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In our only consistent feature, we present another AFC Championship preview. (Warning: We talk about how the Patriots are like the Spurs)

Alex:

Did you want New England? Maybe it was an unconscious hedge on my part, or my inability/refusal to root with my head over my heart, but I really, really did. We bill ourselves as an “excessively macro sports blog,” and all of our Ravens “analysis” is really just our scanning Football Outsiders, anyway, so let’s get straight to the narrative. The Ravens’ post-2000 story is clear: a great defense fighting, usually in vain, against the great quarterbacks Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger. (I do wonder whether Ravens fans ludicrously overrate Roethlisberger, although I’m going to continue doing it.) New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis have won the last nine AFC championships; the Ravens, despite six playoff appearances in that span, have been shut out, and usually lose to one of those teams.

Houston is a nice team. I’m sure they’ll be able to keep this little string of AFC South titles going a little longer, get some nice banners in that indoor stadium they’ve got down there. But this isn’t about the Houston Texans. They just don’t figure into this for me.

Maybe I’m just full of irresponsible swagger, not fully appreciating how improbable our win over Denver really was, and how unlikely it is we’ll pull off another shocker against a team nearly as lethal. Maybe you should just want to play the worse team, and it really is that simple. But if we’re really going to do this, if we’re going to finally break through — let’s do it at the scene of the crime, against one of our signature rivals. When the same teams, the same players are so good, for so long, I think individual seasons lose a little significance, bowing to the historical frame of the matchup. If the Ravens win the 2012-13 AFC championship, it’ll be more than a single-year accomplishment.

Late in Ray Lewis: A Football Life, as Lewis and Reed are the last two Ravens out of the tunnel, Reed murmurs: “We’ve been doing thing so long together, bro, let’s complete it now. Let’s complete it.”

If we win in Foxborough, we’ll complete it.

Derek:

Did I want New England?  There was a rational part of me that said no, the gap in quality between the Patriots and the Texans is clear, and it was evident in Sunday night’s game. At the same time, the prospect of going in to Foxboro for a rematch with Tom Brady was too good not to want. I tweeted after the game that winning this AFC Championship would be more meaningful to me than a possible Super Bowl win would be. I probably won’t agree with that statement a year from now, but right now it feels true. Maybe it’s just my AFC bias (those CBS telecasts feel much more like real “football” than the glossy sheen of the NFC East on Fox), but I think that the last decade of NFL football has been dominated by an AFC “Big Four” of the Patriots, Colts (or whoever Peyton Manning is currently playing for), Steelers, and Ravens. The Ravens have been the Andy Murray of this group, always knocking at the door but never able to break through (the Super Bowl win came before this AFC power structure was really established). Could this be our 2012 US Open?

The odds this week are once again against us. No team has ever beaten both Manning and Brady in the same playoffs (to make another tennis analogy it would be like Juan Martin del Potro beating Federer and Nadal in the 2009 US Open). The Ravens had an opportunity in 2009 before having more turnovers than points against the Colts in the divisional round. For some reason though I too have a strange confidence in the Ravens this week. Last week was supposed to be the game where everything had to go right for us to win, where we couldn’t make mistakes.  Instead, terrible special teams play allowed 14 points and we still won the game. How? By Joe Flacco answering with big plays time and time again. I know that having so many long touchdowns is probably not repeatable, but if Flacco could torch the Broncos secondary shouldn’t he be able to do the same against the weaker Patriots? If our offense line could contain Denver’s vaunted pass rush, shouldn’t they also be able to contain Rob Ninkovich? It may be a stretch to call the Ravens’ style of football “old school” anymore, but there was something “old school” about Joe Flacco, in the age of read options and 7-yard slant patterns, playing the role of gunslinger and throwing deep ball after deep ball. Maybe this is the year he sheds the game manager label and helps Ray Lewis “complete it.”

Alex:

I feel like conference championships are generally more intense and meaningful for the fanbases involved because the two teams are so much more likely to have a history. I can probably count on one hand the number of recent Super Bowls/World Series/NBA Finals where teams and fans entered with real animosity toward their opponent. I’d much rather be in Foxborough this Sunday than in New Orleans two Sundays later. (But I would much rather be in New Orleans two Saturday nights from now than Foxborough this Saturday night.)

