By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 12, 2013

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Good news: The Patriots now have home field throughout the playoffs.

Bad news: Ray Lewis gets to continue his career.

Worse news: Bernard Pollard still plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

The Patriots were spared the prospect of having to travel to Denver to play the AFC Championship Game if they defeat the Houston Texans on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal 1:36 into double overtime gave the Ravens a 38-35 win over the top-seeded Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field on Saturday night. The win by the Ravens was shocking, in that most experts were predicting a Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady duel for the 2012 AFC Championship.

Instead, it could be a Tom Brady-Ray Lewis duel, and a possible rematch of the 2011 title game.

The winner of the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday hosts the AFC Championship game. The Patriots, who are 9 point favorites to defeat Houston, can set up a rematch with Baltimore with a win Sunday night. It did not figure that the AFC Championship Game would return to Foxborough this year, but now it looks like a distinct possibility barring a clunker from the Patriots in their Divisional matchup with the Texans.

This does not guarantee a trip to New Orleans for the Patriots in early February. It merely makes the chances better by not having to go to a city they historically do poorly in, and facing a quarterback that has the Patriots figured out after years of torment early on in his career. Manning and his Broncos faced a tougher-than-expected battle from the Ravens, and in the end it was Manning who threw the key interception which led to Tucker's game-winning field goal in the first double overtime game in the NFL since 2004.

By all logical reasoning one could perform, it would seem that a home game versus Baltimore makes for a more doable trip to the Super Bowl rather than a road game at Denver. The Patriots will get that wish if they defeat Houston as they are favored to do. But having the Ravens come to Foxborough may turn out to be a "be careful what you wish for" scenario.

First of all, in defeating the Broncos, the Ravens shook off some mistakes, including hideous special teams play. The Ravens allowed two long returns, one by punt, and one by kickoff, for touchdowns by Trindon Holliday. They were both the longest punt return for a touchdown (90 yards) and kickoff return for a touchdown (104 yards) in NFL postseason history. Those two special teams gaffes for Baltimore prevented the Ravens from establishing themselves early on and taking the crowd out of the game. The exhausted Ravens' defense managed just enough to prevent Manning from taking over the game through the air, though the frigid Denver weather also had a hand in slowing down Manning's passing game. But the fact that the Ravens were able to overcome some real damning obstacles speaks highly of their zeal to win the game.

Then there's the ongoing Ray Lewis Retirement Dog And Pony Show. The postgame show was fun to watch up until Lewis was interviewed after the game. All you will hear about all week long is this sound byte and that sound byte from Lewis, who will retire when his season comes to an end. The Ravens seem bent on prolonging Lewis' career as long as they can, and they will play the Patriots tough if the teams meet next weekend.

Next, consider the Pollard Factor. Brady and Rob Gronkowski need to keep this guy on their radar screens all game long. Or maybe Wes Welker should. Or Danny Woodhead. Or Stevan Ridley. Who will get the next Pollard dirty hit? Pollard will bring the wood next weekend, and of course, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub should also be on similar alert if the Texans wind up hosting the Ravens next weekend. Pollard continues to be this generation's version of Jack Tatum or George Atkinson, the figureheads of what used to pass off as "Raider Football". Suffice it to say that Pollard would have fit in wonderfully with the Raider defense of 40 years ago.

Finally, there are the horrid memories of last year. Lee Evans dropping a game-winning touchdown pass (and do not credit Sergio Brown with a defensed pass, he got luckier than King Brian on March 17th), and Billy Cundiff lost his job with a yanked game-tying 32-yard field goal in the final seconds. Just to look at Terrell Suggs' priceless look of shock at the missed field goal should strike fear into the hearts of whoever wins tomorrow night. Suggs and the rest of his Ravens teammates will come after the Patriots (or Texans, but especially the Patriots) with doggie slobber coming out of their mouths and revenge on their minds. They will be after blood, not just victory. It was one of the most painful losses in Ravens' history, if not the most painful.

There are two factors that will work in favor of the Patriots, three if you count the home field factor.

First of all, the revenge rematch from last year has already happened. The Patriots dropped a 31-30 decision to the Ravens in Week 3 at M&T Bank Stadium on a Sunday night when Tucker, like he did Saturday night, hit a walkoff field goal to win the game. The Patriots have the upper hand in the revenge department, but only a slight one. The Ravens did win the last matchup to date. But the Ravens will still have last January on their mind.

Second, the Patriots are still the better team on paper. The freezing cold weather in Denver allowed the Ravens to focus more on the run, and yielded only three touchdowns to the Bronco offense. The Patriots don't figure to crap out in the special teams department, and if the Ravens cut a stinker on return coverage again, Welker will get the Patriots great field position all game long. Otherwise, the Patriots have seen enough of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith over the years to know what is coming. Ditto for Lewis, Ed Reed, Suggs and Haloti Ngata. The Patriot offense will be able to move the ball on Baltimore, and Bill Belichick can devise a game plan to confound Flacco and contain Rice, if the players can execute on the field.

However, all this analysis won't mean a darn if the Patriots don't do their job on Sunday night and beat Houston like they are supposed to. Some area columnists have given the Texans locker room fodder with disparaging articles, but Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips shot back with a dig at Welker, calling him "not very athletic". Maybe one cancels out the other and the Patriots exert their superiority like they did last month.

Or, perhaps the Patriots get caught looking ahead a week and bring their "C" game to the table and the Texans upset the Patriots. Brady has been prone to playoff duds in recent years as well as terrific games. You really don't know how Sunday night will turn out.

But if the Patriots win, they stay home for the following week. They thank the Ravens this weekend, then curse them the next. It is poetic irony at its finest.


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