For Patriots And Ravens, AFC Title Means More Than Shot At Super Bowl

FOXBORO MA - OCTOBER 17: Vince Wilfork #75 of the New England Patriots chases Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens in the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 17 2010 in Foxboro Massachusetts. The Patriot won 23-20 in overtime. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will square off in the AFC Championship game. But as Dave Shook writes, this game means much more than just a chance at the Super Bowl for both teams.

The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will square off in the playoffs for the second time in three years today, but as opposed to that Wild Card Round beating the Ravens administered in 2009, there is a great deal more on the line this time around. Yes, both teams are competing for a spot in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, but there are also a great number of legacies on the line in this game as well.

For the Patriots, this is simple. They've been rightly criticized throughout the season for their porous play on the defensive side of the ball. Players like Devin McCourty have been so bad at times that they've either seen their time on the field decrease or, in the case of McCourty, moved to different positions on the field to hide their weaknesses. For these players, a loss in the AFC Championship Game today would likely serve only as proof that they weren't good enough as individuals or as unit to reach the Super Bowl.

As a team, the Patriots have also taken a great deal of heat for the lack of impressive wins on their schedule. Tom Brady and company stepped onto the field against just three teams that made the 2012 NFL Playoffs and lost two of those games. The lone win came in Week 15 when the Pats offense decimated a red hot Denver Broncos squad at Mile High Stadium, a feat they replicated last week in the Divisional Round. A fair number of people have gone so far as to call this team a fraud, claiming that they haven't beaten anyone, and will likely be exposed by a team as sound as the Ravens.

There's also the matter of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the legacy the two will leave behind when their careers are over. Locally, the two will always be looked upon as conquering heroes who turned the Patriots franchise into one of the best in the sport regardless of what happens at Gillette Stadium. However, there's also a sentiment among some folks that the legacy isn't as rosy as the local pundits would have you believe.

Since the 2007 season when the Pats inexplicably lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII to ruin their perfect season, the Pats have been little more than paper champions. The team missed the playoffs in 2008 largely thanks to the torn ACL Brady suffered on opening day against the Kansas City Chiefs, and then in 2009 finished with the franchise's worst record since 2005 before being obliterated in a home playoff game by these same Ravens, and then last year the team looked much like this year's group, dominating offensively and often porous defensively. The end result was a sparkling 14-2 regular season that was rendered meaningless in an ugly home Divisional Round loss to the rival New York Jets.

A win today and a return to the Super Bowl would quell many of the critics of the Patriots franchise that have said Belichick isn't what he used to be as a coach and talent evaluator and that Brady isn't the big game quarterback that he was in the earlier part of the last decade. A win today and one more in two weeks would solidify Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as perhaps the greatest player/coach tandem in league history.

On the other side of the ball though, the Baltimore Ravens have just as much to play for, have just as many doubters to quell, and just as many legacies to complete.

As always with the Ravens, you have to start with their defense. For many, this has the feel of a final hurrah for future hall of fame players like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Both have been among the best at their positions in the history of the sport, but both have also been diminished by age and injuries in recent years and are battling desperately to get back to the pinnacle of their profession, a destination they've not seen since the Ravens won their last championship over a decade ago. It's possible this may be the last chance for both to cap their careers with at least a Super Bowl appearance.

On the other side of the ball, the always maligned Ravens offense has a ton to prove, especially quarterback Joe Flacco. Hailed as the answer to the team's issues at the position that has seen them trot out mediocre players like Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, and a very aged Steve McNair, Flacco has often struggled in big game's, including last week's win over the Houston Texans. Even his own teammates have questioned his mettle in pressure situations. Flacco is out to prove that he's an elite quarterback in the NFL who can be counted on to make the big throws in big situations.

There will be a great deal on the line this afternoon between two of the more imposing teams of the past decade in the AFC. Yes, the trip to the Super Bowl is huge for both sides, but this also has the feel of two teams whose best players are going to be scraping and clawing with everything they have for one final opportunity to solidify their legacies. Both have struggled on the big stage in recent years, and for many of them, this may be the last time that they have the chance to reach the big prize.

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