Who's afraid of the big, bad Pats?

The Ravens are off to another traditional AFC hellhole this weekend for the kind of game that used to generate a great deal of anxiety around here, but I'm not sensing the same level of apprehension that preceded their three earlier road games.

Maybe it's because Ravens fans are starting to believe the press clippings and the power rankings.

Maybe it's because the New England Patriots just jettisoned one of the greatest receivers of all time.

Maybe with Halloween coming up, Bill Belichick just doesn't look that scary anymore.

It's hard to explain, because the Patriots are still the Patriots and Belichick will always be Belichick and the oddsmakers still think that's enough to send the Ravens home today without their supper.

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's because today's game doesn't have nearly the emotional significance of any of the other "big" early season games the Ravens have played so far.

The New York Jets had Rex Ryan mouthing off for weeks on "Hard Knocks." The Cincinnati Bengals were the defending AFC North champions who had swept the division last year. And the Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, were the Steelers, which is all you need to know.

The Patriots obviously are in the same league, and they've got all of the competitive cache that should make a game against them just as important and a victory just as satisfying, but what you're feeling right now is the difference between a "must-win" and a "just-win" situation.

John Harbaugh would never admit this, but let's be honest. When this season started — and the Ravens embarked on this tough, early six-game stretch without safety Ed Reed and receiver Donte' Stallworth — nobody even considered the possibility that they might be 5-1 when it was over. The pessimists figured 3-3 would keep them viable. The optimists figured 4-2 would be a great start.

That doesn't change anything on the field. Harbaugh isn't going to let the Ravens view the Pats any differently than the Steelers. They know who they're playing and they know that every game you win on the road is another step toward playing all your postseason games at home. Intensity won't be an issue.

The difference in the won-loss record is only half of the equation. The Ravens already have a big AFC win with tiebreaker significance over the Jets. Picking off another postseason tiebreaker against the Patriots could end up being huge, but there are also more immediate concerns.

The Ravens' defense is smarting from those two long touchdown passes that Kyle Orton completed to Brandon Lloyd last week, and the secondary knows that — regardless of the league passing rankings — Kyle Orton is no Tom Brady.

The offense is still a work in progress, though Joe Flacco has taken some big steps forward since that four-interception performance against the Bengals. He has shown the ability to make big plays in big situations, but the well-coached Patriots almost certainly will force him to make some key adjustments on the fly.

There's one thing the Ravens won't have to contend with anymore, and that's the Foxboro mystique. They shattered that with their resounding 33-14 playoff victory in January and continue to be one of the best teams in the NFL at handling a hostile environment.

The only question is whether they can handle a pumped-up Patriots team that hasn't forgotten that playoff loss and has had two full weeks to go to school on the Ravens. Belichick and a bye week is a dangerous combination, but the Ravens have the better defensive team and the Patriots did just deal slam-dunk Hall of Famer Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Like most big games between evenly matched teams, this one will likely come down to which defense puts more pressure on the quarterback and who commits the most turnovers. The Ravens won on both counts the last time they visited Gillette Stadium.

Can they do it again and end their all-time regular season drought against the Patriots?

If you're not worried, neither am I.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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