Patriots' Rivalry with Ravens Will Define Brady, Belichick's Final Seasons
While the New England Patriots' dynasty of the 2000s was born in New Orleans against the St. Louis Rams, it was really their battles with Peyton Manning and the Colts that defined it. From 2003 to 2007 Brady's Patriots and Manning's Colts met eight times, including three times in the playoffs.
Brady's Patriots took the first six of the series, with two playoff wins, but Manning and the Colts took five of the last seven, including the last time they met in the playoffs in the 2006 AFC Championship.
After 2007 the teams' paths diverged, with the Patriots losing Brady for a year, then having to rebuild their defense from nothing but Vince Wilfork. Manning got back to one Super Bowl with the Colts, but once he missed 2011, then moved on to Denver, the book was closed on that chapter of Patriots rivalries.
Sunday's AFC Championship will mark the third time in four years that the two teams have met in the playoffs. Their other three games since 2009 were decided by seven points combined.
The new Patriots-Ravens rivalry is one with deep roots and legendary players on both sides, and nearly every game has been hotly contested and gone down to the wire.
It is the newest and best rivalry in the NFL.
The Birth of a Rivalry
When NFL Films caught Bill Belichick's pregame speech before the Patriots faced the Ravens in Week 4 of the 2009 season, he said, "They're one of the teams that's gonna be in it for the long haul. You know it. I know it. They know it."
He couldn't have been more right, and little did he know that the "long haul" would include multiple playoff games against his Patriots.
The quote also spoke to the level of respect Belichick already had for the Ravens football team despite having never faced them in a meaningful game prior to that point in his New England tenure. And that includes the 2007 game that the Patriots should've lost but somehow managed to pull from the big pocket of their hoodies.
If you had to point to an exact moment the Patriots-Ravens rivalry was born, Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run to open the 2009 AFC Wild Card playoff game might be a good place to start. The Patriots were in a 24-0 hole before the end of the first quarter.
The Patriots haven't been blown out many times in Bill Belichick's career. Especially at home. Even more especially at home in the playoffs, where they've lost just twice. But this was a blowout, and also an impetus for how they would rebuild their team on both sides of the ball to compete with Baltimore.
That offseason the Pats moved up in the draft to take Rob Gronkowski, who the Ravens were supposedly targeting before the Pats swooped in. They also found a cure for what ailed them on the first play of the playoff game by selecting run destroyer Brandon Spikes.
The Ravens fired the first shot in this decade's new rivalry, but the Patriots would return fire only months later.
Similar Team Construction
The headline of the Patriots-Colts rivalry in the mid-2000's was the Patriots veteran defense against the "unstoppable" Peyton Manning, but the teams were constructed quite differently. From the Colts home-field dome to their undersized and super fast defense, they couldn't have been much more different than the Patriots outside of their dominant quarterbacks.
The Ravens, however, are constructed much like those Patriots of the early to mid-2000s.
They have a veteran defense that might've lost a step but makes up for it with experience and savvy play. They also have a quarterback who manages the game behind a physical ground game that makes the offense go.
This philosophy of team building can be traced back to Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome's roots with Bill Belichick in Cleveland. Much of what Newsome learned from Belichick he took with him when he went to Baltimore with the franchise.
The Ravens have been built in Belichick's image. The result? The Pats and Ravens are two physical football teams that enjoy running full speed into each other.
Their games are always physical and close and almost always come down to the very last play of the game.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
If the early days of the Patriots dynasty were heavy on Brady and Manning, the latter are as much about Brady, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
Belichick and Brady's admiration for the two star Ravens defenders is well documented, and from Lewis' commentary on Brady from 2010's NFL Top 100, it's clear he feels the same way. These are three of the game's greatest competitors, each with a deep mutual respect.
The Patriots avenged their 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens the following season. It took them until overtime to get the 23-20 win in Week 6 of the 2010 season, but it was a clear sign that the Patriots would not be discouraged nor intimidated after being trounced by Baltimore on their home field.
Both teams would bow out before getting the chance to meet again in the playoffs that season, with the Patriots getting upset by the Jets despite having the top seed in the conference and the Ravens left still searching for a way to get over the hump against their rival Steelers.
But as the Jets and Steelers regressed the following season, it set up a playoff rematch, this time in the AFC Championship. And yet again it was a close game that came down to a final field-goal try.
But the kick went wide left, and it was the Patriots who moved on to Super Bowl 46, leaving the Ravens feeling they should've won.
2012: The Rubber Match
Like the Patriots, the Ravens had a chance to avenge their playoff loss the following season. Once again it was a close game that came down to the final field-goal attempt.
But this time rookie Justin Tucker made the kick. Maybe.
Now the teams will meet in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
A Baltimore win this weekend would be a statement that the Ravens are the unquestioned class of the AFC now. They blew the Patriots out in Foxboro in 2009 and were within a dropped touchdown and missed field goal from at least overtime in 2011. Another win in 2012 would seal it.
A Patriots win, however, would go beyond their new rivalry with the Ravens.
It would make the 2009 playoff loss just a footnote from a year when Baltimore caught the Patriots in transition and Welker-less. It would also send Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to their sixth Super Bowl, and give Brady another chance to finally tie Joe Montana's four Lombardis.
When we look back at the decade-plus run of Belichick and Brady, the first act will be defined by their battles with Peyton Manning and the Tony Dungy-led Colts, but the last act will be defined by their tight battles with the Ravens.
This weekend's latest chapter will have major implications on the legacies of the two franchises and a number of Hall of Famers.
Who will claim AFC superiority?
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