There's a different kind of energy inside the Patriots' locker room these days. The regular season is over; this is the postseason, where one loss will end an entire year's worth of hard work.
"These are times when coming to work is a lot of
fun. There is a lot of joy coming to work," wide receiver Deion Branch
said. "Early on when the season started, at the beginning of training
camp, I wouldn't say that.\
"But right now, the guys enjoy coming in. We're
very relaxed. We enjoy waking up, coming in, getting the game plan and
seeing what the coaches have for us."
After what turned into a glorified walkthrough
last weekend in the divisional playoffs against Denver, the Patriots
will face their toughest test of the season Sunday in the AFC
Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
While they deserve credit for racking up 13 wins
during the regular season, there's no denying the Patriots played a
relatively soft schedule in 2011; they only faced two teams that
finished with a winning record this year and lost both games (at home
against the Giants and at Pittsburgh).
The Ravens enter Sunday as the No. 2 seed in the
AFC and head to Foxboro looking to duplicate their dominant, 33-14, win
at Gillette in the 2009 wild-card playoffs. The Ravens are much older
defensively, but still possess their most dangerous weapon with running
back Ray Rice, who destroyed New England's defense in that blowout win
two years ago.
At the same time, the Patriots are more cohesive
on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, where they appeared
to have gelled in recent weeks. Their solid effort against the Broncos
was arguably their most complete performance of the season. The
Patriots are the heavy favorite considering their dominance at home,
but this could be a toss-up game depending on which side you favor.
"I have a lot of respect for them and their
ability to play and perform under pressure," quarterback Tom Brady said
of the Ravens. "They've been in the playoffs the last four years.
They've won playoff games in the last four years.
"A lot of my focus and attention is on what I need
to do to be at my best this week for my teammates. Hopefully, we go out
there and play our best game."
The biggest obstacle for the Patriots will be
finding a way to crack the defense, which is led by veterans Ed Reed
and Ray Lewis.
"I've played against both those guys quite a few
times and you always enjoy going up against the best," Brady said. "You
can really measure where you're at and you can't take plays off against
those guys, you can't take things for granted when you're out there
"You have to see where they're at on every play
because they're guys who change the game."
This will be a true measuring stick for the
Patriots. A win puts them in the Super Bowl and validates their ability
to beat a quality opponent. A loss ends the season, and drastically
changes the mood in the locker room. The players aren't ready for the
ride to end yet.
"Our team has worked hard this year," head coach
Bill Belichick said. "You have to give a lot of credit to the players
for all the obstacles that we've encountered and they've endured, and
they've played through. We're excited about the game; it's a great
challenge going against the Ravens. They're an outstanding football
SERIES HISTORY: The 8th overall meeting between
the two teams. The series began in 1996 when the Cleveland Browns
relocated to Baltimore. The Ravens and Patriots have played six times
in the regular season with New England winning all six games.
Baltimore, however, won the lone postseason meeting between the two
teams, 33-14, in the 2009 wild-card playoffs at Gillette Stadium.
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