Philadelphia, PA – Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have been waiting three years to get back to this spot, and if the Baltimore Ravens hope to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2001, they'll need their dynamic duo to take their game up another level.
As a pair of rookies following selections in the 2008 draft, Flacco and Rice were a part of a Ravens club that was dealt a 23-14 setback at Pittsburgh in Baltimore's last trip to the AFC Championship Game. It was a forgettable day for Flacco, who was picked off three times and held to under 150 passing yards.
Rice, meanwhile, had just four touches in a reserve role to Willis McGahee as he was still in the process of making his mark on the team.
With much more experience under their respective belts, Rice and Flacco have transformed into premier players in the NFL. Rice is one of the top dual threats in the league, logging over 1,300 yards rushing with 76 receptions for another 704 yards while finding the end zone a total of 15 times during the 2011 regular season.
Flacco has been a consistent winner since coming into the league as a first- round draft pick, but has a reputation of not being able to come through in the big game thanks to Baltimore's losses in the Divisional Playoff round to end each of the previous two seasons.
The 27-year-old didn't shake that stigma in a 20-13 win over the Houston Texans in last weekend's AFC Divisional Playoffs. Though he threw a pair of touchdown passes, Flacco was sacked five times and held to 176 yards passing. He did play it safe with the football and didn't turn it over, but also got little help from Rice. The shifty back ran for just 60 yards on 21 carries while catching four passes.
With a date this weekend against the high-flying New England Patriots, the offense -- specifically Flacco and Rice -- will need to put up better numbers.
"As an offense, an offensive guy, I would think so." Flacco responded when asked after last week's win if the offense needs to put up more points this Sunday. "At the same time, we have a good defense. The way [the Patriots] played all year, the way they've played in the past, they put points on the board. So I think as an offense, you have to go in there and put points on the board too."
With linebacker Ray Lewis the face of the franchise, defense is what keyed the Ravens to their Super Bowl XXXV victory over the Giants over a decade ago. But Flacco needs to be wary about living in the past, especially in today's video game-like NFL, even if the Baltimore defense is coming off another solid effort.
Baltimore ranked third in both total and scoring defense in the regular season, but this Sunday will be going against the league's second-ranked offense and a proven winner in Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The Ravens suffered an overtime loss in New England last season after beating the Patriots on their own field in an AFC Wild Card game the season prior. Rice had an 83-yard touchdown run just 17 seconds into that game and posted 22 of Baltimore's 52 runs on the day.
Flacco was allowed to throw the ball just 10 times, but will certainly see more action this weekend.
"We've gone out there and played before," said Flacco of this weekend's trip to Gillette Stadium. "We've gone on the road and played a championship game since I've been here. We didn't win that game. We have won in New England. They are one of the teams, just like us, that's tough to beat at home. They play very well up there, but we know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A-game up there."
Veterans such as Lewis and safety Ed Reed are always willing and able to shine come postseason, and Reed is one of those that isn't worried about his offense coming up shy in a big spot on Sunday. If anything, the duo will likely serve as just as big a motivator for the offense as the defense.
"We feel like we're the big brother so [to speak] of the team, but our offense will get going," said Reed.
"It takes a team effort. It's not just offense out there on the field or defense on the field or special teams. It took a team effort [to beat the Texans]."
The Ravens were the lone team to win in last weekend's playoff round while putting up less than 36 points. A similar outing isn't likely to be enough against a Patriots team coming off a 45-10 dismantling of the Denver Broncos.
Flacco will surely attempt more than 10 passes in this meeting, and a healthy number of those could find their way into Rice's hands.
If a Super Bowl berth is in the cards for the Ravens, they'll need Flacco and Rice to be more like Batman and Robin or risk looking like Jokers to Brady's Patriots.