On Sunday, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens each will play in their third AFC Championship game over the past six years, the Patriots winning both and the Ravens losing both, including last year's 23-20 heartbreaker in Foxboro. It's also the third time the teams have met in the playoffs in the past four years.
No meeting looks more evenly matched, which is the first rematch in a conference championship since the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers met three years in a row (1992-94).
It could be the final game of the great career for Ray Lewis, and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed is not far behind him for retirement. Thus, the Ravens have a smaller window of opportunity, but they are the secondary story.
If the New England Patriots fall at home or fail to win the Super Bowl this year, it will continue the greatest run of playoff disappointment in NFL history.
Patriots must validate their record success
While coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady won three Super Bowls together from 2001-2004, that was an eternity ago. The only other current Patriots to have won a Super Bowl with the team are Deion Branch (backup receiver) and Vince Wilfork (as a rookie in 2004).
New England's regular-season success has only increased, but no more championships have come. The Patriots did come excruciatingly close three times, losing two Super Bowls on last-minute touchdown drives by the New York Giants and blowing the largest lead ever in a championship game (18 points), losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
Though they were still ahead of the curve offensively in those days, in 2007 the Patriots changed the dynamic of their team by adding receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, the latter defining the role of the slot receiver. There was little comparison with their championship teams, which were built on strong defenses.
New England's 2007 offense became the first to use the shotgun on more than 50 percent of their plays, utilizing elements of the spread offense Belichick picked up on from college coach Urban Meyer.
The results were stunning as the 2007 Patriots scored a record 589 points. Brady threw a record 50 touchdown passes with Moss catching 23 of them. When the team started 10-0, it was outscoring opponents by 25.4 points per game, looking like arguably the most dominant team in history.
But the grind of a march to the perfect season took its toll. The Patriots fell behind by 12 points to the New York Giants in Week 17, but came back to win to clinch the only 16-0 regular season ever. However, the game built confidence in the Giants, who took down the Patriots (12.5-point favorites) in Super Bowl XLII, holding the most prolific offense ever to just 14 points. Brady, who scoffed at Giants' receiver Plaxico Burress' prediction of New England scoring 17 points, was sacked five times after enjoying pristine pass protection all season.
It still took the greatest drive in NFL history, engineered by Eli Manning, to get the 17-14 win, but the Giants pulled off the upset, leaving the Patriots with a hollow 18-1 finish.
Brady tore his ACL in the first quarter of the first game in 2008, but the Patriots still managed to finish 11-5 behind Matt Cassel. However, they became just the second 11-5 team ever (1985 Denver Broncos) to not qualify for the playoffs.
Returning to start the 2009 season, Brady led the Patriots to a thrilling comeback win over Buffalo in Week 1, but that would be Brady's only game-winning drive of the season. The 2009 team struggled to close games out, which was the hallmark of New England's earlier success in the decade.
From that point the Patriots finished just 4-4, lost Welker to injury in Week 17, and hosted the Ravens in the Wild Card round. Ray Rice started the game with an 83-yard touchdown run, and Brady turned the ball over three times in the first quarter. Baltimore led 24-0 at that point, and went on to win 33-14. The Ravens lost in New England by a 27-21 final in Week 4.
In 2010 the Patriots again started to evolve their offense after drafting tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, turning the ball over just one time (+23 in turnover differential), and averaging 37.4 points per game (at least 31 points in every game). No performance was more impressive than a 45-3 rout of the Jets in Week 13.
The 2010 Patriots scored 518 points. Brady won his second MVP award, becoming the first unanimous selection ever. He threw 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions, going a record 335 pass attempts without an interception.
This was the scariest team entering the playoffs in recent years. Having clinched the league's best record (14-2), the Patriots had already beaten the Steelers (39-26), Jets (45-3), Bears (36-7) and Packers (31-27). Those four teams ended up being the final four in 2010, as the Patriots fell flat on their face at home in the Divisional round against the Jets.
Brady threw an interception on his first possession, snapping his streak. Mark Sanchez confidently guided the Jets to an upset win, while the scoring juggernaut managed 11 points in the game's first 58 minutes against Rex Ryan's defense. Two late scores were too little too late as the Jets won 28-21.
