Baltimore beat New England easily in their last playoff meeting. This time, the winner gets the AFC Championship trophy and a trip to the Super Bowl. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Tom Brady stepped to the podium at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Wednesday with a smile on his face. Sunday’s game will be his sixth trip to the conference championship, so he wasn’t surprised that the room was crammed with reporters. But he still wasn’t quite ready to answer a question about his teammates’ hunger for a victory.

“It’s lunchtime,” Brady deadpanned. “They’re probably hungry right now. In the cafeteria, there’s probably a whole slew of offensive lineman that are beating down the sandwich station in there.”

At this time last year, the Patriots quarterback was preparing for a longer-than-anticipated offseason after New England lost at home to the New York Jets in the NFL’s divisional round. The memories of falling short stick with him.

Tom Brady is making his sixth appearance in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots have won four conference titles under head coach Bill Belichick. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

“I think to have the opportunity to play in a game like we’re playing in this week, and to prepare for a game like this, is something exciting for all the players involved,” Brady said. “And when you don’t have that opportunity, it sucks because you sit at home and you watch and listen to every news station and sports station talk about the game. It’s great for us to be playing in it.”

Wide receiver Deion Branch acknowledges that the team lacked the proper focus going into that loss to the Jets. The former Super Bowl MVP says recognizing that fact is more motivational than any pep talk.

“We were in this position last year,” Branch said, “We kind of blew it off. That was us. It was nothing that anybody else did. We did that in the locker room. And I think the feeling that we had last year, we don’t want to go through that again. That’s enough said.”

Tomorrow’s opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, handed Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick his first home playoff loss two years ago, a 33-14 steamrolling. But Belichick dismisses the idea of any lingering effects.

“We don’t really care too much about what’s happened in the past. We’ve won some. We’ve lost some. Right now this team’s focused on the Ravens, what we have to do this week, and how we can best prepare and perform well on Sunday,” Belichick said. “That’s really all that matters. I don’t think some game that happened two years ago or five years ago or anything else, I don’t think that really has any effect on this game.”

Tom E. Curran, who covers the Patriots and the NFL for Comcast SportsNet New England, disagrees. Curran says the postseason tailspin that began with a Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2008 has put extra pressure on the team this year.

We don’t really care too much about what’s happened in the past. We’ve won some. We’ve lost some.
– Bill Belichick, New England Patriots Head Coach
“It started to seep in: ‘Are we going to get things right?’ And I think that there was a level of tightness that I detected from the Patriots going into big games,” Curran said. “They really had to relieve that tightness by just blowing out the pipes one time. And you saw that last week against the Denver Broncos, offensively and defensively, where everything clicked and they were really able to exorcise that demon of, ‘Do we still have it?’”

 

The Patriots were 13-3 during the regular season. They’ve won at least 10 games every year since 2003. Whether it’s hooded sweatshirts or monotone press conferences, Bill Belchick is a man who knows how to stick to a formula, and that’s one reason he respects the Ravens.

“[Baltimore's] been in the playoffs four straight years,” he said. “They’ve won playoff games the last four years. Nobody else in the league can say that. I think that says a lot about not only their talent, but also their consistency.”

That consistency is driven by the Ravens’ defense. Anchored by linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, and pass rusher Terrell Suggs, Baltimore allowed the third-fewest points and yards in the NFL this season. Curran says Baltimore resents that their style of football doesn’t get the kind of buzz reserved for teams with top-flight quarterbacks.

“I think that there’s an animosity, because they fancy themselves a meat-and-potatoes, lunch-pail crew, and the Patriots, as Suggs as pointed out, are a quote unquote ‘pretty team.’”

But Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd says after more than a decade of defensive dominance, the Ravens enjoy a challenge.

“I think there is a lot of professional respect for Brady on the part of the Ravens, and they want to beat this guy. They think this guy is the best in the game, and they want to go up against the best, and that’s why they’re really looking forward to this matchup.”

A record-setting season by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87), shown at practice Wednesday in Foxborough, MA, has been a big part of New England's success. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Another challenge for the Ravens will be New England’s second-year tight ends Aaron Hernadez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski shattered NFL records at the position this season with 1327 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns. When told Hernandez calls him an athletic “freak,” the 6’6”, 265-pound Gronkowski returned the compliment.

“He’s a freak, too,” Gronkowski said. “The way [Hernandez] can move in and out, make guys miss, go out of the backfield, juke safeties, run the ball, just be able to line up anywhere. It’s great having him next to me and it’s just amazing the quickness that he has at his size.”

The Ravens have offensive threats, too – like running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Anquan Boldin – but, up-and-down quarterback Joe Flacco ended up in the news after Ed Reed said Houston had “rattled” him last week. The good news for Flacco: before the Patriots’ defense dominated Denver, only the lowly Indianapolis Colts gave up more yards.

The mood was light as the Patriots started practice on Wednesday, but it’s been seven years since their last Super Bowl win. For Baltimore, it’s been 12. That had Tom Brady thinking something players and fans – on both sides – can agree on.

“The game can’t get here fast enough. There’s a lot of kind of anxiousness leading up to the game,” Brady said. “And you think about the game, it’s the only thing really on your mind. Hopefully we can go out there and do a great job, I’m looking forward to it.”

The waiting’s almost over. Game time’s 3 p.m. (ET), Sunday afternoon.