FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Bill Belichick looks in the mirror this week, does he see John Harbaugh?
When Tom Brady looks in the mirror, does he see Joe Flacco?
When Rob Ninkovich looks in the mirror, does he see Terrell Suggs?
The New England Patriots play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, and if you’re looking for two teams that mirror each other, look no further than these two.
The Patriots, attempting to clinch their fifth consecutive AFC East title, are 10-4 with nine games decided by four points or less. Their record in those games: 6-3.
The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, attempting to stay in the playoff race, are 8-6 with nine games decided by three points or less. Their record in those games: 5-4.
Both are coached by fundamentally-driven, detail-oriented men. Both have shown the ability to weather personnel losses in both the coaching staff and roster.
Both attempt to play physical, dominating games.
And, most important, they have been among the best teams in the NFL in the recent past. Since Harbaugh became the Ravens’ head coach in 2008, these are the two winningest teams in the NFL, New England with 73 wins, Baltimore with 71.
And, oh yeah, they have played in the last two AFC championship games, each team winning one.
“There are a lot of similarities between our football teams,’’ said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ stellar special teams player. “It all starts with coaching. Both teams have great coaching. They obviously have some great leadership over there as well, offensively and defensively.
“I’d like to think we have the same over here. And we both pride ourselves on playing a physical brand of football, going out there and competing on every down. So it always makes for a thrilling experience.’’
This has become one of the NFL’s tensest rivalries.
The games are usually close – since 2007, four of the seven games have been decided by three points or less.
And while the players occasionally engage in trash talk – especially Suggs and Brady, who said he wasn’t sending Suggs any Christmas card this year – the coaches certainly respect what is happening right now between the franchises.
“You’d like to think the thing that defines rivalries are great games played by great teams over an extended period of time, and there’s a lot at stake,’’ said Harbaugh. “I feel like that’s been the case in our rivalry with the Patriots. We feel honored to be on that, considered a rival with them. I’m not sure how they feel about it, but we sure feel that way.’’
Brady, who has had some of his best and worst games against the Ravens, said Baltimore is one of the teams that he certainly watches throughout the season.
“We’ve had some pretty memorable games against them,’’ he said. “And the thing about it is the games have meant so much, especially over the last few years. You get a little bit of a rivalry going 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 really pay attention too much. But when you see them every year (or) you know you’re going to see them at some point during the year, you always kind of follow them.’’
Brady looks at the Ravens and sees no dropoff in a defense that lost two future Hall of Famers – linebacker Ray Lewis retired and safety Ed Reed left as a free agent – after winning the Super Bowl. “They still have All-Pros at all these positions,’’ he said. “They’re still a great team.’’
Belichick certainly isn’t surprised. He has the greatest respect for Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager and a Hall of Fame tight end. He spoke at length about both this week, saying that he learned a lot from Newsome while coaching the Cleveland Browns. “He taught me an awful lot and he’s been very complimentary about his comments of what he learned from me,’’ said Belichick. “But I think I probably learned more from him than he learned from me.’’
Of Harbaugh, he said their relationship “would be better if we didn’t have to play each other every year. I have a lot of respect for John.’’
The two talk football frequently and you can see their influences on each other. They like to play the same style of football, one predicated on winning the turnover battle and attacking the opponent’s weaknesses.
The Ravens have won three of the last five games between the teams, including two of three playoff games. Three of those games have been decided by three points or less, essentially coming down to the final play.
Ravens running back Ray Rice isn’t surprised the games are so close.
“I think it’s just we know them and they know us,’’ he said. “It’s kind of one of those old deals where there are just no tricks to the game. It usually comes down to who wants it more and who executes it better.’’
Slater doesn’t expect anything less.
“At this stage of the season, with what’s at stake, on top of the history, when you look at the last few games we’ve played with those guys, there’s no doubt we’re going to be up and they’re going to be up,’’ he said. “That place is going to be juiced up and it’s going to be a lot of fun.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: