I honestly thought I'd be a lot more nervous at this point in the week than I actually am. After all, this is the AFC Championship Game; whoever wins this one gets to make a trip to Indianapolis. Whoever loses goes home, knowing how close they came to winning it all. All signs point to me being borderline suicidal right now But you know what? I'm really not. Sure, I'm a little anxious, and BEYOND excited for this game, but I'm not consumed with that gripping, paralyzing, bowel-loosening fear that has devoured me in AFCC games of yore.
And I think I know why: the media simply hasn't given me a chance to get scared.
I know that almost everyone is picking the Patriots to win on Sunday. Vegas has the Pats by 7.5, there have been more than a few "how can you stop Tom Brady?" articles and discussions, and people have been giving New England their much-deserved respect. But in spite of all that, I feel like I've been hearing much more negative than positive in regards to this team and what they have accomplished so far this season. If I had to sum up this past week in one sentence, it would probably be "This Patriots team is overrated and Baltimore's stellar defense is going to put them in their place." This could just be my blatant homerism and unflinchingly proud fan bias talking, and if so, I apologize. But the truth is that I feel like there has just been too much negativity surrounding this team and this game for me to become properly terrified over it.
That doesn't mean Hank has been silenced, though. Oh no - he's still alive and well, and he's had plenty to say all week. The thing is, there really isn't much that Hank can say at this point that hasn't already been said ad nauseum on ESPN, NFL Network, si.com, and every other sports website you go to to kill some time at work. I've been bombarded with it all so much that it's starting to lose much of its luster.
Still, here's what Hank has been saying all week, and here's what I've been saying back.
But Alec, the Ravens TROUNCED the Patriots in 2009! The media has been talking about it all week! Who's to say they won't do it again?
Shut up, Hank. That was two years ago. It means absolutely nothing. You know who Tommy B's leading receiver was in that game? Julian Edelman. You know why? Because Wes Welker blew out his ACL less than a week before that, completely short-circuiting New England's entire offensive scheme. The Patriots of 2009 won games through short passes to Wes Welker that set up the deep ball to Randy Moss. Without Welker, the Patriots had nowhere to go, especially against a Ravens defensive front that wouldn't allow enough time for any deep passing routes to develop and a secondary that was good enough to blanket Edelman, Matthew Slater, and Ben Watson. But hey, guess what? Brady isn't throwing to Edelman, Slater, and Watson anymore. This time he's throwing to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. And if those guys are covered? Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco are there as well - not to mention Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead/Kevin Faulk coming out of the backfield. I also consider Benny and Stevan Ridley a pretty big upgrade over Laurence Maroney. To look upon that first playoff game as any kind of indicator of how Sunday's game will go is to act like Vern Troyer in the back row at a rock concert: short sighted.
But Alec, the Ravens D is the best defense we've faced all season! They have the personnel to match up against this offense! Brady is going to get clobbered!
Shut up, Hank. No he isn't. And contrary to what pretty much every moron on television with a microphone has to say, the Ravens actually don't have the personnel to match up with New England's offense. Nobody on that side of the ball can hang with Gronk 1-on-1; he's going to have to be doubled and/or bracketed all game. And when you double Gronk, other receivers will be left in single coverage. Look for a big day from Branch, who is still a great route runner and is completely on Tom Brady's wavelength. Nobody can deny that this Ravens defense is very, very good - but this isn't the Ravens D of old. Ray Lewis has lost a step, and I don't care what he says, Ed Reed is playing hurt. Terrell Suggs is going to bring it, but that's nothing new. The Ravens definitely have the ability to pressure Brady and throw him off his game - but I love what I'm seeing from this offensive line, and Matt Light is having a career year. There's a chance we get Sebastian Vollmer back for this game too, giving New England the potential front line of Light, Mankins, Wendell, Waters, Vollmer, and Nate Solder as an extra tight end/blocker. That's about 4 metric tons of muscle and height keeping Tommy B safe -and with plenty of time to throw. I'll take New England's offense over Baltimore's defense every day and twice on Sunday - especially if it gets me out of going to church. The Pope, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to change up parts of the Catholic Mass and I'm now spending most of my Sunday mornings reading from a cue card like a D-List celebrity at a public broadcasting network telethon. No fun.
