OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the moments following the improbable 38-35 double overtime win over the Denver Broncos Saturday night, running back Ray Rice labeled the Ravens “a team of destiny.”
So, why wouldn’t the New England Patriots once again be standing in the way of Baltimore’s first trip to the Super Bowl since Jan. 2001? If you believe in such storybook treks, defeating the Indianapolis Colts and toppling Peyton Manning for the first time since 2001 were appropriate opening chapters, but a return trip to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough would be the ultimate climax.
The painful ending to last season’s AFC Championship was one that drove the Ravens throughout the offseason as they desperately worked — and hoped — to land themselves back in the same position. Even after a Week 3 win over New England in Baltimore earlier this season, another meeting with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots was impossible not to think about in many Ravens players’ minds.
“I think we personally kind of wanted to play the Patriots again,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “If we were to go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough and win there. It’s another matchup that I think that we’re excited about, and hopefully, we can get it done this time.”
Meeting in the postseason for the third time in five seasons, the Ravens and Patriots have built a rivalry similar to the one between New England and Indianapolis last decade as it seemed Brady and Manning were always on a collision course in January. The teams have met five times overall in the John Harbaugh era with all but one game — the Ravens’ 33-14 victory in the wild-card round of the 2009 season — being decided by fewer than seven points.
While games with New England may not challenge the annual meetings with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh acknowledged how familiar the Ravens are with the Patriots and how familiar they are with playing in Foxborough.
“We’ve been there a number of times. It’s definitely grown into quite a rivalry, we would like to say,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how they feel about that part, but we have tremendous respect for the New England Patriots.”
The Patriots own the advantage as they’ve won three of the five meetings between the teams since 2009, with no win bigger than last year’s 23-20 final that gave them the AFC title after the late failures of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff.
As remarkable as their postseason run has been after losing four of their last five games to close the regular season, the Ravens know who stands in their way of achieving their ultimate goal, and they understand they will once again be considered a significant underdog as oddsmakers have favored New England by 9 1/2 points.
“They have the history,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “They have been there, and we want to get to where they have been. They were there last year. They knocked us out, and we want to get to that point, get this win, and get to the Super Bowl.”
As was the case last week, Ravens players expressed no interest in what the outside world thinks about their team, but they embraced the opportunity for a second chance to right the wrongs left on the field in Foxborough last season. And as the images of Evans’ drop and Cundiff’s miss are replayed all week, Baltimore is ready to turn the page for a different ending this time around.
“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.”
Ayanbadejo apologizes for Patriots comments
After posting a series of critical comments about the Patriots on his official Twitter account Sunday evening, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo backed off his stance Monday as many were critical of the veteran special-teams player for conjuring bulletin-board material before New England had even officially advanced to the conference championship.
The 36-year-old apologized for drawing negative attention to himself and the Ravens six days ahead of the AFC title game.
“I made selfish comments on twitter last night that reflected poorly upon myself, my teammates, and the organization,” Ayanbadejo tweeted Monday morning. “For that I apologize.”
It remains unclear how Harbaugh handled the situation at the team’s training facility in Owings Mills, but the Baltimore coach had little interest in discussing Ayanbadejo’s comments when asked to respond during his Monday afternoon press conference.
“That’s all stuff that just isn’t really relevant,” Harbaugh said. “It’s all stuff that I don’t think is worthy of the conversation right now.”
Ayanbadejo didn’t play any defensive snaps in Saturday’s win and was part of the coverage units that allowed two return touchdowns to Denver’s Trindon Holliday.
Earlier Monday, he didn’t receive much of an endorsement from his defensive teammate Ngata when the four-time Pro Bowl selection was asked whether he agreed with the linebacker’s assessment of the Patriots’ hurry-up offense.
“I’m not going to comment on that stuff,” Ngata said. “That’s all about him and his deal.”
Jones, Graham special contributors