For the first time in over 25 years the AFC Championship Game will feature a rematch from the previous season.
Tom Brady's New England Patriots will once again do battle with Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens for AFC supremacy and a spot in the Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The contest is the first AFC title game rematch since Denver and Cleveland teed it up in back-to-back conference championship tilts following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The Ravens will be returning to Foxboro for the first time since their heartbreaking defeat in last year's AFC Championship Game when New England narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked from the grasp of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff missed an ensuing gimmee field goal attempt that would have tied things in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
Both Evans and Cundiff are gone but Baltimore is back in search of its second ever Super Bowl appearance.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we've put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a great game."
The Ravens reached the AFC title game for the third time in five years by cutting Peyton Manning's first season in Denver short and extending Lewis' final NFL season when the club's new kicker, rookie Justin Tucker, knocked home a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime period to give Baltimore a dramatic 38-35 victory over the Broncos.
"That game did the game of football proud," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh remarked afterward.
Tucker's deciding field goal came four plays after Corey Graham intercepted Manning in Denver territory for the second time of the game, while the Ravens forced extra time on a thrilling 70-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
It was a desperation heave but in a stunning breakdown of situational football by Denver. Broncos safety Rahim Moore allowed Jones to get deeper than him and compounded that error by badly misplaying the throw in the air before Jones snared it and raced untouched for the startling score.
"At that point in the game when you don't have any timeouts and you've got to go a pretty decent length, you've got to start taking shots at some point," said Flacco. "It happened to work out."
Flacco also hooked up with Torrey Smith for a pair of touchdowns earlier on while amassing 331 yards on 18-of-34 passing, with Ray Rice contributing 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries to the improbable win.
"It was pretty incredible," said Flacco. "We overcame some things today and we fought until the very end. When some of those (negative) things happened, none of us blinked. We just sat over there on the sideline and said 'alright, our turn.'"
The Patriots, meanwhile, advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a 41-28 win over Houston behind Brady, who surpassed his boyhood hero, Joe Montana, to become the winningest signal-caller in NFL playoff history.
"Tom is a great competitor," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's our leader and we all follow him. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Texans, including two TD passes to running back Shane Vereen, who saw extensive playing time in place of the injured Danny Woodhead. Vereen also had a 1-yard touchdown run, becoming the third player in NFL history with two TD catches and a touchdown run in a postseason contest.
"Shane had a great game," Brady said. "Just a huge growing up moment for him."
The Patriots rolled up 457 total yards on Houston's highly regarded defense despite playing most of the way without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who exited the contest on New England's second offensive series with a re-fracture of his surgically repaired left forearm, an injury that sidelined him for five weeks during the regular season.
Along with Vereen, Wes Welker helped offset Gronkowski's absence by amassing 131 yards on eight receptions.
"That's what Josh does best," said Brady in reference to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always comes up with a way to adept and scheme things up. There's no one better in the league."
Woodhead, who injured his thumb on the first offensive series against the Texans, is expected to play against the Ravens, but Gronkowski is done for the year.
"You can't replace him, but we all have to step up," said Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez when asked about Gronk's absence. "It is a huge loss and everyone knows that, but we still have games to win. Everyone has to step it up and we have to do as much as we can do individually to fill his void."
The Patriots are 6-1 overall in the regular season and 4-0 at home all-time versus the Ravens. The two teams have met twice previously in the postseason with each winning a game.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Few give the Ravens much of a chance of stopping New England's latest march to the Super Bowl, which would be the franchise's sixth appearance on the big stage in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
The last thing the Ravens needed on top of all that was a Pats team being fueled by the words of a special-teamer, albeit a very good one. Baltimore special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo really stepped in it this past weekend when he started talking trash in advance of Sunday's game.
In a series of Tweets, Ayanbadejo called the Patriots' extremely effective up- tempo offense a gimmick, needled them for ultimately failing in their near perfect 18-1 season back in 2007, and even brought Spygate back before finishing up by ripping the organization for releasing wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a day before the Super Bowl last year.
It was the kind of needless rant which makes coaches wish Twitter accounts came with breathalyzer tests or at least a simple I.Q. hurdle.
Baltimore has often been a speed bump during the Pats' recent success dating back to the aforementioned 18-1 season when New England needed a late Brady touchdown pass to fend off the Ravens.
Two years later, Baltimore did knock out New England with an emphatic 33-14 first-round upset. But, in 2010, the Patriots returned the favor in overtime in the regular season, and then survived last year in the AFC Championship Game when Evans dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown for the Ravens and Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal.
The tables turned a bit earlier this season when Belichick was the one frustrated after a last-second 31-30 setback, chasing after and eventually bumping a replacement official who ruled Tucker made a 27-yard game-winner which flew directly over the right upright.
No matter how close this rivalry has been at times, though, more often than not the Patriots have gotten the best of Baltimore when it has counted and New England seems to hold a number of significant advantages going into Sunday's contest.
The Pats had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing 427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single- season average all-time.
Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times, enters this contest with a 17-6 playoff record, the most wins by a starting quarterback in postseason history. Meanwhile, his .739 winning percentage is now ahead of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (.737) and Troy Aikman (.733) for the top spot in league lore.
The All-Pro has been even better at home, amassing an 11-2 mark and the Patriots as a whole are 14-3 all-time as the host in the playoffs. In AFC title games, New England is an impressive 7-2 and a perfect 4-0 in Foxboro.
