Two days from now, myself and fellow Patriots fans will be glued to televisions all across the region, hanging on every snap. New England is back in the AFC Championship game for the seventh time in 11 years under Bill Belichick. The opponent is Baltimore, one whom Patriots fans and players from both sides have mutual respect for.
Like a young kid at the end of a roller coaster ride, we Patriots fans scream one more time. One more chance at a Super Bowl title. But first, New England has to go through a gritty Baltimore squad. So gritty that Ray Lewis is making plays with an Inspector Gadget-braced broken arm.
Personally, I think what Lewis has accomplished as a motivator on and off the field have more than earned him the right to the positive spotlight during the last few weeks of his career.
With Tom Brady under the center, the Patriots are 4-3 in conference championship games. Sunday will be a game for the ages, as New England meets Baltimore in a re-match of last year's game. The last time a rematch occurred in the conference championship was in 1987 and 1988 when the Denver Broncos squared off with Cleveland -- yes the Browns were actually respectable at one point in time.
Baltimore has been playing this season with heavy hearts following the passing of longtime owner Art Modell in early September. Then there was the tragic death of wide receiver Torrey Smith's brother, who passed away in a motorcycle accident prior to the Ravens' 31-30 Sunday Night football win over New England. Not to mention the allure of Lewis playing in what potentially could be the final game of his career.
A lot of things have changed since the two teams last met in late September. New England signed Aqib Talib, who has been an impressive asset to what at the time was an ailing secondary. Devin McCourty has transitioned smoothly to safety from corner back midway through the year. By far, the most impressive player on the New England defense in my humble opinion is Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich eerily resembles Mike Vrabel, who can be played down at his usual defensive end slot and, heck, he can even step in as a tight end on the offensive side of the ball. New England consistently finds the diamonds in the rough. Ninkovich was never a highly touted player, coming out of Purdue University seven years ago when he was drafted in the fifth round by New Orleans.
Ninkovich has recorded eight sacks and snared his first interception on Sunday late in the third quarter. Call me a sucker for underdog players like Ninkovich, but he is the type of competitor you want on your sideline.
In the September matchup with the Ravens, New England surrendered 382 yards through the air to Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense. Flacco has weaseled his way into the conversation as one of the top five quarterbacks in the league. New England's run defense is starting to gel, with veteran nose-tackle Vince Wilfork anchoring the front line. Flacco was 18-of-34 for 331 yards and three touchdowns in harsh weather conditions of -1 degree Fahrenheit. The player to watch out for on the Ravens offense will have to be Smith; he doesn't get many targets, but when he does, he burns secondaries for huge gains.
On three catches, where he burned Broncos' All-Pro Champ Bailey twice, Smith accounted for two touchdowns and 98 yards receiving. If Patriots fans are viewing Sunday's game with Baltimore as a cake walk, they have another thing coming.
The naysayers believe that the re-injury of Rob Gronkowski's forearm in the divisional game with Houston last Sunday will be a huge dent to the Patriots' offensive production.
What about the stellar play of Shane Vareen on screen plays, and flat out smashmouth rushing Sunday? What about Gronk's backup, Michael Hoomanawanuui. No, that is not a cat-stepping-on-my-keyboard typo. The 6-foot-4-inch, 283-pound Hoomanawannui has shown that he has the ability to fill in for Gronkowski.
Hoomanawannui has five receptions for 108 yards, and averages just under 22 yards per catch. Hoomanawannui's stats don't do him justice. The beauty of the New England Patriots is that they employ a philosophy of "next man up." With Gronk down, it is Hoomanawannui's turn to shine.
Without Gronkowski during the regular season, New England was 5-1 down the home stretch. Hopefully, Stevan Ridley has been given the proper injection to cure his fumblenza, and he too could be a valuable asset to the Pats' offense. In order to be successful, New England has to establish the run game, and then throw dip-and-dunk passes to Aaron Hernandez etc. If there is one thing that Belichick has proved over the years, he can win with the pieces he has.
New England is hungry -- point blank, case closed. The Patriots are determined to make the Super Bowl game for an unprecedented seventh time, which ranks third all-time in NFL history. Brady and company have faltered in their last two Super Bowl appearances, and hope to bring their fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy home to Foxboro this postseason. This could be -- and I stress could be -- the last time we see Tom Brady and Belichick compete for another title.
As you settle into your Lay-Z-Boy or secure a prime spot at your local watering hole for the game, remember this: The defending conference champion is 6-0 in rematches since the merger in 1970.
History is meant to repeat itself. Here's to hoping that New England repeats as AFC Champions and heads to New Orleans in a couple weeks. Sunday should be a tough, grind-it-out game, but I have the Patriots winning by a score of 28-17.
This Patriots team is one that we will be telling our grandchildren about, when mediocrity inevitably returns. Such is the beauty of sports, the ups and downs, but the true fans always weather the storm.