To provide some context for the “Big Four” analogy, the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, and Ravens have occupied 16 of the last 20 slots in AFC championship games. The closest you can come in the NFC with a “Big Four” is 9 of 20 championship game slots, and 12 different NFC teams have made a championship game in the last 10 years. This is the cost of parity. The AFC gets an era-defining game, possibly the last stand from two surefire Hall of Fame defenders, against a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback seeking his sixth AFC title. I’m glad Falcons-49ers is the matinee.

For that “Big Four” framework to really fit the era, I think the Ravens have to win this game. Maybe I’m moving the goalposts (if you’d told me before the season started that we’d beat Peyton Manning in a road playoff game, I would’ve deemed the year a complete success), but if the Lewis-Reed Ravens don’t win at least one conference championship, don’t once best Manning and Brady in the same playoffs, then they will forever be a substantial notch below the top three. They’ve been that notch below for years, but the finality is setting in now.

I noticed the Ravens defense has crept to 10th in weighted DVOA, an impressive achievement considering they finished 19th overall, although certainly not surprising considering how our injury situation has improved. It’s nice to say we have an above average defense again. Weighted DVOA also loves the Patriots though, who managed a 96% single-game DVOA in a game where two of their offensive starters got hurt within the first five plays. I’m not crazy about Brady, Belichick, and McDaniels having a week to plan their Gronk-less attack, although the Ravens defense has a nice habit of continually not getting completely smoked by the Pats offense (which of course means keeping the score in the 20s). But I wonder whether recent playoff history (small sample size!) has made us underappreciate just how good these Patriots are. Dating back to 2007, they’re weirdly 2-7 against the spread in the playoffs (and 3-4 in the playoffs, period, since Super Bowl 42), and thanks to the Giants, Jets, and Ravens, we all know that if you run the ball and pressure Brady, you can win these games. But the Patriots are still historically good, and more often than not, historically good should win you playoff games.

Derek:

I think you’re right that these Patriots teams have been underappreciated due to bad luck in the postseason. If you exclude 2008 and look at Brady’s last five seasons, it has to be the best five-year run by an offense in history. Part of what makes this Patriots dynasty so special is the way they’ve built around a single player at the center while the rest of the team has constantly evolved to win in new ways. Much like the Duncan-era Spurs, we’ve seen this team progress from controlling defensive-centric play to incredibly efficient offense in the course of ten years. Every time opposing teams begin to figure out their scheme they change up to something new. This is what makes them a great organization.The Ravens have probably changed more over the years than I realize, but they seem to be a great organization in a different way; not in their ability to change but rather in their ability to consistently find great players to fit their unique style of football. The Patriots have won in every possible way in the past ten years, it feels like the Ravens have won the same game over and over again.

The Ravens defense is undoubtedly in a better place than it was for most of this season. The return of Ray Lewis probably helps this, but not as much as the return of Terrell Suggs and the return to health of Haloti Ngata (despite making second team all-pro Ngata had a disappointing season). In fact, the stats show that Ray Lewis, while making our run defense significantly better, is a liability in the passing game.  He simply doesn’t have the speed to cover the middle of the field anymore. I don’t know that much about football strategy, but it seems like this would be a problem against the Patriots who rely heavily on Wes Welker slants and two tight end sets. This is why the Gronk injury seems so important to me. I know the Patriots looked just fine without him last week featuring the two running back attack of Ridley and Vereen, but I feel more confident in our ability to stop them than the Hernandez/Gronk duo. My irrational confidence in Flacco has eroded throughout the week, but I can’t bring myself to pick against the Ravens right now.

Ravens 27, Patriots 23

Alex:

Three of the six best offenses since 1991 belong to the Patriots (’07, ’10, ’11), and while the ’09 and ’12 versions aren’t in the top 12, they both led the league. They’ve even changed their offensive scheme substantially within that five-year stretch, from Randy Moss’ 23-TD behemoth of a season in ’07 to the ’12 version that set a league record for first downs. Of course, like the Duncan-era Spurs, this more aesthetically pleasing version hasn’t done won a championship. I’m just not convinced that really means anything.It’s double or nothing today.

