By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
9:22 PM EST, January 13, 2013
To a man, the Ravens said that they didn't care who their opponent would be Sunday in the AFC championship game.
Perhaps, they were too exhausted and emotionally drained from having played a four-hour, 16-minute game to give it much thought. Perhaps, they simply couldn't decide, knowing that they would have a score to settle either way. Maybe they were riding with so much momentum and confidence, following one of the best victories that any of them had ever experienced, that it just didn't matter.
Regardless, the uncertainty of where they'll be Sunday was replaced this evening by the reality that they'll get another shot against the New England Patriots with a Super Bowl berth on the line. A day after the Ravens secured an exhilarating and exhausting 38-35 victory over the top-seeded Denver Broncos at frigid Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Patriots moved on with a commanding 41-28 win over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens and Patriots will kickoff at 6:30 Sunday in a rematch of a late September regular-season game and last year's AFC championship. The Ravens beat the Patriots, 31-30, at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 3 of the season, but undoubtedly, much of the talk this week will be about the playoff matchup last January and the visitors trying to avenge one of their most bitter defeats in team history.
The Patriots won, 23-20, in a game defined by wide receiver Lee Evans' dropped pass and kicker Billy Cundiff's missed field goal. In the days following the gut-wrenching loss, the Ravens talked about how difficult it would be to get back to a point where they are one game away from the Super Bowl.
Here they are a year later after a regular season in which they lost several key performers to injuries, fired their offensive coordinator following their 13th game and dropped four of their past five contests heading into the playoffs.
"We just have to keep moving forward," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said after Saturday's game. "This is a blessing. We're just excited to be moving forward [but] it won't mean nothing if we don't win."
For the Ravens, the victory earned them back-to-back AFC championship game berths for the first time in team history. For coach John Harbaugh, it marked the third time his team will play for the conference championship in his five seasons at the helm.
"This is, in its own right, incomparable," Harbaugh said. "We've never been through anything quite like this, but that's how life is. No two moments are ever exactly the same. This has been pretty incredible and unexplainable. I'm just very humble and grateful. It's really hard to get into these spots and have the opportunity to do this."
How hard? Harbaugh had just watched his team defeat the Broncos when rookie Justin Tucker connected for a 47-yard field goal one minute and 42 seconds into the second overtime. The game-winning kick ended the fourth longest game in NFL history.
In the game, the Ravens allowed an NFL-postseason record two return touchdowns to Trindon Holliday, three Peyton Manning touchdown passes and overcame four different Broncos' leads. They also needed a 70-yard Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, who inexplicably got behind the Broncos' secondary in the last minute, to force overtime.
The comeback had running back Ray Rice declaring the Ravens a "team of destiny" and predicting that Flacco, who outplayed Peyton Manning in the game, was going to lead the team to the Super Bowl. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, meanwhile, cried after the win, which assured that his 17th NFL season will last one more week. Lewis has said that he'll retire following the end of the year.
"I think we are special just by what we've been through all year, injury-wise," said Lewis, who has 30 tackles in two games since returning from a torn right triceps. "For the first half last week, that was the first time me, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata actually played together because of the injuries we've dealt with. So as a team, what we've done is the reason why we're here now."
After the Patriots put the finishing touches on the Texans, Torrey Smith said on his Twitter feed; "Looks like we are heading north … THIS IS THE REMATCH."
"It's kind of weird that we're back," Smith said following Saturday's victory in which he beat perennial All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey for two first-half touchdown passes. "Just talking to guys around the league, it's not a guarantee to even be in the playoffs. We're spoiled to be in the playoffs this many years in Baltimore. To have the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl and be one game away, that's another way of being spoiled. We're still in it."
The Patriots, who piled up 457 yards of offense to beat the Texans and got three touchdowns from reserve running back Shane Vereen, have won 10 of their past 11 games with the exception being a loss to San Francisco three weeks ago. The 49ers, coached by Jim Harbaugh, will play in the NFC championship game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
However, the Patriots' victory over the Texans came with a cost as star tight end Rob Gronkowski re-injured his left forearm and is out for the rest of the playoffs.
The Ravens will be playing at Gillette Stadium for the third time in the past four postseasons. They are 1-1 in those games, but the last one is certainly still in the back of their minds.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," said Flacco, who threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to the Patriots last January. "We are definitely proud of being here, and we feel like it is going to take a lot for someone to come and kick us off that field come the AFC championship game. We are going to give it our all and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we've put in to get back to point. It's going to be a great game."
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