OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have another opportunity to embrace the underdog role, this time in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.
Playing at home — where they’ve won seven of nine this season — the Patriots have been installed as 9½-point favorites Sunday to beat Baltimore and advance to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens have already defeated New England this season and are coming off a stunning upset on the road against top-seeded Denver. Yet, it appears they’re still not getting any respect.
And the Ravens are just fine with it.
“It’s just what everyone else thinks,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said Monday. “In here, on our team, we believe in ourselves. Whatever anyone else thinks, that their thoughts. We’ll just have to go back out there and prove people wrong again.”
After eliminating the Broncos 38-35 in double-overtime Saturday, the Ravens (12-6) watched New England (13-4) defeat Houston on Sunday. Baltimore might have had an easier time against the Texans, but many of the Ravens longed for a rematch of last year’s AFC title game, won by the Patriots 23-20.
“I think we personally kind of wanted to play the Patriots again,” Ngata said. “If we go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough.”
The Ravens were also 9½-point underdogs against Denver, which came in with an 11-game winning streak and as the odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Yet, Baltimore is still in the hunt and the Broncos are done for the season.
“It will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history,” linebacker Ray Lewis declared afterward. “It’s partly because of the way everything was stacked up against us coming in. … For us to come in here and win, 9- to 10-point underdogs, that’s the beautiful part about sports. That’s the thing that, if I’ll probably miss anything about my career, it will be to listen to what people say you can’t do, and then to go do it.”
The 37-year-old Lewis, who has been with the Ravens since their first game in 1996, plans to retire of Baltimore’s current playoff run. If the Ravens go all the way, he will no doubt recall they were underdogs this season from September through the first weekend in February.
It always seems to be that way for Baltimore, at least in Lewis’ mind.
“My Super Bowl year in 2000, we were never picked one time the entire season to win a game. Not one time,” Lewis recalled. “But at the end of the day, we held the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs. That alone taught me a valuable lesson — that no one outside dictates how we play on the inside.”
OK, so the Ravens weren’t underdogs in every game and were 3-point favorites over New York in the Super Bowl. But, with the aid of some revisionist history, Lewis made a valid point.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith echoed that sentiment Monday after someone asked him if he reads media reports before the game.
“They are irrelevant,” he said. “None of you all thought we were going to be right here this week anyway.”
For one year now, the Ravens have been striving to be in this position — back in the AFC title game. Ever since Lee Evans had the potential game-winning catch poked from his grasp and Billy Cundiff followed by hooking a 32-yard field goal attempt, Baltimore has been eager for another chance to play for a shot at a Super Bowl berth.
“The feeling we had in the locker room, I think we all wanted to get back to the AFC championship,” Ngata said. “Hopefully we can get it done this time.”
Underdogs or not, the Ravens are playing the Patriots for the conference crown. Again.
“It’s been a long road getting back to this point, and the way we left it last year didn’t sit well with us,” tight end Dennis Pitta said. “So we’re excited to be in this position against and give it another shot.”
Because the Patriots and Ravens are usually among the top teams in the AFC, they have met quite often in recent years. Baltimore’s 31-30 win in September was the fifth matchup between the teams since the start of the 2009 season. New England is 3-2, including 1-1 in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely grown into quite a rivalry, we would like to say. I don’t know how they feel about that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “But we have tremendous respect for the New England Patriots. … They just have a tremendous staff, tremendous players, tremendous tradition. It’s always a huge challenge for us, but it’s one we’re excited about and look forward to.”