FOXBORO, Mass. -- OK, so it's not the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning duel that was the expected -- yes, the preferred -- matchup in this year's AFC Championship Game. But after Joe Flacco outdid Manning in last week's thrilling comeback win in double overtime, Ravens-Patriots isn't such a bad alternative.
After all, this emerging rivalry, which may not have as many chapters preceding it as Manning's Colts had with Brady's Patriots, has plenty of compelling story lines nonetheless. And if the game comes anywhere close to the drama of their most recent meetings, then this Manning-less conference title game might turn out to be a terrific matchup in the end.
For starters, it's a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won after sweating out a wild ending. The Ravens nearly won it on an apparent Flacco touchdown pass to Lee Evans late in the fourth quarter, but Evans dropped the ball when Sterling Moore knocked it loose. Even then, the Ravens had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds, giving the Patriots a 23-20 win and a berth in the Super Bowl.
This will be their sixth meeting in the last four seasons and the third time the teams have met in the playoffs. In a 2009 AFC wild-card game, Ray Rice ran for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play in the Ravens' 33-14 win.
This is a legitimate rivalry, folks.
And it's made even more gripping by the fact that Brady is attempting to get to his sixth Super Bowl -- no other quarterback has been to more than five -- and by the emotional lift the Ravens have gotten from Ray Lewis' decision to retire.
"Our team loves to play, and they love Ray, and they love rallying around that," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who is making his third AFC Championship Game appearance after losing the previous two. "Ray can still play. He's been playing at a high level for 17 years. He's a top linebacker in the game right now, at this very moment, so he's made a difference for us."
Lewis, the greatest linebacker of his time (maybe all-time) against Brady, the greatest quarterback of his time (maybe all-time). Still not Brady-Manning, but it's some great gridiron theater nonetheless.
"This is a championship game and there is nothing more important than this weekend," said Brady, who has three Super Bowl rings but hasn't won a championship since after the 2004 season. "Starting quarterback or the left guard or the nickel defensive back, every job is important, and when you're called upon to do that, the expectations are to go out there and play at a championship level."
Brady is coming off one of his best statistical seasons with 34 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions (a league-best 1.3 interception percentage), and he had little problem dispatching the Texans last week at home.
Flacco, meanwhile, has been terrific in his latest bid to be considered among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Flacco threw for the tying score in the final seconds of regulation against the Broncos, hitting Jacoby Jones with a 70-yard pass down the right sideline. And Flacco outlasted Manning into the second overtime session, when the Ravens won it on rookie Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal.
"We win a lot of football games around here, and this is the third time I'm getting ready to play in an AFC Championship Game," Flacco said. "Who knows what it takes to win, but our mind-set is it's going to take our best and we're ready to give it. I felt we really had a good shot last year, and I think we're a little more experienced at this point. We're playing very confidently right now."
A confident quarterback? Absolutely.
"I think we feel like we are a great team and nobody can beat us," Flacco said. "In order to be successful in this league and really in anything, you have to have that confidence. Right now, we're walking around with a little bit of that."