It is an existential question of enmity: Can a great rivalry exist if it’s not universally recognized as a great rivalry? The answer is yes, if the rivalry in question is the Patriots vs. the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots are not the Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics. They don’t have a storied, time-honored, bestowed-from-birth team to hate with the fire of a thousand suns and kneel for the demise of daily. (Patriots fans will tell you this is because their team is unrivaled.)
It’s not Red Sox-Yankees, Bruins-Canadiens, Celtics-Lakers or you vs. your snow-covered driveway this winter, but Patriots-Ravens, which will play out for the seventh time since 2009 Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, is a great rivalry, even if it’s not regarded as such outside the two teams’ facilities.
It fits all the criteria — meaningful, memorable games, genuine antipathy, genuine respect for your opponent, high stakes, subplots, on-going feuds, and emotional games.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked if these Patriots-Ravens games had reached rivalry status.
“Yeah, I hope so,” said Harbaugh. “You would 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. I feel like that’s been the case in our rivalry with the Patriots.
“We feel honored to be . . . considered a rival with them. I’m not sure how they feel about it, but we sure feel that way.”
Sunday’s game is the latest chapter, and it shouldn’t disappoint. It’s a must-win game for both teams. The Patriots need a victory to hang on to control of the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Baltimore, which enters as winners of four straight, is clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
Patriots-Ravens is not only one of the most compelling rivalries in the NFL. It is also one of the most underrated, underappreciated, and unrecognized rivalries in professional sports.
The NFL flexed Sunday’s game out of prime time. Patriots fans seem more interested in playoff scenarios than beating the defending Super Bowl champions. Sunday’s game lacks the anticipatory buzz of the Patriots’ cold war clashes with the Indianapolis Colts.
You feel like you could get a concussion just watching the Ravens and Steelers play. Seahawks-49ers is the Hatfields vs. the McCoys with helmets, thanks to head coaches Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh (brother of John) of the 49ers.
But this one measures up to any of them in terms of on-field product.
The Patriots and Ravens are the two winningest teams in the NFL, including postseason games, since 2008, the year Harbaugh became Ravens coach. The Patriots have won 73 games. The Ravens have won 71.
The teams have ended each other’s seasons in each of the last two years. The Patriots beat the Ravens in the 2011 AFC title game and the Ravens returned the favor last year, scoring a 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Since Harbaugh took over as coach in 2008, the Patriots and Ravens have split six meetings. Four of the games have come down to the final possession. The other two were decisive Baltimore playoff victories, including a 33-14 beatdown in the 2009 AFC divisional round.
Patriots-Ravens is the best kind of rivalry in that it formed organically, a product not of geography or history, but necessity.
Both teams know the other is a likely roadblock on the road to the Super Bowl.
No rivalry with the Ravens, the erstwhile Cleveland Browns, can be historical. The Ravens didn’t exist until 1996.
The Ravens are a perfect football foil for the Patriots because they are a similarly well-run organization with stability and an ethos that permeates how they construct a team. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome worked for Belichick in Cleveland. Belichick recommended Harbaugh for the Ravens coaching job.
Yet, unlike the Patriots, who tell you to “ask Bill” when you ask what day of the week it is, the Ravens aren’t afraid to get chatty.
Quoth the Raven and you’re likely to get some serious, un-Patriotic trash-talk.
They don’t fear Belichick and Tom Brady, who in his last six games against the Ravens has completed 60.2 percent of his passes, tossed six touchdowns and nine interceptions, and been sacked 12 times.
Noted Brady antagonist Terrell Suggs called the Patriots “arrogant [expletive]” after Baltimore won the AFC Championship game at Gillette in January. Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith got into a Twitter war of words with Patriots fans in June.
Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was asked in a recent Sports Illustrated interview if Brady complains to the officials. “I don’t think that’s really a question,” said Ngata. “You guys see it on TV all the time.”
Ngata also said he doesn’t lie on Brady a little longer after a hit because “I don’t want to get that whining flag.”
The Ravens have never forgiven Brady for motioning to an official to throw a flag during a 2009 Patriots’ win, after Suggs came in low on him in the second quarter. The roughing-the-passer flag was thrown. It’s the type of superstar influence call you see in the NBA.
It’s the type of call Joe Flacco didn’t get on Monday, when Detroit’s DeAndre Levy slammed into his knee.
Embrace this rivalry, Patriots fans. It’s the only one you’ve got.
The Jets are a rival of geographic convenience and Belichick’s eternal disdain. Jets coach Rex Ryan has stopped bragging and winning in equal measure.
The rivalry with the Denver Broncos is the ratings-contrived residue of the Patriots’ battles with the Colts. Patriots-Broncos isn’t about the teams. It’s about the personal scoreboard for iconic quarterbacks, Brady and Peyton Manning.
A rival should bring out the best in you, challenge you. That’s what the Patriots and Ravens do for each other.
We’re the beneficiaries.