Whenever the Ravens play the New England Patriots, it is the biggest game of the year in Baltimore because of how it fits into the psyche of the city's fans.
The Ravens' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers is intense, but the two cities are so much alike with their storied past and blue-collar work ethic. New England is different.
As much Dallas as claims to be the NFL's darling franchise, the Patriots are America's team. Dynasties have come and gone in cities like San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Dallas, but New England has had staying power. The Patriots have won more games (219), playoffs included, than any team since 2000 and have appeared in six Super Bowls in that time, winning four.
That's why, ahead of Monday night's game in Gillette Stadium, they are America's team. You either love them or you hate them, but there is an admiration. In Baltimore, where we walk around with a chip on our shoulder, it's hate.
We're a small-market operation located between the nation's capital and the City of Brotherly Love. The Patriots are a big-market team that plays just outside of the city with the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins.
We have the Orioles and the Blast.
Patriots fans have a right to be smug. They've got the NFL's best coach, Bill Belichick, and best quarterback, Tom Brady. And they have all those darn rings.
"How many Super Bowls do they have?" asked Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "They have, like, four or five, and they've played in, like, six or seven games. You can't do anything but respect that. Wins are wins, and championships are championships."
There's another reason this game is bigger than those against Pittsburgh. The Ravens get two shots at the Steelers each year because of their AFC North schedule. Unless they meet in the playoffs, the Ravens get only one shot at the Patriots every couple of years.
If the Ravens can win this one, this could be a coming-out party. They had a similar invitation a couple of weeks ago in Dallas, but the Cowboys beat them into submission. The Ravens have been on a roll ever since.
They've won four of their past five, including a 38-6 trouncing of the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 4, and most of their big-name players are healthy and starting again.
But if they lose — oh, my, get the conspiracy theories ready. We love those in Baltimore. It's part of the inferiority complex, our us-against-the-world mentality.
If the lights go out Monday night, it will be Belichick's fault. If the headsets don't work for 30 seconds, Belichick will be cheating again. If the scoreboard flickers, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is in cahoots with the Patriots. If the wind blows one of Justin Tucker's field-goal attempts wide right, God must be a Patriots fan.
I love Baltimore because we live in our own little box. But when it comes to football, the Ravens can go anywhere. For instance, unlike other teams that cower inside Gillette Stadium, the Ravens are 2-2 in playoff games there. (They're also 1-7 against New England during the regular season, but we will ignore that.)
Baltimoreans always embrace a challenge. Do you think coach John Harbaugh isn't excited about matching wits with Belichick? Do you think defensive coordinator Dean Pees isn't pumped going back to Foxborough, Mass., and trying to beat the team that allowed him to leave six years ago? Great players live for these moments.
Last week, the Ravens got fans excited again. Inside The Castle, there was concern in the front office that the fans at M&T Bank Stadium had lost a bit of their edge. It was true: There were a lot of Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders fans at home games and a lot of empty seats spread throughout the upper deck in other games the Ravens hosted.
You can't blame the fans. It is one thing to lose, but people want to be entertained as well. Finally last week, Flacco ran the no-huddle offense for the entire game and was in total command. The performance might have come against the Dolphins, but it gave fans hope.
And that's what Monday night is about. There is optimism about this team again. The Ravens haven't been to the playoffs in two of the past three years, and after going 5-11 last season, a win against the Patriots would signal a return to the upper echelon.
It's a big game. It's bigger than any against Pittsburgh. It's against New England. The Patriots are America's team. And if the Ravens win, for one night, little old Baltimore will be on top again.