In four of the past seven seasons, the Ravens have traveled to Gillette Stadium to face the
In four of the past seven seasons, the Ravens have traveled to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots in win-or-go home situations. When they make the trip for Monday's matchup, the circumstances won't be quite the same, but one reality remains.
If the Ravens are going to get to where they want to go this season, they'll likely have to go through the Patriots at least once.
In the Ravens' 38-6 rout of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the defense put forth another dominant effort and the offense finally showed some explosiveness in gaining 496 yards. The team hopes their most complete performance of the season serves as a springboard as the Ravens head into their most difficult four-game stretch of the season with a clear yet challenging path to the postseason.
That path starts Monday in Foxborough, Mass. — arguably the toughest place to win in the NFL. Waiting for the Ravens is a 10-2 Patriots' team that is tied with the Oakland Raiders for the top spot in an otherwise open AFC.
"There's a lot of respect for New England. Obviously, we have a lot of respect for Coach [Bill] Belichick and Tom Brady and all those players. They've got great players, they've got a great organization," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "They do a great job every year, obviously, because they're always at the top. They've earned it. That's something that we've been honored enough to be in some big games against them over the years and we feel like that's a place we want to be and we're excited about the opportunity."
About 3 ½ hours after the Ravens finished their beatdown of the Dolphins on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers held serve and defeated the New York Giants. That leaves the Ravens and Steelers, both 7-5, tied atop the AFC North with four games to play. The two rivals will play on Christmas afternoon at Heinz Field, a game that will have obvious playoff ramifications and could decide the division.
However, at least one wild-card berth still could be available for the runner-up in the AFC North. The two wild-card spots are currently occupied by the Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) and the Denver Broncos (8-4) with the Steelers and Dolphins (7-5) behind them.
"We like the fact that we're in it. We like the fact that we're in a fight for the division championship. That's our first goal, the starting point of everything we try to accomplish, one week at a time," Harbaugh said. "Now we've got our toughest challenge. We're going to need to play our best football on Monday night up in New England to win that football game. We do believe we have a chance to do that based on where we're at right now, so that's what we're shooting for."
The Ravens have had some memorable games against the Patriots during Harbaugh's tenure. The Patriots have won five of the eight matchups, though the two teams have split the four postseason meetings at Gillette Stadium. In the last one, a divisional round matchup in the 2014 season, New England erased two 14-point deficits and beat the Ravens, 35-31, on their way to another Super Bowl championship.
Harbaugh insists that the Ravens are focused on what's in front of them, so their past successes and struggles versus the Patriots will probably not be a significant topic of conversation when the team returns to work Wednesday.
However, a Ravens' victory next Monday would be a significant step toward them getting back to the postseason. Though the NFL seemingly produces a surprise every week, the Ravens figure to have to win at least two of their final four games — if not three, including the Steelers' rematch — to win the division.
After the Patriots game, they'll have a short week to prepared for a home game against the struggling Philadelphia Eagles (5-7), followed by season-ending road contests versus Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1). The Steelers, meanwhile, travel to face the Buffalo Bills (6-6) this Sunday, followed by a road game against the Bengals, and home contests against the Ravens and Cleveland Browns (0-12) to close their season.
"You've got to play these games. They were going to be on our schedule. Who we are going to play and where we're going to play them is part of it," Harbaugh said when asked about the difficult stretch to close the regular season. "In all honesty, it doesn't matter where you play them. I'm happy to be playing them right now. I'm excited to be playing them right now, when it counts the most. I'm excited about it and glad they fell right where they did. It's an opportunity. It's an honor to get to coach these games. It's a huge challenge, but we feel like we have the men for the job."
The Ravens certainly have a history of pushing the Patriots like few other AFC teams can. Five of the eight games between the teams since 2009 have been decided by six or fewer points.
What appeared a couple of weeks ago to be a significant mismatch no longer seems so on paper. While Brady continues to play near flawlessly — he's thrown 19 touchdown passes to one interception — the Patriots lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending back injury and wide receiver Danny Amendola will also reportedly miss several weeks with an ankle sprain. Still, in winning at least 10 games in 14 consecutive seasons, the Patriots have a well-earned history of being able to adapt even after losing key players.
The Ravens, who haven't looked like a playoff-caliber team on the offensive side of the ball for much of the season, finally broke out against the Dolphins. Thriving in a quicker-paced offense and benefiting from much-improved play by the offensive line, Quarterback Joe Flacco found a rhythm on Sunday that has been elusive all season.
Harbaugh downplayed how much the performance could mean going forward, but it certainly beat the alternative, which was another week of talking about a sluggish offense.
"I think it gives the guys a lot of confidence to see it and have done it," Flacco said after setting a franchise record with 36 completions and throwing for 381 yards and four touchdowns against the Dolphins. "Now, we have to go up into a hostile place in New England that we really enjoy playing [at]. It's going to be another important game in December up there on a Monday night, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it, big time."