Except for playing at home, the Ravens couldn't be in any better position to win an AFC championship when they meet the New England Patriots on Sunday.
They aren't going into lowly Jacksonville, Tennessee or Seattle, but Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots have won five of six playoff games at Gillette Stadium since 2002. They are playing against head coach Bill Belichick, who has won three Super Bowls and Tom Brady, possibly the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
The Ravens have played to their opponents' level most of the season, and that's why they could beat New England. It forces them to play up, and put together possibly a near perfect game, which they haven't played all season. They need to be challenged, and what may be just as important, the Ravens love the underdog role. They relish being in this position.
All week long we've been hearing how great the Patriots (14-3) are, but two of their three losses were to teams with winning records while the Ravens beat all of the top teams they played.
Nobody fears New England's defense. The Patriots have been soft all year even though they were impressive a week ago against Denver, which had one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL.
You can almost smell an ambush here. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis has called Belichick one of the brightest minds ever and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been gushing over Brady this week after years of verbal exchanges.
That's funny. What's next, roses?
Suggs can't stand Brady and the Ravens don't care much for New England. There is a great deal of mutual respect shared between the two teams, but the Ravens have a lot to prove when they take the field Sunday.
The Patriots have the NFL's No. 2 offense and the Ravens are ranked No. 3 in defense. That's personal. Few teams are ever favored by more than a touchdown, especially in the playoffs, but New England is getting 7.5. points.
That's a slap in the face to the Ravens. That's personal.
The Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts are the NFL's golden boys but the Ravens still get treated like the ugly stepchild.
Even in Baltimore this week, some of the euphoria has calmed down after the Ravens beat Houston, 20-13, in the divisional playoffs a week ago. The other three teams in the conference championship round _ New York, New England and San Francisco _ seemed to be peaking, while the Ravens were terrible.
A lot of fans dropped off the band wagon because of the poor play.
That won't happen Sunday. There is too much pride involved. Whenever this team gets pushed around, especially on defense, they respond well the next week. Go ask the 49ers.
With New England, the Patriots force an opponent to bring its A game because they have so many weapons. A lot of mistakes on either side of the ball can result in a blow out.
The Ravens need this kind of pressure. If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was "under fire" during the regular season, his butt has to be sizzling this week. If first year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano thought it was tough last week, wait until he has to match wits with Belichick and Brady.
Last week's win was almost a debacle, but that game will play a major part in the outcome of Sunday's game. After allowing five sacks last week, this group can't be that bad again.
Running back Ray Rice didn't have a big game and neither did defensive tackle Haloti Ngata or Suggs. That won't happen Sunday. They are too great to be no-shows again.
There's a lot of pride among the veterans on the Ravens. You saw that in the Houston game when guys like Lewis, receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Ed Reed turned the level of performances up from regular season.
They're ready to play, which is why I had no problem with Reed taking a little poke at quarterback Joe Flacco this week. It was nothing more than a wake-
up call to Flacco. He could be rattled against Houston last week, but he's going to need poise Sunday versus Brady.
It's time for everybody to step up.
This team needed some fire. The Ravens have been dragging for most of the season, but they appear to be back with an edge again. The Ravens can win a lot of games with that ruthless and reckless style, but ugly usually only takes you so far.
Barring turnovers, they'll need a near perfect game to beat the Patriots. After last week, they might get one.
It's personal now.
They're in a great position.
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