FOXBORO -- Forget Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. There's no better or bigger rivalry in football than Patriots-Ravens.
We're not talking about the history of Bears-Packers. We're not talking about Steelers-Raiders of the 1970s, the Cowboys-49ers of the 1990s or even the Patriots and Colts of the early 2000s. Present day, it doesn't get any better than John Harbaugh against Bill Belichick, two coaches from two organizations with unparalleled excellence in the AFC over the last 14 years.
A rivalry is defined by two great teams that play big games against one another.
No two teams have played bigger games than the Ravens and Patriots in the last four years.
There was the 33-14 Ravens win in the 2009 playoffs. There was the 23-20 Patriots win in the 2011 AFC championship. There was Baltimore getting revenge, 28-13, at Gillette last January in a game that paved the way for the Super Bowl farewell tribute to Ray Lewis.
There have been some beauties in the regular season, too. Last season, in Week 3, the Ravens overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and won, 31-30, on a very controversial Justin Tucker field goal over the right upright.
Every year, it seems, the Patriots and Ravens are playing games that mean everything.
"We’ve had some pretty big games against them the last bunch of years," Brady said. "We’ve played them quite a bit. I think the last [five] years maybe – ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13, and 2009 – we’ve played them a lot, we know them. We know the players; we know the scheme a little bit. So, there’s some familiarity but we still have to put all the work in. we haven’t played them in a while. They’re doing some new things and they’re kind of on a hot streak right now. We’ll try to figure out different ways to get them; we haven’t had the most success against them the last few times we’ve played them offensively. We have to try to figure out a way to score some points."
Now, the Ravens, left for dead at 4-6 after 10 games, are on a season-long four-game winning streak. And not coincidentally, they're playing their best defense of the season. They've allowed an average of just over 16 points per game in their winning streak. And now Brady is facing the only team against whom he has more career interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (8).
"Friggin’ Baltimore, they’ve always got a good defense," said Brady. "We’ve played against them for so long."
Since 2007, the Patriots and Ravens have played seven meaningful games, with New England winning three of the four in the regular season but the Ravens winning two of the three postseason match-ups.
"We’ve had some pretty memorable games against them, so I think that’s the – the thing about it is the games have meant so much, especially over the last few years," Brady said. "You get a little bit of a rivalry and then you’re always paying attention to what that team’s doing. If you play a team once every four years, you don’t pay attention too much but when you see them every week – you know you’re going to see them at some point during the year, you always kind of follow them. Like I said, that was a real big win they had the other night. They needed it. They’re always the kind of team that digs deep. We have to be able to match that."
The other night to which Brady refers was an 18-16 Ravens win over Detroit when Tucker converted on the sixth field goal of the night, a 61-yard boot. The Ravens are like the Patriots, battled-tested over the years, not afraid of pressure.
A big part of that comes from their head coach John Harbaugh, a man Bill Belichick once endorsed when Ravens owner Steve Biscotti was looking to replace Brian Billick after the 2007 season.
"I actually talk to Coach Belichick periodically," Harbaugh told us this week. "He’s a guy that I have tremendous respect for, and have for many years. Saw him at the owners meetings, talked to him on the phone a few times, he gets down here with the lacrosse stuff in Baltimore, so we get a chance to visit, and he probably knows I’m asking him indirect questions directly, or direct questions indirectly, maybe that’s the way to say it. But going against him, I know it’s always giving context to that, the fact that we have to play each other. But he would definitely be a guy, I talked to Coach [Andy] Reid, and talk to my dad all the time, my dad’s probably, for both of us [brother, Jim Harbaugh], our number one go-to-guy as far as that kind of stuff."
Mental toughness is something that can't be taught. It has to be proven under fire. The Ravens and safety James Ihedigbo had just given up a "Hail Mary" TD to Cincinnati's A.J. Green on Nov. 10. Game was tied 17-17 after the Ravens had full control for 59 minutes. Their season was literally in sudden-death. Lose, and they fall to 3-6 and their season is all but over. The Ravens managed the game-winning field goal and held on for a game they absolutely needed, improving to 4-5 in the process.
"I don’t know if we learned a lot from it, but we probably discovered that something was there," Harbaugh told me. "I believe we’ve been a team of resolve for quite a long time now, and how to apply that sometimes is something that you do develop and probably learn as a new group of players and all that, so that was a great moment. Our guys didn’t allow it to dictate the outcome, the circumstance didn’t dictate the outcome, and they were able to finish by making a few plays. That’s usually what it comes down to – if you can make a few plays at the end that you have to make, regardless of the plays that they make, then you have a chance to come out on top."
The Patriots and Ravens - two franchises that have proven over the last 10 years that teams are built, not bought. Lose Wes Welker, plug in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Lose Danny Woodhead, turn to Shane Vereen.
"It might be probably the most important thing in the National Football League," Harbaugh said. "I think you don’t have to look any farther than [the Patriots] to see the value of that. I mean, nobody’s done a better job than the Patriots in terms of replacing players, playing younger guys, putting guys into spots and having them maintain a high standard and win games, and they have. That’s the same thing we’re trying to do here, try to develop those guys from the first moment they step on campus to try to work on making them the best that they can be."
The Ravens have had much of the same attrition on defense, like this past spring when they said goodbye to a pair of future Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They turn to Daryl Smith and Matt Elam respectively.
"He looks a lot like Ray Lewis," Brady said of Smith. "Ray Lewis is Hall of Fame, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against but Daryl Smith has really stepped in and been a big leader for them. He’s right in the middle of the defense. Really smart, instinctive player, really good against the pass, fast sideline to sideline. He’s got a lot of qualities, a great linebacker. He’s made a lot of plays from an interception return for a touchdown, strip-sacks, fumbles and stuff like that. He’s really good. Elam is a young player with all the skill and ability. He’s made some big plays for them. He’s gotten some pretty key interceptions, made one last week. He’s a really good player."
Brady is no general manager but he knows good organization when he sees it.
"They have one of the best in the league," Brady said. "They have a great owner, a great head coach, Ozzie Newsome. They have coordinators – [Jim] Caldwell and Dean Pees. Right from the top, they have a great quarterback, they have a great defense. They’ve been able to replace players, they have All-Pros, they have guys that are the best in the league at their position. They play well in big games. They have a great team. You don’t win the Super Bowl for no reason. They won it, they earned. They came back this year, got off to a slow start but it seems like they’re really clicking now."
Or, as Brady would say, friggin' Baltimore.