a 9-yard gain on third and 10, and appeared to stuff Brady on fourth down on what would have been a comeback-ending play.
Only Rex Ryan, then the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, called a timeout, negating the play. Only the quarterback and head coach are supposed to be able to call timeouts, but in the moment, officials only saw a Baltimore coach calling for the stoppage, and granted it.
Given another try on fourth down, New England gave the ball to fullback Heath Evans, and he was stopped for a 1-yard loss.
But in perhaps the most favorable false start in league history, New England’s Russ Hochstein was flagged and cost the Patriots 5 yards, but with it came yet another chance. So Brady kept it, picked up 12 yards, and then the Patriots got 5 more yards on an illegal contact penalty against the Ravens.
Faced with another fourth down later in the possession, this time from the Ravens’ 13, Brady looked to Benjamin Watson, but the Baltimore secondary was flagged for holding. Five more free yards, a fresh set of downs, and Brady hit Jabar Gaffney for the winning touchdown, after which Bart Scott was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct twice, the second coming after he threw an official’s yellow penalty flag into the stands.
After the game, Ravens defensive players accused the officials of giving the game to the Patriots.
Officiating also played a role in their next meeting, during the 2009 regular season, the year Brady returned from the torn left ACL he suffered in the 2008 season opener. The Ravens were whistled for two roughing the passer penalties, one of which Brady lobbied to get.
Lewis was incensed after the Patriots’ 27-21 win, saying it was “embarrassing to the game.”
“You can’t do that,” he said. “Brady’s good enough to make a play. Let him make his own play. You can’t end the play like that, and then throw the flag. No, man. The embarrassing part is when he understands that, and he walks up to one of us and says, ‘Oh, that was a cheap one.’ ”
Baltimore got its revenge a few months later and its first win against New England, routing the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs, the first home postseason loss for Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
There was another regular-season meeting in 2010, another New England comeback win, and another time when Suggs disparaged Brady after the game, saying Brady made some plays and allegedly offered to teach the loud-mouthed linebacker how to land a Hollywood actress.
The next day, Brady said the Ravens “talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.”
A meeting in the 2011 AFC Championship game came down to then-rookie Sterling Moore standing tall, with two pass breakups in the end zone in the closing moments, and Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff pushing a 32-yard tying field goal wide left, sending New England to the Super Bowl with a 23-20 win.
Last season brought two meetings: One in Week 3, in which the Patriots coughed up a 30-21 fourth-quarter lead, with rookie kicker Justin Tucker converting a 27-yard, last-second field goal for the 31-30 win.
New England’s defense was done in by the long ball that night, allowing seven passes of 21 or more yards, all part of scoring drives. And again, officiating played a part: With the NFL still using replacements with its officials locked out, Belichick tried in vain to get an explanation about Tucker’s game-winner, which went over right upright, and may have drifted wide.
But he got no clarification or review, and instead was fined for putting his hands on referee Bruce Hermansen.
Baltimore made it 2 for 2 against New England in the 2012 season in another AFC title game, again at Gillette Stadium.
That game was largely forgettable for the Patriots, who led, 13-7, at halftime but were shut out in the second half and lost, 28-13. Brady kicked Reed while sliding on a quarterback keeper, which earned him a fine and more scorn from Ravens players. (Reed has suggested that Brady’s kick may have contributed to the hip surgery he underwent during the offseason.)
Given the history, anything less than another nail-biting, drama-filled, physical showdown on Sunday afternoon will be a disappointment.