FOXBORO — It has been written (here), it has been said (by Bill Belichick), and it has been documented (see NFL’s rush offense and defense stats).
The 2012 New England Patriots are not only very good as the No. 2 seed and now 60 minutes from another Super Bowl journey to New Orleans. But they are tough, too.
On Sunday, on Route 1 in Foxboro, we will find out how tough.
Early weather reports are that it will be about 25 degrees when the game starts and in the teens when an AFC Championship winner is crowned.
This time of year with the whole enchilada on the line, we are supposed to see the players’ breath and heat rising from a player’s head with his helmet off.
But the toughness we are referring to is not only about blood and guts.
Sometimes you make two players integral parts of the “game plan” and sometimes those same players — Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead — are gone only minutes into the game and, well, you don’t miss a beat. In fact, the Patriots ended up playing their best football with the fill-ins (see Shane Vereen).
Or sometimes your lightly regarded quarterback (see Joe Flacco) makes play after play, especially when all looks grim, with a Hall of Famer (Peyton Manning) helplessly and dejectedly watching nearby, and shuts a lot of people up.
The Patriots’ foe on Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens, represent the black-and-blue style of football most fans adore as much as any team in the league has the last half-dozen or so years. Maybe it’s a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There is no doubt that there is a correlation between Ray Lewis and the bruising tenacity the Ravens have played with on both sides of the ball.
Since these teams started going head-to-head with Brady going against Flacco, the last four games were up for grabs on the last play of the game. That’s unthinkable.
The Ravens won three months ago, 31-30, on a semi-controversial last second field goal. The Patriots won 23-20 the AFC Championship last January, 23-20, after a winning catch was knocked out of the Ravens’ receiver’s hands and then their kicker hooked a 32-yarder to tie it.
The Patriots won in 23-20 in OT in 2010 and 27-21 in 2009 when Flacco missed Mark Clayton in the end zone on fourth-and-4 from the Pats 14.
The only blowout between these two teams, with the core of the current players, was in the Wild Card game in January of 2010 when the Ravens rocked the Patriots from start to finish, 33-14.
But the other five games, all decided on the final play, are more what most people expect on Sunday. One of the striking moments of this series was three months ago in September. Two of the NFL’s toughest guys, Patriots guard Logan Mankins and Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had several extended pushing, shoving and possibly punching sessions.
Neither guy backed down. But neither player crossed the line. “(Mankins) is a great player that has been playing a long time,” said Ngata. “We’ve had a lot of battles, and he’s a solid offensive linemen. I’ve always said he’s probably one of the better offensive linemen in the league.”