Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a curious volume of forgotten games
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
That the Patriots did often dismember
Eagerly I wished for January;--for vainly I had sought to bury
The years' old memory of these cold defeats
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer;
For January had often erased, the bitterness of December's taste
Alas, but now the past matters little
To answer Divisional Saturday's riddle
Of who shall move on to next week: New England or Baltimore
For one team, this year, it will be nevermore
--a personal adaptation of "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe
60 minutes from glory. A trip to the AFC title game on the line.
For the first time in this rivalry, Baltimore will face off with New England in the AFC Divisional round after having faced each other in the other playoff rounds.
While Manning/Brady has long been considered the preeminent AFC rivalry, they had not played each other in the postseason since 2006 until last year's AFC title game. Since 2006, New England's more frequent and prominent rival in the dreary cold of January has been Baltimore with three matches since 2008.
The rivalry started in Baltimore's first year in 1996 in a high scoring affair where New England would later represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. New England won the next four. Then, under Harbaugh's tenure, the teams are an even 3-3 including postseason games, which seems appropriate given how fiercely many of these games have been fought.
The past means nothing
Yet, ultimately, these previous games mean nothing. Different teams. Different players. Different circumstances. Different times.
In the NFL, you are never really building upon the past. You start over every year. Every year you must earn the right to play beyond the bleak December. Every year you must address the particular adversity that your team faces, overcome the injuries that nearly all teams face, and prove you belong among the AFC's and NFC's 12 elite teams in the tournament.
The Patriots and Ravens are a rivalry rich with storylines. And yet, these storylines mean nothing. When Saturday dawns, nothing in these past games can or will have any bearing on this game. Forget Baltimore's playoff record against New England. That can't help them now. Forget New England's 41-7 domination in the bleak December of 2013. That can't help them now either. On Saturday, their 53 will line up against our 53. The best team will play the best for that three hour duration. Nothing more, nothing less.
The past means everything
And yet, the past means everything. Same bitter cold. Same desperation. Same respect. Same stakes.
While nothing from the past can help either team on Saturday, no team is perhaps more steely minded for such a battle as Baltimore. After all, the number of road visitors to win in New England in January since 2001 can be counted on two fingers.
However, New England has the preponderance of the advantages. 12-4 record and top seed in the AFC. Homefield advantage. Highly improved pass defense. And they are healthier. Advanced stats? New England is #4 in the league in DVOA though Baltimore is #5. They have been the stronger team to this point but not by nearly as much as popular perception would suggest.
Football Outsiders' Mike Harris' playoff odds report played out the season 50,000 times from here on out. New England won the game 62.3% of the time. This report takes into account more predictive measures of the future like each team's full season performance, in addition to homefield advantage. Baltimore's 37.7% probability of winning, though perhaps lower than it might be in the minds of Ravens fans, is still better than the other road teams, all of whom are underdogs. I would take that as a sign of respect. It's more than we got in 2012.
Truth be told, because everything in football is an exercise in probability, the Patriots are simply more likely to win. While they might find some comfort in that, there is also great pressure as the favorite. This is the great pressure of having the playoff bye in the NFL. You are supposed to win at home with rest and such a great regular season. Victory can bring joy, but mostly it just brings relief.
New England is hardly the team to succumb to such pressure; however, Baltimore was perhaps the lone team in the AFC playoff field that would feel no pressure at all in Foxboro either.
After all, we're not supposed to be here. We "backed into the playoffs". We have 18 players on IR when the average among playoff teams was 9. We needed Kansas City's help to get in. Our secondary couldn't possibly contain one of the league's best offenses. We're on house money.
And then the Ravens went to Heinz Field and plungeth thy dagger into Pittsburgh's blackened heart.
The Patriots are favored in Vegas and that's fine. They've earned it. But if they want a spot in the AFC title game, they'll have to earn that, too.
To borrow from Gerry Sandusky: After a year of work, and a long journey, the Ravens and Patriots with sixty minutes left to play in the Divisional playoffs. The outcome is as large as it gets.