We’re back in Foxborough, either to double down on our misery or erase the most painful loss we’ve ever experienced. The New England offense, even without Gronkowski, remains an efficient, in-its-prime machine. Our defense played a remarkable game last week, its best of the season, limiting Manning to 21 points and forcing three turnovers. But it isn’t the unit that so slowed Brady in previous years, and it’s now a unit that has played 94 snaps in back-to-back weeks. I fully expect Flacco to play well, but I don’t think Brady will play poorly just because he’s sometimes played poorly against us in the past.

The Ravens just delivered the greatest win in franchise history, and they have put themselves 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. In football, that is often enough — 60 minutes is actually a very short amount of a time, an amount of time where many strange things can occur before the Earth rights itself. But I don’t believe in momentum, and I don’t believe in teams of destiny. This is Denver again, and I don’t think we can pull it off twice.

Patriots 31, Ravens 24.

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The Ravens enter Denver as 10-point underdogs, and they trail the Broncos by a staggering 26.8% in DVOA. Considering Football Outsiders pegged the Ravens as the eighth-best team in the NFL, that’s a tremendous gap, and a stark reminder the Broncos aren’t just a 13-3 No. 1 seed, the likes of which we see almost every year. Since 1991, only seven teams finished with higher DVOAs than 2012 Denver.

Despite the Ravens having played 12 of their 16 non-Super Bowl playoff games on the road, they’ve rarely been a true underdog (which explains their tremendous 7-5 road playoff record).

2000 Ravens (DVOA: 24.1%, No. 3):
vs. Denver (16.0%, 9)
at Tennessee (33.3%, 1)
at Oakland (20.8%, 5)
New York (9.3%, 11)

2001 Ravens (7.0%, 12)
at Miami (9.0%, 10)
at Pittsburgh (17.3%, 7)

2003 Ravens (15.6%, 7)
vs. Tennessee (22.9%, 2)

2006 Ravens (27.7%, 2)
vs. Indianapolis (16.3%, 7)

2008 Ravens (27.6%, 2)
at Miami (6.2%, 14)
at Tennessee (23.8%, 5)
at Pittsburgh (26.0%, 4)

2009 Ravens (29.1%, 1)
at New England (28.8%, 4)
at Indianapolis (16.5%, 8)

2010 Ravens (21.7%, 5)
at Kansas City (0.3%, 17)
at Pittsburgh (35.4%, 2)

2011 Ravens (14.5%, 7)
vs. Houston (18.6%, 5)
at New England (22.8%, 3)

2012 Ravens (9.8%, 8)
vs. Indianapolis (-16.0%, 25)

The Ravens were the better regular-season team in 11 of their 18 playoff matchups; in a beautiful manifestation of the math, they’ve won 11 of their 18 playoff games. Of course, the math and the results have not always aligned: The franchise’s most defining victory, the 24-10 drubbing of the Titans (Trent Dilfer went 5-for-16 in that game, by the way), came at a 9.2% superior opponent, while a home loss to 11.4% worse Indianapolis after the ’06 season ranks among its most deflating.

But we’re in uncharted territory here. The Ravens-Broncos DVOA gap is nearly twice our previous biggest playoff disparity.

So, what solace should Ravens fans take? Well, there’s the whole that’s why they play the games/anything can happen in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE motif — random chance, basically. Ask Giants fans — it works better than you’d think.

The upside Ravens fans have is simple: If we win, it will be because something awesome happened. The Ravens have come to specialize in agonizing victories, like last year’s divisional round win against Houston, in which the Ravens managed 227 total yards; Ed Reed made what should have been a game-clinching interception, but the offense couldn’t run out the clock, so an injured Reed had to return to the field and make a game-clinching knockdown; and fans spent the team’s first home playoff game in the Harbaugh era, after eight on the road, freaking out about possibly losing to the aforementioned T.J. Yates.

If the Ravens beat Denver, our league-best special teams will probably make a big play; if the Ravens beat Denver, the defense will create turnovers (and if the defense creates turnovers, Ravens fans get one more chance to whoop it up for Ray Lewis and, perhaps, Reed); if the Ravens beat Denver, for the first time in 10 tries, we’ll have beaten Peyton Manning. The Ravens aren’t winning this game 14-10; if we win, Joe Flacco will almost assuredly have played pretty well.

