Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata watched Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans closely, homing in on what each offense was doing and the battles in the trenches.
He wasn't openly rooting for either team, but in his mind — and he says in the minds of other Ravens — there was one scenario that the team preferred: a trip back to Gillette Stadium for an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.
"I think we, personally, kind of wanted to play the Patriots again," Ngata said. "If we were to go the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough and win there. So, it's another matchup that I think that we're excited about, and hopefully, we can get it done this time."
It wasn't that the Ravens necessarily felt that the Patriots, who they'll play in the AFC championship Sunday at 6:30 p.m., are the better matchup. Their pedigree, after all, suggests that they are the last team you'd want to see at this time of year. The Patriots have gone to the conference title game six previous times under head coach Bill Belichick and they are 5-1 in those games, including 3-0 at home.
It was one of those five Patriots victories that had the Ravens itching for another shot at New England. The Patriots beat the Ravens, 23-20, in Foxborough last January in one of the most gut-wrenching defeats in team history.
"We're excited about this game," tight end Dennis Pitta said. "It's been a long road getting back to this point, and the way we left it last year didn't sit well with us. We're excited to be in this game and to be able to get a rematch with these guys."
Ravens Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda estimated that it took him about two months to get over the loss to the Patriots in last year's AFC title game. John Harbaugh joked that he didn't put a "red dot" on the calendar to commemorate the date, but the loss clearly lingered with the head coach who had his team just seconds away from the franchise's second Super Bowl berth.
For those Ravens who don't remember any of the particulars from that day, including Yanda who claims that he doesn't recall Week 1 of this season, they will surely get a reminder this week if they are anywhere near a television. The images of quarterback Tom Brady plunging in for a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Patriots a fourth-quarter lead, of Lee Evans getting the potential game-winning touchdown pass slapped out of his hands by Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore, and of Billy Cundiff missing a game-tying 32-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds, will be fixtures this week in the lead-up to the game.
"The feeling that we had in that locker room, I think we all wanted to get back to the AFC championship," Ngata said. "And then to actually have it be back in Foxborough, it's a good story."
The Ravens and Patriots have split two career playoff meetings, with the Ravens beating them, 33-14, in the divisional round of the 2009 playoffs.
Overall, the Patriots have beaten the Ravens seven times in nine career meetings, but it was the Ravens who broke a six-game regular-season losing streak to their nemesis with a 31-30 victory in Week 3 this season. That marked the fifth time in the last six meetings where the game was decided by six points or less.
"It's definitely grown into quite a rivalry, we would like to say. I don't know how they feel about that," Harbaugh said. "But we have tremendous respect for the New England Patriots. Their coaches, starting with their head coach, Bill Belichick, their quarterback, Tom Brady. … They just have a tremendous staff, tremendous players, tremendous tradition. It's always a huge challenge for us, but it's one we're excited about and look forward to."
Ravens reserve linebacker and special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo fanned the flames on Twitter during the Patriots' 41-28 victory over the Texans on Sunday, calling New England's offense "gimmicky" and bringing up the organization's role in Spygate. However, Ayanbadejo apologized for his comments Monday and the rest of the team distanced itself from the situation, praising the Patriots and the success that they've had.
"We have a lot of respect for those guys, and they have been in this position so many times over the past four years," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "They have the history. They have been there and we want to get to where they have been. They knocked us out, and for us, we want to get to that point, get this win and get to the Super Bowl."
Smith and Yanda also downplayed both the earlier meeting between the two teams, as well as the result of the AFC championship game last year. But the comparisons, along with the memories, will be unavoidable this week.
"Last year's game was last year's game," Smith said. "We were a completely different team really all the way around. It was a bunch of different guys playing a bunch of different roles. Us being there last year, it really doesn't matter. It is a completely new year."