Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ravens baby

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — - The Ravens' first step toward the Super Bowl looms as a statement game.

At a frigid Gillette Stadium today, the Ravens' precocious new guard will clash with the New England Patriots' venerable old one in an AFC wild-card game.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady set the standard in the past decade, capturing three Super Bowl championships. Ravens coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco just splashed onto the NFL playoff landscape, becoming the first head coach-quarterback tandem to make the league's postseason their first two seasons.

Will the Patriots (10-6) continue their postseason supremacy, or will the Ravens (9-7) further validate themselves with another championship run?

"When it's all said and done, if we can achieve what they've achieved or even beyond, that's something you hope for and dream about," Harbaugh said.

"But that's something we have to do before you can start talking about it too much."

A year removed from reaching the AFC championship game, the Ravens are looking to prove they are not a one-year playoff wonder. But this season's Ravens are much different from last season's team, even though both entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.

Their offense reinvented itself by shifting the focus to Flacco, who set Ravens single-season records while battling injuries and criticism.

Harbaugh guided the Ravens to back-to-back playoff seasons for the second time in team history, but he also received his share of heat from fans for not re-signing kicker Matt Stover and making questionable in-game decisions.

Now, Flacco and Harbaugh find themselves matched up against Belichick and Brady, who have a combined postseason record of 15-4 (.789).

"It's going to take a lot on our part, but we feel like we have the guys to do it," Flacco said.

"Obviously, they have some guys that can play over there, but we're going to take the approach that we've got to control what we can. We believe that we have the guys to match up with them."

The Ravens, however, can't match the Patriots' tradition. Harbaugh and Flacco have played in three playoff games together. Belichick and Brady have played in four Super Bowls.

The Patriots have never lost a home playoff game with Belichick and Brady. New England also has never lost to the Ravens, winning all five meetings.

The aura surrounding the Patriots, though, isn't the same as that of the past decade. Brady is battling injuries (shoulder, right finger and ribs) and is without his top target (wide receiver Wes Welker is out for the postseason with a knee injury).

Even the revered Belichick has had to endure second-guessing this season. Aggressive yet questionable decisions to go for it on fourth down led to losses at Indianapolis and at Miami.

The Patriots understand their legacy alone won't help them beat the Ravens, who are 3 1/2 -point underdogs.

"It's going to be as tough a game that we've played all year," Brady said. "We're going to need a great game plan and really go out there and execute as well as we possibly can."

Brady's influence does factor into games, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said last week.

Two marginal roughing-the-passer penalties (on Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata) kept touchdown drives alive in the Ravens' 27-21 loss at New England three months ago. After the game, the Ravens said the officials were protecting Brady.

This week, most of the Ravens downplayed the so-called "Brady Rule"- which limits hitting the quarterback to below the neck and above the knees. Suggs, though, was once again vocal about the preferential treatment for Brady.

"I think certain quarterbacks do get certain favoritism in this league, and I think he's one of them," Suggs said. "He's been a good player for so long, he's going to get that. So, maybe I'll get that in years to come."

There was no argument from Brady.

"I'm begging for preferential treatment if they'll give it to me. I just don't think they'll give it to me all the time," he said with a chuckle.

"I'm trying to butter up to those officials before the game and during the game so we do get a call every once in a while. If it helps our team win, I'm all for it."

The Ravens are looking to become the first visiting team to win a playoff game in New England since 1978.

When the players enter Gillette, they will see three large banners commemorating the Patriots' Super Bowl titles. They will look across the line and see Brady, who has the top winning percentage of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era (.764). And they will glance over at the sideline and find Belichick, who has the best record of any NFL coach since 2001 (121-40).

"The thing I keep talking to my team about is, 'Don't get caught up in who they're not [or] who they used to be,' " Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said.

"You're not going to play the legacy. You're just playing the New England Patriots coming up this Sunday. That's our task. That's our focus."