Ravens players all know that if they are going to accomplish what they want -- and that's to be the final AFC team left standing -- they're probably going to have to beat the New England Patriots at some point to do it.
It's not something that is actively discussed by Ravens players at the start of the season. It's just a likelihood that the veterans understand and willingly pass along to their younger teammates.
They all know that if the Ravens are going to accomplish what they want — and that's to be the final AFC team left standing — they're probably going to have to beat the New England Patriots at some point to do it.
"That's been my experience since I've been here and the stories that Marshal [Yanda] has told me, it seems like that's just the way it is," Ravens third-year left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "You want to make it to the Super Bowl, you've got to go through the Patriots first."
The Ravens were able to do it during the 2009 season, when they blasted the Patriots, 33-14, at Gillette Stadium in the wild-card round, dealing New England coach Bill Belichick his most lopsided home playoff loss. They did it again in the 2012 season, capturing a 28-13 victory over New England in the AFC championship game, and avenging a loss to the Patriots in the same game the previous season.
And they'll have another opportunity against the top-seeded Patriots (12-4) on the road Saturday afternoon, this time in the AFC divisional round. The survivor will play the winner of Sunday's game between the fourth-seeded Indianapolis Colts and the second-seeded Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game Jan.18.
"I just know that we're playing the Patriots in a big game this week," Harbaugh said Monday, downplaying his team's history against one of the NFL's most successful franchises. "We've been immersed in the game-planning part of it. I think, coaches-wise, we're all pretty exhausted, but we've got to go to work.
"This is a huge challenge. You never know what they're going to get."
Harbaugh spent a large part of his weekly Monday news conference praising the Patriots and talking about all the issues that the AFC East champions present.
The Patriots have lost only twice since September: on the road against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 30, and at home in their regular-season finale Dec. 28 versus the Buffalo Bills in a game in which they had nothing on the line and played their starters sparingly or not at all.
In going 7-1 at Gillette Stadium this season, Bill Belichick's Patriots outscored the opposition by more than 16 points per game.
"We're just going to play a really great football team — tremendously well coached, very well balanced. I think they play complementary football as well or better than anybody in football, year-in and year out, especially this year," Harbaugh said. "All three phases are top-10, top-5 type units. They are good up front on both sides. They got playmakers, skill guys everywhere. Great quarterback. They can run the ball, they can throw the ball.
"You never know what you're going to get from Coach Belichick scheme-wise. It's just a huge challenge for anybody going in there in the playoffs."
Belichick offered similar praise to the Ravens in his Monday conference call with reporters.
"As usual, the Ravens are a solid football team in all three phases of the game," he said. "They're well coached, they're physical, they do a good job on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They have explosive skill players on offense, in the return game and on defense.
"I think Coach Harbaugh has, as always, put those types of teams out there with [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and their respective staffs. I think that's what they have again. That's what they are. They're tough: they're physically and mentally tough. They can play in tough situations, and they're talented. They keep coming at you."
Familiarity usually breeds contempt, but that doesn't appear to be the case, at least among the head coaches. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Ravens and Patriots have played seven times, three of those matchups coming in the playoffs. The last time that the Ravens and Patriots hadn't met in a season was in 2008, Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco's first year in Baltimore.
The Patriots have won four of those seven games between the two teams, including their lone meeting last year when New England embarrassed the Ravens, 41-7, at M&T Bank Stadium in December. But the Ravens prevailed in two of the three playoff meetings and easily could have won the third had wide receiver Lee Evans been able to secure a touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff not missed a 32-yard, game-tying field-goal attempt.
Belichick is 1-2 against Harbaugh's Ravens at home in the postseason and 11-1 against everyone else.
"I really don't have an explanation for that, other than the fact that we played well," said Harbaugh, whose team is 7-4 in postseason road games. "You have to play well on the road to get a chance to win."
Harbaugh said the fact that his team is familiar with playing big games at Gillette Stadium and has had some success there "helps us to some extent," but both teams have undergone significant changes since their last meeting.
The Ravens' active roster has only 18 players remaining from the team that went into Foxborough just less than 24 months ago for the AFC championship game and beat the Patriots to advance to Super Bowl XLVII.
It surprises no one that, in order to keep their championship hopes alive, the Ravens will again have to go to Gillette Stadium and beat the well-rested and heavily-favored Patriots.
"It seems like we go there every year," said Flacco after the Ravens' 30-17 wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday. "It will be pretty cool. It's another great place to play. It's another really good football team, and it's just another opportunity to go move on."
Or as Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs put it: "We all know who we're going to be dealing with next. Everybody knows the history between these two teams. Everybody knows the storylines for this."