By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Now and forever, the Patriots will always be Super Bowl XLIX champions. Nobody will ever be able to take that title away from them.
But man, the Baltimore Ravens have to still feel like it should have been them.
What’s gotten somewhat obscured in the haze of DeflateGate and the thrilling finish to Super Bowl XLIX is that, for almost all intents and purposes, the Ravens had the Patriots beaten on their own turf on a Saturday night in the divisional playoff round of 2014. It was all over, but for the fat lady hitting the high notes, and a promising Patriots season appeared to have short-circuited in stunning fashion.
As quickly as one can sum up that wild, bizarre football game: The Patriots rallied in a conventional style from a 14-0 deficit, aided by Julian Edelman’s ability to somehow emerge from a pile of four Ravens with a ball he had just fumbled early on the game-tying drive. But then, Tom Brady threw an interception before halftime, and the Ravens turned it into a quick seven points before once again doubling that lead early in the second half. That’s when Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels got a bit unconventional, pulling the now-infamous ineligible receiver stunt to score one touchdown and then dialing up the Edelman pass to Danny Amendola to tie the game.
But still — still! — the fight was not over. Despite the electric atmosphere inside Gillette Stadium after a Devin McCourty interception, the Patriots went three-and-out when given the chance to take a lead. Stone Cold Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett marched the Ravens down the field, but Owen Daniels let a pass clang off his hands in the end zone. The Ravens settled for a field goal. That was when Brady went into full Brady Mode™, completing 8-of-9 passes on the game-winning drive, capped off with a picture of perfection to Brandon LaFell for the touchdown.
Duron Harmon then picked off Flacco in the end zone. The Patriots had survived.
Make no mistake, the Patriots earned that victory, and they deserved to advance. But being on the losing end of that game and then seeing the Patriots go on to capture the Lombardi Trophy had to have left an unsettling feeling in the pit of the Ravens’ stomachs.
Now, two seasons later, they’ll meet again. Six of the Ravens’ starters from that game will once again start this week, and nearly 20 Ravens from the ’14 team will be making the return trip to Foxboro. And while that historic postseason meeting won’t directly affect this game, there is no accounting for the impact that a sour taste can have on a football team.
Intangible elements aside, the 2016 Ravens present as tough a test as the Patriots will face all season. It’s particularly important after the Patriots came up short in their most recent showing against a real NFL power when they lost at home to the Seahawks in Week 10. For that matter, the next two weeks (home vs. Baltimore on Monday Night Football, at Denver) will provide the best look at how fit the Patriots are to be making a real Super Bowl run this season.
While the Ravens’ 7-5 record may have them on the outside of that “elite” class, they’ve figured things out since their bye week at the end of October. Since the start of November, they’re 4-1, with that only loss coming at the 11-1 Cowboys. They’re scoring a respectable 24.6 points per game, up in a big way since the firing of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman in early October, when they were scoring just 18.8 points every week. They’re also allowing just 13.6 points per game.
It’s that defense which really stands out, as the Ravens rank first in the NFL in yards allowed. They’re tied with the Patriots for second in points allowed, but they also have the No. 1 run defense and the No. 7 pass defense. (The Patriots rank 12th and 10th, respectively, in those categories, for perspective.) The Ravens’ 22 takeaways have them tied for fourth-most in the league, and their 14 interceptions are tied for second-most.
They also rank No. 1 in the league at getting off the field on third down, stopping opponents 66.7 percent of the time.
Of course, the four-game losing streak in October can’t be ignored. But the Ravens are a foe that will not go overlooked this week.
“This is as well-coached of a defense that we’ll play,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. “They’re a physical group that doesn’t really give up any easy plays — no big plays, stops the run, makes you one-dimensional, forces you into a lot of third-and-long situations. They’re the best third down team in the league. They create a lot of turnovers — they’re in the top five in that. They stop the run — second in points, 12th in sacks. They challenge you on every play and they don’t give up any easy yards. That’s the sign of a team that’s well-coached, disciplined, knows their scheme really well. They have a tremendous amount of good players on all three levels of the defense.”
Belichick said that even though ball security is important every week, an added focus will be needed this week.
“They do a good job of raking the ball out and taking advantage of poor ball security situations by the quarterback, or running backs, or receivers, whoever’s carrying it,” Belichick said.
The head coach also stated in plain terms the challenge that is currently presenting itself to the Patriots.
“They’re really strong in all three phases of the game, outstanding on defense, very explosive on offense, well-balanced and always good in the kicking game. This will be a big challenge for us this week, a lot to prepare for,” he said. “Good players, good scheme, well-coached, it’s a good organization. It should be a good opportunity for us to really take the extra time to try to tighten up as many things as we can and be at our very best Monday night. That’s what we’ll need.”
What’s clear is that the Patriots won’t let that 7-5 record cloud the task at hand. These Ravens won’t be underestimated (like maybe some jokers might have proclaimed before that last meeting). As an organization, the Ravens don’t know how to feel intimidated by anything — not Belichick, not Brady, and not those Super Bowl banners that hang in the corner of Gillette Stadium. Since John Harbaugh became head coach in 2008, the Ravens have proven to be willing to scrap for 60 minutes (even longer, in certain cases) just about every time they visit Foxboro. In five trips to New England under Harbaugh, the Ravens have won two games (by an average margin of 17 points) and lost three games (by an average margin of four points).
Harbaugh’s had the better part of two seasons to stew on what he considered to be an unfair strategy employed by the Patriots last time he was opposed by Belichick. But in utilizing similar tactics himself multiple times since that date, Harbaugh’s shown that he’s used the incident as a learning opportunity. He’s only become a better coach since that moment.
The Patriots know what to expect when the Ravens get off the bus at Gillette. How they respond to the challenge will provide the clearest picture yet of the team’s 2016 potential.