But I do believe in Ray Lewis and bitter Ravens and the power of payback.
That’s why I’m a little nervous that the Patriots’ opponent in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game is Baltimore and not Denver, the home of caution and old Patriots’ punching bag Peyton Manning.
When I look back through the last few games the Patriots “shouldn’t have” won, they’re all against the Ravens. Last year’s AFC championship. That regular-season flagfest that Baltimore used as motivation to blow the Patriots away in the playoffs in 2009. I’m well aware that Baltimore thinks that many of its games against the Patriots have been stolen.
There’s also the Patriots’ losses, too — the Wes Welker-less first-round playoff exit in 2009. The one-point defeat earlier this season (which I was actually hoping the Patriots would lose at the end, because I knew a fluke penalty or something else like that would only enrage the Ravens further if the Pats were to meet them again in the playoffs).
The Ravens have every reason to carry a chip on their shoulder against the Patriots, the darling of the AFC. Brendon Ayanbadejo provided several of those reasons just this Sunday, and the usual columns lauding Tom Brady or saying Joe Flacco is not elite should push it further.
The hard-nosed, never-quite-lucky Ravens are everything the Patriots are not, and they have good reason to think that they should earn this win next week, especially if they have had so many taken away from them against the Patriots before.
But a little bitterness from Baltimore may also mean well for the Patriots. If the permeating images left from previous Ravens-Patriots tilts are of yellow flags fluttering and Baltimore coach John Harbaugh screaming his head off, perhaps New England already has an advantage. Karma may dictate that the calls will go Baltimore’s way this time, if so many of them have gone for the Pats before. But, perchance New England gets one bad call in its favor early in the game? That may do it. Angry Ravens are often not good Ravens. Passionate Ravens will overcome, but angry ones — well, angry ones are usually still complaining when Brady gets that sleepy-eyed Joe Montana look and starts ripping apart the other team’s defense.
The Ravens have plenty to fight for in this game. Lewis is retiring. The old guard on defense has clearly lost a step, and even if Ed Reed and friends are back next year, it won’t be the same.
This is also the third time in the past five years Baltimore has made it to the AFC Championship Game, with the Super Bowl out of reach each time. They’re due to break through this year, and they would love to do it against the pretty-boy Patriots.
New England has had trouble with karma before (what else do you call what’s happened to them since Spygate, or how Eli Manning could otherwise have two Super Bowl wins?). But New England also hasn’t gotten this far this year on the back of luck and fortune. The Patriots have earned their steps to this round of the playoffs, building on that same methodical, incremental progress that turned them from a collection of players into a fine team last season.
Should the Patriots have won last season’s AFC championship? Probably not. But this year’s? This year, the Patriots are the better team, playing with better consistency and preparation than the up-and-down, emotion-fueled Ravens.
The Patriots shouldn’t need karma — or Billy Cundiff — to take the next step.
And that’s exactly why I’m nervous.