The Ravens have nothing to lose. Our recent playoff losses have run the gamut from embarrassing (the offensive performance against Indianapolis in 2007) to humiliating (three turnovers in a quarter at our archrival) to the Stomach Punch (Evans/Cundiff), to borrow a “Levels of Losing” phrase from Bill Simmons. Having escaped an inspirational-but-actually-pretty-bad Colts team, the Ravens did what they were supposed to. These Ravens teams have, thankfully, always at least done what they were supposed to do. They’ve rarely gone beyond that and beaten Roethlisberger, Manning, and Brady, but they’ve always given fans that season-defining game against an opponent we view as a worthy rival. Fourth-seeded Maryland’s 2007 second-round defeat to No. 5 Butler, a game marred by a 7-for-15 performance at the free-throw line, still gnaws at me because it cost the Terps a chance at defending-champion Florida. The Gators might’ve easily crushed those Terps, a compelling mismash of the raw, athletic group that won the ’04 ACC Tournament but missed the next two NCAA tourneys and two young point guards who would eventually meet a more memorably tragic second-round end. But we’ll never know. The Terps simply lost to Butler, before Butler was cool.

With these Ravens, we pretty much know. We have gnawing losses, but they’re self-evidently gnawing, not gnawing because they kept the Ravens from some later matchup. Tomorrow’s game could be a vain battle with a buzzsaw; just like their forefather Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ last hopes of a championship could disappear in the Mile High air. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil could pound Flacco into submission on one end, while Reed again kicks his helmet on the sideline after another miscommunication with Cary Williams on the other. As I’ve made pretty clear by now, I think Denver is better, much better.

I think the Ravens will show up. Even in the disheartening losses of the last five years, the Ravens have shown up. They played New England tougher than most expected last year, holding a prolific offense in check (/injuring the prolific offense’s best receiver). They even covered the spread, which totally made up for everything that happened in the final 30 seconds. You can argue that was a different Ravens team, particularly a different Ravens defense, but the unit the Ravens will send onto the field is possibly their healthiest of the season. It’s certainly healthier than the unit that faced Denver in December, in a game that was one play from being 10-7 at halftime.

We’re asking for a lot of things to go right. They’re things that have gone right before — Manning has had terrible playoff games, Reed has picked him off three times in two playoff meetings, a special teams advantage has swung a playoff game — but aren’t terribly likely.

I can’t give you anything more hopeful than that. Ray Lewis is 37; Ed Reed is 34. For the first time in a long time, the Ravens are not particularly great, and they’re facing an opponent that is. John Harbaugh said last week that you can’t play 60 minutes on emotion, and I think he’s right. Unfortunately, you can’t play 60 minutes on pride, either.

In 2003, the Ravens ran for the most yards in football, passed for the least, and conceded the third-fewest. Baltimore won the division; Ray Lewis won his second Defensive Player of the Year award. And that was likely just how No. 52 liked it.

The Ravens have, nominally, been a “team in transition” for more than a half-decade. Upper management made a conscious decision to end the days of “Give Jamal the Ball!” and a high-penalty, high-rap sheet defense – “Play Like a Raven” means something slightly different in 2013 than it did in 2003. There was replacing “players coach” Brian Billick with college-style John Harbaugh (and only after “offensive guru” Jason Garrett turned them down); “old guard” defensive players like Chris McAlister quickly landing in the new coach’s doghouse; hiring LaDainian Tomlinson’s old offensive coordinator; revamping the offense with the 2008 selections of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice; the many determinations to “open up the playbook.

Yet, it was less than a year ago the Ravens took the league’s top-ranked defense into Foxborough, Mass., for the AFC championship game against the conference’s best offense. The Ravens made no bones about it; our defense vs. your offense, Ray Lewis vs. Tom Brady. Defense wins championships, right? “Please do it my way. Trust me,” Lewis recalled telling Brian Billick back in 2000, “We ran the ball 35 times a game, and we won the Super Bowl.” When Flacco started flinging the ball around during that 3-0 start in 2009, or the opening-night win over Cincinnati three months ago … we never really believed that, did we?