To his credit, Ayanbadejo tried to back off on Monday.
"I made selfish comments on Twitter last night that reflected poorly upon myself, my teammates, and the organization. For that I apologize," Ayanbadejo Tweeted.
The damage, however, was already done.
A Patriots source told CBS' Mike Freeman that Ayanbadejo's quotes had already been circulated through the New England locker room and that "players who are aware of the quotes are furious and feel it is one of the most disrespectful things ever said about the franchise."
That's probably a stretch, but why give Belichick any added ammunition?
On the field Brady generally exposes opposing defenses with his uncanny ability to create tempo, either by speeding things up and limiting defensive substitutions or slowing things down and using pinpoint accuracy to shred zone concepts.
Brady is able to survey things at the line of scrimmage and get his team into the proper play on a consistent basis, something Belichick and McDaniels give him the freedom to do. The All-Pro also takes care of the ball as evidenced by New England's NFL-leading plus-25 turnover differential during the regular season.
By limiting substitutions, Brady puts an incredible strain on the opposition and its ability to handle a plethora of playmakers, like Hernandez, as well as the game's top slot receiver, Welker, outside the numbers threat Brandon Lloyd and running backs Stevan Ridley, Woodhead and Vereen.
"They look to create advantages for themselves, and they do it with tempo a lot of times," Harbaugh said. "It's not just the fact that they go fast sometimes. They force you to line up. Sometimes they'll force the defense to show their hand because you have to defend the play. If you don't, they'll run the play."
On the other side, the Ravens have had a down year defensively but have picked it up at the right time thanks to the return of four defensive starters: Lewis, fellow linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard and star pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
Lewis, who missed 10 games this season and has announced his retirement at season's end, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of linebackers and although he's not the player he once was, the leadership he brings to the field has been sorely lacking from a Ravens' defense, which finished 17th in total defense at 350.9 yards allowed per game, the franchise's worst showing on that side of the ball since 2002.
"(Lewis) is a great player and known for being one of the best linebackers to play the game," Hernandez said. "And yes, you are aware of him when he is on the field. But like I said, we just have to play our game and do what we have to do. We have to focus on our play and not really the other defensive players. He is a hitter and a great player. He reads offenses and catches calls. You have to know where he is on the field."
Offensively Baltimore has picked it up recently under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.
Caldwell replaced the fired Cam Cameron in Week 15 against the Broncos. The Ravens struggled mightily in that game, especially early with five straight three-and-outs. Since then, though, the Ravens offense has turned it on, putting up 533 yards of offense against the New York Giants in Week 16. The team then rested players in the regular season finale before ringing up a franchise postseason record 441 yards in the first round of the playoffs against Indianapolis and hanging 38 points on Denver a week ago.
"We haven't changed a lot," Harbaugh said. "It's still the same system that we had in place. We call things the same way. Everybody puts their imprint on it, and Jim's done a great job with that. We have grown a lot in the last month. There's been some growth, and it has shown up in stats and things like that, and that's a credit to all of our guys, not the least of which, obviously, is coach Caldwell."
Caldwell has brought some up-tempo process to the Baltimore offense and has been more willing to let Flacco generate things from outside the pocket.
An offensive line shift and an improved running game have also made things easier on Flacco. When left guard Jah Reid went down with a toe injury, the Ravens reinserted veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher back to right tackle and shifted rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Meanwhile, rookie Bernard Pierce has been teaming with Pro-Bowler Rice for a nice 1-2 combination in the backfield.
"The O-line, I think that's where it starts all the time," Flacco said. "If those guys are playing well, I think we play well as an offense, and I think that goes the same across the league. And, these guys have really stepped up and are starting to play really well."
A strong running game opens up play-action for Flacco, who throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Meanwhile, Smith is one of the top vertical threats in the league and can high-point the football like few others.
That could be a problem for the Pats, who rank 29th in the NFL in pass defense but the secondary has been much improved since acquiring talented corner Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay and moving Devin McCourty back to safety.
"It is a big job this week to try and prevent that deep ball," Talib said. "They are on the same page right now with Flacco. We have a lot of work to do this week."
This figures to be a lot like last year's game and closer than most people think.
While no player should need motivation for a championship game, human nature is human nature and playing this week has become somewhat of a birthright for this Pats group.
Baltimore's best bet was to surprise the sleeping giant, one which would have been looking ahead toward the Super Bowl after reading a week's worth of press clippings about how great it was. Instead the Ravens will be facing a fired-up bunch ready for battle thanks to Ayanbadejo.
On the other hand Baltimore is one of the few teams that can roll into Foxboro and not be intimated. The Ravens understand what it takes to win in New England and what it takes to win in January.
"There will be one team that holds the Lombardi Trophy, and that will be the ultimate team of destiny for this year," Lewis said. "And whatever race we have to run, we're going to run our race."
Meanwhile, consider this -- since 2010 Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns versus just two interceptions in the postseason, compiling a 102 passer rating. Over that same span, Brady has tossed 13 TDs with five picks and compiled a 101.5 rating.
"I don't really think so," Flacco said when asked if he elevates his play in big games. "You go out there and you play to win the football game and some of the things that have been required to win these football games. I would like to think that I go out there and play consistently and approach everything the same way. We win a lot of football games around here."
All that said it's hard to imagine beating Brady and Belichick in Foxboro.
"I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played them early in the year. They got us. We're going to have to play our best game this week."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Ravens 20, 49ers 17