From 2006-2011, Brady set a NFL record with 31 consecutive wins at home in the regular season. But hidden in the streak were these two home playoff losses.
In 2011 the Patriots again reshaped their offense, fully utilizing Gronkowski and Hernandez, now in their second season, to the tune of 169 receptions for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gronkowski had the greatest receiving season ever by a tight end with 18 total touchdowns.
Brady passed for 5,235 yards (second most in NFL history), and the Patriots scored 513 points in the season. But they once again could not solve Tom Coughlin's Giants, losing in both the regular season and Super Bowl, scoring 17 points this time in a 21-17 loss.
Here the Patriots are again in 2012, scoring 557 points in the regular season, which is the third-highest total in NFL history. One of their latest offensive advancements is the use of one-word play-calls to run a no-huddle offense so fast the defense cannot even get set (here's looking at you, Houston). It was another stellar regular season, and now they sit two wins away from that elusive ring.
But we have seen this before. In the end, a team the Patriots played in the regular season has come back to beat them, which is what has happened all six times in the playoffs since 2005. It could be Baltimore, who already beat the Patriots 31-30 in Week 3 (in Baltimore), or it could be the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, who also beat the Patriots this year.
Almost all of the players on the Patriots do not know what it is like to win a Super Bowl, but the shadow Belichick and Brady carry over the team meshes their past title success together with the regular-season records since 2007.
These two eras are mutually exclusive, and the failure to win a championship in this offense-driven era should reflect more poorly on the team, Belichick and Brady than it has so far.
The Patriots are 76-20 (.792) in the regular season since 2007, which is one of the best six-year runs ever. It is also the best run to not produce a championship.
Despite all the offensive records, the Patriots have not sealed the deal since that last Super Bowl win nearly eight years ago. New England has already had three of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history and only managed to score 14, 21 and 17 points in a season-ending loss for which it was the favorite each time.
As a 9-point favorite over Baltimore, the Patriots obviously cannot win the Super Bowl this Sunday, but they can lose another shot at one after yet another historic regular season.
The opportunities are running out for Brady and Belichick. While those two can rest on their laurels, history will not treat the Patriots as kindly without a championship to validate this era's success.
Ravens seek breakthrough win and perfect ending for Lewis
No one should be sleeping on the Ravens. The return of leader Ray Lewis has lifted the team, as they hope to create that storybook ending with a walk-off Super Bowl victory, enjoyed in past years by John Elway (1998) and Jerome Bettis (2005).
The Ravens are in the AFC Championship game for the third time since 2008, the start of the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. Once again they are on the road, having lost 23-14 in Pittsburgh (2008) after Flacco threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu.
(The first time was when the Buffalo Bills' Scott Norwood missed the game-winner in Super Bowl XXV, lifting then-New York Giants defensive coordinator Belichick with the win.
Harbaugh came from Philadelphia, where he was the special teams coordinator during the Eagles' streak of three straight losses in the NFC Championship (2001-2003). His team has enough big-game experience to get over the hump, but it is always a tough task to win in Foxboro.
Baltimore is 2-4 against New England since 2007, but every loss was a nail-biter that went down to the wire. These teams know each other well, and the Ravens can point to a few positive signs after going through a so-so regular season.
The Ravens already have beaten the Patriots this year, and the 503 yards of offense they piled up that night are the most New England has allowed this season. The Patriots have improved on defense since Week 3, but so has Baltimore.
The postseason has been the only time this year the Ravens have had their big four on defense intact. That's Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. While they have faced 174 offensive snaps the last two weeks, this defense is back to making plays and limiting points. They will also get some help from the fact that Rob Gronkowski is out for the Patriots.
If winning a Super Bowl these days is more about peaking at the right time, having to overcome adversity, then the Ravens fit the bill. They have the rallying cry to win one for Lewis, Flacco is thriving with big pass plays after the team replaced offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and after the Giants, no team has given the Patriots more problems than the Ravens.
New England's not the only consistent winner in this game that lacks a recent championship. The Ravens are just the sixth team to ever win a playoff game in five consecutive seasons, but they are the only team to not reach at least one Super Bowl. Only the 2000-04 Eagles failed to win a Super Bowl, while the other four teams all came through at least once.
With legacies on the line, and windows closing on some of the game's greats, this should be a classic AFC Championship.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.