- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will meet for the sixth time in the past six seasons Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium. When considering how rivalries are born, that's a start.
Add in some high stakes, a bunch of nail-biting finishes and some of the game's biggest stars on each side, and it's no wonder this has been one of the more highly anticipated games since the 2012 schedule was announced.
"A lot of close, hard-fought games going back to '07," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday. "Really, all those games have come down to the last possession, except the playoff game in 2010. All those other games were basically the last play, really, not even [just] the last possession. Very competitive games."
As Belichick pointed out, the Patriots have hosted the past four of them, including the 2011 AFC Championship Game, which ended in stunning fashion with Billy Cundiff's missed 32-yard field goal.
"We haven't been down there in a while, so that will make this a little different from the last few," Belichick said. "But that all evens out in the long run."
No doubt, as Patriots followers can point to the great New England-Indianapolis rivalry of recent years, and how there were stretches in which both teams seemed to have the home-field edge. This was also on Ravens coach John Harbaugh's mind earlier in the week, as he challenged reporters to remember the last time the Patriots visited Baltimore.
The answer, 2007, predates Harbaugh's tenure as Ravens head coach. Who could forget that '07 clash, the Patriots seemingly on the verge of having their undefeated regular season ended in Week 13 when then-Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called a regrettable timeout, Brian Billick was blowing kisses to Rodney Harrison, Bart Scott fired a penalty flag into the stands and the Patriots escaped with a 27-24 victory.
Harbaugh was hired the following season, with a strong recommendation from Bill Belichick helping his candidacy, and the teams didn't meet that year. They made up for it in 2009, first with a marathon meeting in Week 4 in which the Patriots held on late for a 27-21 win (the Ravens were driving for what could have been a winning touchdown, but the Patriots stopped them on fourth down at the New England 14-yard line).
Then came the playoff blowout, running back Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play igniting what owner Robert Kraft would later call one of the most frustrating moments of his ownership tenure (33-14) because of the lack of competitiveness the team showed. "Such an empty feeling," he said of the day receiver Wes Welker, having torn his ACL the week before in Houston, watched alongside him in the owner's box.
It took overtime for the Patriots to beat the Ravens the following season, 23-20. The Ravens led 20-10 early in the fourth quarter before the Patriots charged back.
Of all the meetings, that one's the freshest. It's why M&T Bank Stadium figures to be a hornet's nest of emotion, which Patriots players expect.
"That's part of winning on the road," quarterback Tom Brady said. "You're bringing however many guys with you -- 53 plus some coaches -- and that's really all you've got, and hopefully that's all we'll need."
Brady and the Patriots have been at their best in these types of situations -- the 2011 win at the Jets, after back-to-back losses, coming to mind as one of the most recent examples. Since 2008, the Patriots are 14-2 in games after a loss. The Ravens are 16-4.
So two forces will be colliding, and players and coaches from both teams have dismissed the idea that last season's AFC Championship Game has any bearing on Sunday night. There are new players. It's a new year.
Yeah, we get it. The past doesn't matter.
At the same time, it tells us a lot about what to expect when the Patriots and Ravens get together.
The teams do it again Sunday night, this time in Baltimore, so soon after the stunning turn of events at the end of the AFC Championship Game. Nothing like a little early-season drama.
Patriots-Ravens has become the AFC's top rivalry. They'll renew it Sunday.