Statistically, the last Ravens squad of Lewis’ career is a little different. The Ravens had the league’s 19th best defense in 2012, after final rankings of 2, 4, 6, and 1, from 2008-2011. Still, despite the 10-6 record, the Cam Cameron firing, and various injury calamites, the Ravens might not be much worse than their predecessors. Their team efficiency rankings? 2, 1, 5, 7, 8. So, perhaps they’re not “elite,” but as a Ravens fan, I’m contractually forbidden from parsing what “elite” means. The Ravens remaining a top-10 team while the defense cratered and the offense didn’t get much better stems directly from their special teams, the best in the NFL this season. Jacoby Jones’ return touchdowns provided the margin of victory against Dallas and Pittsburgh, and Justin Tucker proved superior to Billy Cundiff at both chip-shot field goals against New England and the other, less important aspects of kicking.

Still, it’s clear where the heart and soul of any team with three Defensive Player of the Year winners roaming about lies. After all these years, the Ravens essentially enter their ninth postseason of the Lewis era with the same mindset they took into the first eight: Ride the defense, even if it’s playing on little more than fumes and pride.

Assuming Lewis’ retirement and #Chuckstrong mitigate each other (or otherwise do not actually influence the outcome of the game), the Ravens should beat Indianapolis. The Colts were the 25th best team in the league, per Football Outsiders, and their opponents outscored them by 30 points; Aaron Schatz rates them among the four worst playoff teams of the last 20 years. While Schatz notes the other three teams (’98 Cardinals, ’04 Rams, ’10 Seahawks) won their opening-round playoff games, I don’t think it’s terribly likely that completely coincidental, statistically unlikely events will continue occurring. The Ravens are the better team.

No, Lewis’ “last ride” will likely pit the Ravens against Tom Brady (if Cincinnati wins) or Peyton Manning (if Houston wins). It will be fitting. And if history’s any guide, it will likely end in defeat. The Ravens’ last five playoff defeats have come at the hands of Messrs. Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger; they’ve dispatched everyone else. In the era of illegal contact rules and incessant 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties, the Ravens fielded an all-time great defense against all-time great quarterbacks. They’ve lost nearly every time.

I’m not nervous about the playoff run. The Ravens have lost road playoff games to slightly better teams before, and New England and Denver are two of the 12 best teams since 1991, while this is the worst Ravens team of the Harbaugh era. 2011 was “the year:” a dramatic win in Pittsburgh to seal the elusive bye week and home-field advantage; a classic Ravens slug-it-out win vs. Houston; a defensive effort few thought possible against the vaunted Patriots’ offense. No loss this month can possibly hurt as badly.

Lewis’ retirement, which I have to imagine doesn’t exactly increase the odds Ed Reed wears a Ravens jersey next year, doesn’t mean the Ravens won’t continue being one of the NFL’s most successful franchises. The various decision-makers at the Castle are too smart for that. But Lewis, as Derek wrote here last year, “has been both the symbolic and on-field heart of the Ravens from the beginning of their existence. Literally from year one. Who else in sports can claim that right now?”

The Ravens are only 17 years old. But their franchise identity, their national brand, trails only the bluest of the blue bloods – Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Chicago, Dallas, New York. Lewis took an empty slate and cast it completely in his image; he clearly didn’t make Baltimore fans forget about the Colts (the city’s embarrassing froth before the 2007 divisional playoff against Indianapolis tells that much), but a younger generation of fans now has as strong a bond to a football team as children of the ’60s do to the Baltimore Colts.

A playoff loss to Brady or Manning is with precedent, already part of the Ravens narrative. But what if they win? What if Terrell Suggs strip stacks his arch-nemesis Brady, or Reed’s chess match with Manning ends in a pick-six, or Lewis reprises his touchdown scamper from Nashville 12 years ago? The game won’t just be a referendum on the 2012 season, but on this entire generation of Ravens. Maybe they’re stuck in the wrong era. But can the team with the defining defensive superstar in the age of the quarterback defy history before it’s too late?