BALTIMORE — Using the precise timing and anticipation that has enabled him to become a record-setting NFL safety, Ed Reed had his answer before the question was completed.
Knowing Sunday night’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots is being touted as a rematch of last January’s AFC title game, Reed knocked down the premise as if it was a soft fourth-down pass over the middle.
“The AFC championship really doesn’t have anything to do with this game, because that was last year and we’ve got a couple different guys in this locker room,” Reed said. “We feel totally different about this year than last year. This is a totally different situation. Last year’s game was win or go home. This is not a playoff situation. It may have implications down the road, but who knows what that will be?”
If the Patriots (1-1) and Ravens (1-1) meet on Jan. 20, 2013, with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance, that confrontation will truly be considered a rematch. This game, however, is really about two very good teams that don’t want to dip below .500.
“I don’t think the last game we played against them has anything to do with this game,” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We’re both coming off a loss last week and want to get back on track. It should be a good game, like it always is.”
The last meeting between the teams was a classic. New England won at home, 23-20, but not before Baltimore’s Lee Evans had the potential winning touchdown pass knocked from his hands in the end zone and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal try in the closing seconds.
Evans and Cundiff are no longer with the Ravens and standout linebacker Terrell Suggs is out indefinitely with a torn right Achilles tendon, backing Reed’s assessment that this team is not the same.
Thus, Baltimore sees no point in looking back at the painful conclusion to the 2011 season.
“You don’t hold onto nothing,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Win, lose or draw, you let it go and you move on. This year, we have a totally different makeup as a team. We have a totally different outlook on what we’re trying to do as a team. So, we are looking at this game as a totally different game.”
This isn’t the same Patriots team, either. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran for 68 yards and a touchdown in the AFC title game, is now toting the ball for Cincinnati. New England’s defense has also gotten significant contributions from first-round picks Chandler Jones and Don’t'a Hightower.
The one constant in the duel between the Ravens and Patriots is New England quarterback Tom Brady matching wits with Reed and Lewis.
“Since I’ve been in the league, I think Ed has really defined the weak safety position in the National Football League,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think anybody has done it any better than he has in all phases. He has great hands, range, ball skills, cover ability, anticipation. He quarterbacks the defense in the secondary. He is a huge playmaker. He is a tremendous player, a sure Hall of Fame player — he and Lewis both. Those guys have anchored that defense for a long time, and a very good defense.”
When Brady comes to the line of scrimmage, the first he does is look for Reed, who owns the NFL record for yardage on interception returns.
“He’s pretty much ingrained permanently in my mind,” Brady said. “He’s such a playmaker for them, and he shows up in a lot of different spots.”
Although the Ravens and Patriots have long been contenders in the AFC, this rivalry belongs to New England. The Patriots lead the series 7-1, the lone flaw on their ledger a 33-14 embarrassment at home in the 2010 wild-card game. Only twice before have the teams played in Baltimore; the last time was in December 2007, when New England escaped with a 27-24 victory over Brian Billick and the Ravens to keep alive its quest for a perfect season.
The Ravens have an 11-game winning streak at home under coach John Harbaugh and have won 13 straight following a defeat. But New England, which is coming off a 20-18 loss to Arizona, presents a huge challenge in Baltimore’s quest to rebound from last week’s 24-23 setback in Philadelphia.
“We were 1-1 at this time last year, then we came back,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “It’s very important to try to keep your level afloat, above .500, and we always want to take care of our home. You win all your home games, and you split on the road, you find yourself sitting great at the end of the year.”