Ravens, Patriots anticipate another close game
AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Final minute. Game on the line. Ravens vs. Patriots.
That’s the way it’s been the last two times those teams met and that’s the way New England coach Bill Belichick expects it to be on Sunday when he faces Baltimore in a wild-card playoff game.
“You’ve got to think you’re going to be in a close game at this time of year,” he said. “Whoever you play is a good football team and you’ve got to feel like there’s a good possibility it’s going to be a last-possession game.”
Belichick would be thrilled if the result were the same as it was in Baltimore in the 12th game in 2007 and Foxborough in the fourth game this season.
The Patriots won the first one 27-24 on Tom Brady’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left that kept them on course toward the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. They held on for a 27-21 win in the second one when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-down pass with 28 seconds left that would have given the Ravens a first down inside the Patriots 10-yard line.
Then throw in the five games each team lost by seven points or less this season and players’ thoughts could turn to what might have been.
“They’re always aggravating when they’re happening,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. “It’s not aggravating now. It’s more of a calmness, knowing that no matter what we go into, we have a real chance to win the football game and we have an opportunity to be in every game that’s close.
“It’s the small things that would make us win those close games.”
The Ravens reached the AFC championship game last year and trailed Pittsburgh just 16-14 before Troy Polamalu returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:24 left and a 23-14 win.
The Patriots last playoff game was even closer.
They were leading the New York Giants 14-10 in the 2008 Super Bowl when David Tyree, now with the Ravens, caught a 32-yard pass against his helmet on fourth down that set up the winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left for a 17-14 victory. That gave the NFC wild-card team the championship.
“The thing you take from it in a positive way, is that they were a team that didn’t look like they had as good a chance as other teams to advance that far,” Brady said. “I think that really means any team is alive, whether it’s the six-seed Ravens or the three-seed Patriots.”
The Patriots (10-6) won the AFC East, but the Ravens (9-7) won’t have to face Wes Welker, the NFL’s leading receiver with 123 catches, who seriously injured his knee in last Sunday’s 34-27 loss to Houston. But the Patriots should have their best defensive linemen back. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork missed the last three games with a foot injury and end Ty Warren sat out two of them and much of the third with an ankle injury.
That should help against the outstanding running duo of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee.
“You cannot play that defense without recognizing that guy, Vince Wilfork,” Rice said. “When he wants to stop a play, he’ll stop a play.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco doesn’t care who he hands the ball to, “it’s just a matter of what they do with it afterwards,” he said.
The Ravens were 1-6 this season against playoff teams and have never beaten the Patriots, losing all five matchups. At home, the Patriots were 8-0 this season and have won their last 11 playoff games, the last seven with Brady.
“We’ve always played well in the cold weather, too, just because we’re out there practicing in it every day,” he said. Sunday’s forecast is for high temperatures in the low 20s and cloudy skies.
But the NFL’s 2007 MVP has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of his last four games and is nursing finger and rib injuries.
“That’s the biggest setup ever,” Lewis said. “You look at all the great ones, go back through the years, and every time you say they are hurt they come out and have the best games. So, forget all that.”
Brady’s 28 touchdown passes are tied for the second most in his career, but he’s had some accuracy problems after his 2008 season ended with a knee injury midway through the first quarter of the opener. He’s only overcome one fourth-quarter deficit this season and that was in the first game.
But he still has a very dangerous Randy Moss to throw to. Moss had 83 catches for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns despite being double-teamed often. Without Welker, tight ends Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker and running back Kevin Faulk could catch more short passes.
“They do a great job with personnel, and they have weapons all over the place,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “So the challenge remains the same.”
Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who leads the Patriots with 10 sacks, doesn’t see much difference in the Ravens’ offensive tactics since he last faced them.
“They don’t try to trick you out or overly scheme you,” he said. “They’re going to go out there and line up and play smash-mouth football and we’re going to have to do the same.”
Both sides say that first meeting or any of the other 15 regular-season games no longer matter. Clayton said he doesn’t think about his drop and, Harbaugh said, “you always have second chances.”
All that counts now is 60 minutes on Sunday, every single one of them, just like the last time the Ravens visited the Patriots.
“It was a game that went down to the wire, the last seconds of the game,” Warren said. “They played us tough at home last time and, with there being a lot on the line, I’m sure they’ll do the same in this game.”