There goes the Kraft-O-Matic, La-Z-Boy playoff plan. After a very un-Patriot-like series of events, your team is actually going to have to play Big Boy Football against a worthy adversary to advance to the AFC Championship this year. The annual birthright march to the Super Bowl now has a big speed bump in its path. The Baltimore Ravens are coming to Foxborough Saturday and unlike most potential Patriots playoff opponents, the Ravens are not afraid of the Patriots. Unlike almost everybody else in the AFC, the Ravens have the coach, the quarterback, and the pass rush to compete in Foxborough in a playoff game.
What a concept. For once, it’s not likely to be a matter of the Patriots just showing up and watching their opponents vomit on their own cleats. The tanned and rested Patriots — who have not experienced a competitive moment of football in more than two weeks — are going to have to play well to win their first playoff game.
OK, I’m exaggerating a little here. First-round byes are hard-earned and the Patriots have won the right to rest — for a fifth consecutive season. But we all know they were hoping to play Indianapolis or Cincinnati at Gillette this weekend. That would have been so easy. Seriously, was anybody really worried about Marvin Lewis? Andy Dalton? The Colts run defense? New England already spanked the Bengals and Colts this season, beating the Colts in their own warm, dry building. The Patriots embarrassed Indy here in the playoffs last January and were looking forward to another easy divisional round game . . . like Indy last year . . . like hideous Houston in 2012 . . . like the 8-8 Tebow-Broncos in 2011.
The Ravens are different. They will not be defeated the moment Bill Belichick wins the coin toss and defers. They know things that the Broncos, Colts, and Bengals do not know. They know how to win playoff games on the road. They know how to win in Foxborough in January in this century. They have done it. Twice. Almost three times.
All that said, let’s not overstate the Ravens threat. John Harbaugh is not Vince Lombardi and Joe Flacco is not Joe Montana. Let’s remember that the last time these teams played (December 2013), the Patriots slaughtered the Ravens, 41-7, in Baltimore. If you are nervous about the Ravens, try to remember that Baltimore this season lost six games and barely made the playoffs. With everything on the line, the Ravens were beaten by the fraud Texans, 25-13, in Week 16, and struggled to beat the Browns on the final weekend. The Steelers beat the Ravens by 20 in November. The Ravens are not as good as they were two years ago, when they struggled during the regular season, then rallied and won the Super Bowl. Only 18 players remain from the Super Bowl champs.
But as we saw Saturday night, the Ravens can be a handful in January. Playing on the road, Baltimore made all the big plays against the Steelers. Flacco raised his postseason record to 10-4. He has thrown 166 consecutive playoff passes without being intercepted. Flacco and Harbaugh are 7-4 on the road in the playoffs since they started in Baltimore in 2008.
The Ravens are vulnerable in the defensive backfield. They’ve placed 18 players on injured reserve this season and have started seven different cornerbacks and five different safeties. Tom Brady and the Patriots should be able to carve up the Ravens secondary.
But Baltimore’s front seven is formidable. The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times Saturday night. Wacky Terrell Suggs loves to get in the face of Brady, and Elvis Dumervil had 17 sacks in 2014. Baltimore’s defensive coordinator is Dean Pees, who studied at the altar of Belichick. Pees was New England’s defensive coordinator from 2006-09. He knows how to attack Brady and the New England offense.
There’s more. Had things gone as hoped, the Colts would have been playing Saturday on short rest. The Ravens will be playing on normal rest. And they are not bothered by cold conditions. The Ravens whooped the Patriots in Foxborough, 28-13, in January 2013, and 33-14 in January ’10. If the immortal Billy Cundiff could have kicked a 32-yard field goal in 2012, Baltimore might be working on a three-game playoff win streak at Gillette.
The Patriots should be OK. They have a great defense, a healthy Rob Gronkowski, and have lost only one game at home since 2012. They are one of the more-rested teams in the history of football. When Saturday arrives, most of the Patriots’ starters will be working on 20 days rest.
But they were hoping for a fourth week of rest. Another Campbell Soup special. Another free pass to the AFC Championship.
Now they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. They are going to have to beat a competitive team, rather than stand back and watch a team beat itself. This will be a victory of merit, not perfunctory entitlement.
There’s a playoff game at Gillette Saturday and we’re not 100 percent sure which team will win. Call me crazy, but as a sports fan, I find this so much more interesting and entertaining.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org