But Alec, RAY RICE! OhmyGodOhmyGodOhmyGod RAY FRICKING RICE! AAAAAAAAHHHH!
Shut up, Hank. Yes, Rice is an animal. Yes, he's the key to the Ravens winning the game. And yes, if he gets going, New England is going to be in for a long day. We all know this. But you know who else probably knows this? Bill Belichick. One thing Belichick thrives on as a coach is taking away an opposing team's biggest strength and making them beat him other ways. Everyone knows that Ray Rice is going to run, and odds are he's probably going to run with some success. But this pervasive notion that Ray Rice is going to spend 60 minutes dragging 11 Patriots defenders up and down the field at will as he rushes for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns is borderline comical. All New England needs to do is slow him enough so that Flacco will have to make some throws in order to keep Baltimore in the game - and a Patriots run defense featuring Pat Chung and Brandon Spikes is more than capable of doing that. I'm fairly certain that the Denver Broncos were a better rushing team than the Baltimore Ravens, and the Pats figured out how to stop them. Nobody has adjusted better this season than this New England defense - if the score is close going into halftime, I like our chances.
But Alec, the Ravens aren't intimidated by the Patriots! Home field advantage is useless against these guys! USELESS!
Shut up, Hank. Home field advantage is still home field advantage, regardless of where it is. In spite of a few losses, Tommy B is still pretty damn hard to beat at home, and I'd rather be playing at Gillette than anywhere else this weekend. Plus, the only reason the homefield advantage was negated last time these teams met was because of how quickly the Ravens took the fans out of it. I honestly think the 2009 playoff game is a completely different outcome if Ray Rice hadn't busted out an 80 yard TD run right off the bat. I still think the Ravens would have won, as they were simply a better team than the Pats that year, but the kind of confidence and momentum you build from coming right out of the box and punching New England in the face can be a huge advantage. Plus, going up big in the 1st quarter allowed the Ravens to lean on the Pats with slow, clock killing drives. That 1st quarter will never happen again. Even worse, I remember the fans starting to empty before the 1st half was even over in 2009 - an absolute disgrace. Every fan going to this game has the responsibility - strike that, the Patriotic DUTY - to be as loud as possible and do everything in his/her power to make life very difficult on the Baltimore Ravens. And even if Baltimore does manage to be up 42-0 after one quarter, you keep your ass in that seat and you cheer like you've never cheered before until the bitter end. I'm kind of getting off topic now- but I'm sorry, that needed to be said. The reality is that the Patriots have a whole slew of loud, foul-mouthed, obnoxious fans. It's on them to make Gillette a tough place to play, and I think that they'll bring it this weekend. They did a great job last week, in my opinion; time to keep that momentum going.
But Alec, New England hasn't beaten a team with a winning record all season! Baltimore won 12 games! WE'RE DOOMED!
Shut up, Hank. How is this argument even relevant? What does it have to do with Sunday's game? Nothing, that's what. It wouldn't matter if Baltimore backed into the playoffs at 7-9, to be honest; New England would still prepare for them the same way they would if the Ravens were 17-0 coming into this one. This type of nonsense is nothing more than the argument of Patriots haters desperately trying to justify YET ANOTHER wildly successful New England season as their team sits at home shining their golfing shoes. Records - preseason, regular season, postseason, or otherwise - are meaningless from here on out. The only thing that matters now is how each team is playing at the moment. The Patriots look pretty damn good, in my opinion. The Ravens - honestly, they look very beatable. If we play our game, I don't see us losing this one.
But Alec, Bernard Pollard is a Raven now! He's going to take out Aaron Hernandez's knee and he'll be lost for the season!
Crap. That's a pretty damn good point. Let me get back to you on that one.
I'm very aware that there is a good chance that the Ravens take this game. They are a great football team, and they deserve to be playing for the chance to represent the AFC in the Superbowl. But you know who is a better team? The New England Goddam Patriots, that's who. I believe in this team as much as I have any team that has taken the field since I started following the Patriots on a mentally unhealthy level 20 years ago. There's no way I'm going to abandon ship now. This season has been too much fun, and this team has come too damn far, to go down the way they have in years past. I say New England wins this one 27-17. But even if they lose, you know they are going to lose with no excuses, having played their best game and leaving everything out on the field. And while I won't be happy about it, I can definitely live with it.
And honestly, so can Hank..