Tomorrow’s AFC Championship Game between the high-powered New England Patriots and ferocious Baltimore Ravens is more than just a clash between two rivals battling for a place in the Super Bowl.
It is a classic showdown between teams with opposing styles of play. A matchup that has been played all over North American fields for generations and has the ingredients for an intriguing battle that will be decided as much by wits as athleticism.
The Patriots, led by their three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, are all attack, boasting one of the most impressive offenses in the NFL.
When they get it right, few teams can contain them and the crowds love it, whooping and hollering as they pile on the touchdowns against overmatched opponents.
Last week, in the divisional playoffs, the Denver Broncos were on the receiving end of a 45-10 thrashing, during which Brady tied a playoff record with six touchdown passes.
By any standard it was a superb performance and if the Patriots repeat that effort against the Ravens, they should be on their way to a fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons.
However, Baltimore presents New England with a different challenge. The Ravens are all defense. They ended the regular season with the third fewest points and yards conceded per game and led the AFC in sacks, a point not lost on Brady.
Two years ago, the Ravens beat the Patriots 33-14 in the wild-card round, the only time they have met in the playoffs. Then, like now, it was a battle between offense and defense with the tough tackling Ravens emerging triumphant.
“There’s no one that’s going to overlook a team like that,” said Brady, who threw three interceptions and was sacked three times in the 2010 game. “It would be impossible to do. They present a ton of challenges in all three phases of the game ... they’re physical, they’re tough, they can cover.”
For all their success in recent years, the Patriots have also developed an unwelcome habit of stumbling in the playoffs.
In the 2006 season, they lost the AFC title to the Indianapolis Colts. The following year, they lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants after going 16-0 in the regular season.
They also slipped up in each of the past two seasons, 12 months ago to the New York Jets in the divisional playoffs and the Ravens a year before that.
“We don’t really care too much about what’s happened in the past. We’ve won some, we’ve lost some, but right now this team is focused with the Ravens, what we have to do this week and how we can best prepare and perform well on Sunday,” New England coach Bill Belichick told a press conference. “That’s really all that matters. I don’t think some game that happened two years ago or five years ago or anything else, I don’t think that really has an effect on this game.”
The Ravens, ranked second in the AFC this season, go into the game on the back of a hard-fought 20-13 win over the Houston Texans, but with some question marks over the effectiveness of their quarterback Joe Flacco.
Even one of his own teammates, Ed Reed, questioned his performance on a national radio show, prompting talk of a rift in the Ravens that was quickly dismissed by a bemused Flacco.
“It was a little funny to me. I was a little caught off guard. It is what it is. We talked about it. It’s really not that big of a deal,” Flacco said. “If you look at the statistics, you can say: ‘Hey we don’t score a ton of points. We don’t put up a ton of yards,’ but the bottom line is we get the job done. We score points when we need to.”