At the conclusion of Sunday night's game between the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, coaches Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are likely to engage in a brief handshake, then veer in opposite directions. But if history is any indication, their teams will remain on a collision course.
And the AFC will be far better off as a result of it.
In the interim, prepare for a knock-down, drag-out affair on Sunday night in Baltimore, where the participants in last season's AFC Championship Game will meet for the fifth time in the last four years. Both teams are coming off a loss. New England and Baltimore have been separated by no more than the length of a football in recent years, the teams separated by the inches described by Al Pacino during his burning locker room speech in "Any Given Sunday."
You want some statistics on this budding rivalry? Since John Harbaugh took over the Ravens in 2008, New England is 49-17, Baltimore 45-21. The teams are tied for the best home records in the NFL with marks of 28-5. (In the regular season and postseason, the Ravens have won 20 of their last 21 at home; before Sunday's loss to Arizona, the Patriots were 35-1 in their last 36 regular season home games.) And before anyone notes that the Patriots have won three of the four meetings between the teams (and coaches) during that time, a closer inspection of those affairs reveals a rather indisputable fact.
The game usually comes down to the last play.
On the one instance it recently did not, the Patriots were unceremoniously blown out.
* Oct. 4, 2009 at Gillette Stadium: Patriots 27, Ravens 21. Needing a touchdown to win with 3:32 to play, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took over at his own 20-yard line and drove Baltimore to the New England 14-yard line. With 28 seconds to go, Flacco hit Ravens receiver Mark Clayton in the chest on fourth-and-4, but Clayton dropped the ball and the Patriots hold on for the win.
* Jan. 10, 2010 at Gillette Stadium (AFC wild-card round): Ravens 33, Patriots 14. Playing without Wes Welker, who was injured in the regular season finale - remember him? - Tom Brady was sacked three times and threw three interceptions while posting a quarterback rating of 49.1. Brady's rating easily outdistanced Flacco, who went 4 of 10 for 34 yards and a 10.0 rating - but the Ravens ran for 234 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice on the first play of the game.
* Oct. 17, 2010 at Gillette Stadium: Patriots 23, Ravens 20 (overtime). The Patriots trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter when Brady engineered two scoring drives, the first of which resulted in a touchdown pass to the recently reacquired Deion Branch. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski followed up a game-tying, 24-yard bunny at the end of regulation with a 35-yard field goal on the Patriots' third possession of overtime - with 2 minutes to play - to eke out the victory.
* Jan. 22, 2012 at Gillette Stadium (AFC Championship): Patriots 23, Ravens 20. In a conclusion eerily similar to that in October 2009, Flacco took over at his 21 with 1:44 to play needing a field goal to tie. He took the Ravens to the Patriots' 14 and, on second down, threw an apparent touchdown pass to wide receiver Lee Evans that defensive back Sterling Moore jarred from Evans' possession. Kicker Billy Cundiff then hooked a chip-shot, 32-yard field goal to send the Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl in the Belichick era.
If you want to extend the sample to a fifth game, pre-Harbaugh, that came in Week 13 of the 2007 season, when the Pats escaped with a 27-24 victory at Baltimore - the only game played away from Gillette in the series - thanks, in part, to some shaky officiating at the end of the game. Add it all up and you have five games with a total score of New England 114, Baltimore 108.
And in case you're wondering, in his last three games against Baltimore - all at Gillette - Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has completed just 72 of 122 passes (59 percent) with three touchdowns, seven interceptions and seven sacks. Brady's aggregate rating in those games is a putrid 58.9.
Largely because of that last fact, the Ravens have spent considerable energy this year attempting to upgrade their passing game, which has failed them twice in the closing moments of two games against the Patriots. (Clayton in '09, Evans last January.) Harbaugh seems to have come to the conclusion that the Ravens simply cannot play better defense than they already have against Brady, so Baltimore has morphed into a more open, no-huddle attack that has thus far had mixed results.
As for Cundiff, he has been replaced by rookie Justin Tucker, who is 6 for 6 on field goal attempts this season, including 2 of 2 from 50 yards or more.
Interestingly, the Patriots too, seem to be morphing, Belichick having spent considerable draft resources to upgrade the defense, which failed him throughout the season and, ultimately, in the Super Bowl against the New Giants. Where once the Patriots seemed to tweak their roster with the idea of defeating the Indianapolis Colts - hello, Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss and Wes Welker - Belichick now seems focused on more physical teams like the Giants and, yes, the Ravens, who are as a big a threat to New England as anyone else in the AFC.
If recent results between the teams don't tell you that, nothing will.
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