By Bill Burt, CNHI News Service
Saturday, January 19, 2013 —
FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots are not only very good as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and now 60 minutes from their sixth Super Bowl appearance in a dozen years. But they are also tough.
On Sunday, at Gillette Stadium, we will find out just how tough when they face the rock-hard Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Championship.
Early weather reports predict it will be about 25 degrees when the game starts at 6:30 p.m., and in the teens when the winner is crowned around 10 p.m.
This time of year, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, we are supposed to see the players’ breath and heat rising from their heads when they remove their helmets or a crushing blow does it for them.
But the toughness we're referring to is not only about blood and guts.
Sometimes you make two players integral parts of the game plan and sometimes those same players — Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead — are gone only minutes into the game and, well, you don’t miss a beat. That's what the Patriots ended up doing in their divisional win over Houston, due in large part to the outstanding performance by backup running back Shane Vereen.
Or sometimes your lightly regarded quarterback -- Baltimore's Joe Flacco, for instance -- makes play after play, especially when all looks lost. And Hall of Famer Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncs watches helplessly and dejectedly from the sidelines.
Baltimore represent the black-and-blue style of football gritty fans adore. They have earned this reputation as much as any team in the league over the last half-dozen or so years.
There is a correlation between their all-pro linebacker, Ray Lewis, and the bruising tenacity the Ravens have played with on both sides of the ball. And you can expect Lewis to be all in on Sunday as he completes his 17-year NFL career.
Since the Patriots and Ravens started going head-to-head with Brady versus Flacco, the last four games were up for grabs on the last play of the game. That’s unthinkable.
The Ravens won three months ago, 31-30, on a mildly controversial last second field goal. The Patriots won the AFC Championship last January, 23-20, after their kicker hooked a 32-yarder in the final seconds.
The Patriots won in 23-20 in OT in 2010 and 27-21 in 2009 when Flacco missed Mark Clayton in the end zone on 4th-and-4 from the Pats 14.
The only blowout between these teams, with the core of the current players, came in the Wild Card playoff game of January of 2010 when the Ravens rocked the Patriots at Gillette Stadium from start to finish, 33-14.
One of the striking moments of this series happened three months ago in September. Two of the NFL’s toughest guys -- Patriots offensive guard Logan Mankins and Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- had several extended pushing, shoving and jabbing sessions.
Neither backed down. And neither crossed the line.
“We’ve had a lot of battles," said Ngata. "I’ve always said he’s probably one of the better offensive linemen in the league.”
This is going to be fun. And the winner will have the bruises to prove it.
Bill Burt is the sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.