On Sunday, the New England Patriots will play in their seventh AFC Championship Game under head coach Bill Belichick and fourth in Foxborough.
For Belichick, the NFL’s third most winningest head coach in the postseason, a trip to a conference championship game never gets old.
“Of course we’re excited to be heading into the AFC Championship game against the Ravens,” Belichick said Monday. “It’s a great honor, really, to participate in the game; to be playing for the right to represent the AFC the following week.”
Standing in the way of the Patriots returning to the Super Bowl for a second straight season and eighth time in franchise history is a familiar opponent in Baltimore. of the regular season to – at the time – avenge last season’s 23-20 AFC Championship loss to New England at Gillette Stadium.
Sunday’s game will once again be about atoning for prior defeats. The Pats are out to avenge the aforementioned Week 3 loss in Baltimore while the Ravens are out to finish what they could not accomplish last season – knocking off the Patriots at Gillette Stadium to go to the Super Bowl.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Belichick said of Sunday’s game against Baltimore. “The Ravens came back and won in our first matchup against them. We’ve had a lot of great games against them through the years. We know they’re a tough, formidable opponent wherever we play them. We know we’ll have our work cut out for us this week. We’ll have to play our best game. I think that’s the way it should be at this time of year.”
The Patriots will have to do so without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who re-broke his forearm during Sunday's game against the Texans and will reportedly miss the remainder of the postseason after going in for surgery Monday.
“It’s disappointing to not have Rob [Gronkowski] available, but I thought that Shane [Vereen] and Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui] both did a great job of stepping into the game [Sunday] and playing a significant role in terms of number of plays and their production, maybe more than was anticipated,” Belichick said. “I think that was a good example of our mental toughness and our ability to make adjustments and adapt to the situation at hand. I thought that was a positive in the game.”
There were certainly plenty of positives to take from a 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round game but Belichick and the Patriots have never been ones to rest on their laurels.
“Certainly there were things in the game that didn’t go the way we wanted them to,” Belichick said. “Houston is a good team and they gave us some problems as you would expect. [There are] things that we need to continue to work on and do better this week.”
A major part of this week’s preparation will be figuring out how to slow down a red-hot Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens offense.
“Obviously you’re talking about an excellent offense, certainly one that has the ability to pound the ball at you and run the ball downhill, be aggressive and be a tough, physical team and then an offense that has the ability to throw the ball deep downfield, get the vertical passing game going, excellent skill set of receivers along with the tight end position and then also has particular players on the team that do a good job in the controlled passing game, where the ball can come out quickly or possession-controlled passing game situations,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “I think their offensive line, obviously is working well together and improving every game as the season has gone on, so they’ve given [Flacco] some confidence and some time back there to run the offense and have the ability to take a good look at the field and coverage and get the ball into the proper receivers’ hands. They do an excellent job and it’s just an offense that’s continually improving and the quarterback obviously is the one that drives that, being the guy that stands back there and makes all the right decisions. It’s going to be, obviously, a huge challenge for us.”
Patricia said while the Patriots won’t focus on the Week 3 loss against the Ravens, they won’t ignore it either.
“It was a while ago but I think obviously you really have to analyze that game and take a good look at it to see where their team has evolved to from that point,” Patricia said, referring to the Patriots’ Week 3 loss to the Ravens. “What are some of the things that caused you some issues in the first game, some of those concepts that can repeat in the next game? You need to be alert and aware for, to make sure you have those handled. Some of the different things that you might see in the game that were some of their strong points, or obviously some weak points that game plan-wise you thought were good or bad that you might want to carry over or not carry over. I think along with this year’s [game], obviously take a look at some of the previous games they’ve played against these guys. There’s a good history of the two teams playing against each other, real competitive game. I think you’re going to try to analyze all that and take a look at it and see what you can come up with that will hopefully help put you in a successful situation for the weekend.”
Sunday’s AFC Championship Game is set for 6:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.