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Former Colts great Raymond Berry has ties to Baltimore and New England

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Raymond Berrycan't fathom the odds. Who'd have thought that, the same year he was asked to present the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the two locales most dear to his heart would be playing on Sunday for a Super Bowl berth?

That's Baltimore, the town Berry helped win two world championships as a Colts receiver, and New England, the club he later coached to the Super Bowl.

Either the Ravens or Patriots will advance Sunday to the big game, giving Berry a rooting bias in Indianapolis two weeks hence.

It's a scenario he never thought possible.

"Imagine me, standing on the sidelines at the Super Bowl, knowing I have a connection with one of the teams that could win the thing," said Berry, 77. "The odds of that happening are pretty long — but I'll take it.

"The way [the playoffs] are developing is most interesting, to say the least."

Last month, the NFL invited Berry to take part in the post-game hoopla at Super Bowl XLVI. The Baltimore Colts' Hall of Famer will carry the sterling silver Lombardi Trophy to midfield and hand it to commissioner Roger Goodell, who'll bestow it on the champions.

Berry was given the honor, in part, because he starred for the Colts, now Indianapolis' team. But Ravens fans see a delicious irony brewing, should their team win out and Berry help hoist the championship trophy.

"I called the league office this week and asked whose idea it was to invite me [to Indianapolis], because I'd like to thank them," Berry said.

He declines to predict the winner of Sunday's AFC championship, calling it "a classic toss-up. New England's offense is great. I'd hate to have to stake my career on having to beat [quarterback] Tom Brady. He's like John Unitas, in that he operates on another level.

"If you watch Brady's reaction when he throws an interception, the one guy on the field who is kicking him in the butt is Tom Brady. It infuriates him. He's so smart, so motivated and so consistent that I don't expect him to make many mistakes.

"But you're not going to have your way with the Ravens' defense, either. They are extremely solid fundamentally, and they make a good living off other teams' turnovers.

"The blinking red light on the [Ravens'] instrument panel is Ed Reed's ankle. That's trouble in River City. Reed is a gamebreaker. He affects your play-calling, as a coach: either you attack guys like Reed with great care, or not at all, because you don't want him going the other way with the ball. If he can't go full speed, the Ravens' defense takes a huge hit."

If both sides are full strength, touchdowns won't come easy, said Berry, who has studied them intently:

"It will be a slugfest, but not a high-scoring game. I think it'll be decided by one point — and I reserve the right to name the team that will have it."

Berry played his whole career in Baltimore, leading the Colts to successive NFL championships in 1958 and 1959. A sure-handed split end who fumbled once in 13 years, he caught a record 12 passes in the Colts' first title game, a 23-17 sudden-death victory over the New York Giants. Berry retired in 1967 with 631 receptions, then an NFL best.

As a coach, he spent 10 years in New England, leading the Patriots from 1984 to 1989. In Berry's second year, they reached the Super Bowl, winning three playoffs on the road before losing, 46-10 to the Chicago Bears.

The home field advantage Sunday is "a huge help" to New England, he said:

"The decibel level there reminds me of [Baltimore's] Memorial Stadium, which introduced crowd noise to the NFL."

Hurrying the Patriots' quarterback is critical to the Ravens' advancing, Berry said.

"Watch Brady long enough, and you become aware of the ticking of the clock. Often, he'll hold the ball for as long as four seconds. That's unheard of," Berry said. "I've studied old Colts' films and, many times, John [Unitas] had to get rid of the ball in 1.8 seconds."

The reason probably has less to do with the prowess of New England's pass blockers than an unspoken change of the rules, he said.

"The NFL no longer enforces the holding penalty. Offensive linemen are extending their arms and wrapping up [pass rushers]," Berry said. "Add a second, or two, and you're changing the game."

The reason isn't hard to figure out, he said.

"I think the NFL has done it to increase offensive production."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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