Ever since the Patriots began their run of dominance 20 seasons ago, there’s been a different feeling for every team in the league when it came their turn to play the Patriots. And usually, it turned out poorly.
They’ve won 17 AFC East division titles and haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008, a year when they finished 11-5. Since the start of the 2001 season, their first of six Super Bowl seasons in the era, they’ve won 235 regular season games and lost just 77 — a win percentage of .750.
But the man who took the snaps in 284 of those regular season games is no longer under center for the Patriots, as Tom Brady with the Buccaneers in the offseason to officially end a 20-year reign of dominance unlike any other in NFL history.
For the first time since Jan. 2, 2000, the Ravens won’t have to face No. 12 under center.
“I don’t know how it’s going to feel,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve played against Cam Newton before, obviously. The last time we played against him, he had a very good game against us – we remember that. So, that will be the challenge. He’s an excellent quarterback. A very aware player, very talented, a great arm. (He) can beat you with his legs, as well. So, that’s our challenge this week.”
The Ravens and Patriots, including playoffs, have faced one another 14 times since the Ravens joined the league in 1996. For the first five years of the matchup, the Ravens were shutout of the win column. But since 2010, the rivalry has been much more even.
In the nine games since the playoffs in 2010, the Ravens have won four times, including twice in the playoffs. Five games were decided by a point differential within a score.
But for all the wild memories between the two rivals that appear to have faded with the departures of Brady, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and more, they’ve still got a future Hall of Fame head coach patrolling the sidelines.
“It’s still a Bill Belichick-led team,” defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. “So, you have to respect them and give them the respect they deserve. You have to play hard against them, because they play hard. They’re a well-coached team. They work well together. That team has always been a plug-and-play type of offense. Their defense has always been that way, as well. So, you have to definitely give them their respect. They’re still a good football team, and you still have to go out there and bring your best, because they’re going to bring their best.”
Still, the mood might be a bit different when the 6-2 Ravens, who appear all but a lock to make the playoffs, face a 3-5 Patriots team that barely beat what amounts to a tanking, winless Jets team. The Patriots are on-pace for their second-worst season under Belichick, which would keep them out of the playoffs for just the third time in his tenure.
Typically, Ravens-Patriots matchups in November were sure to feature two teams with playoff - and Super Bowl - aspirations. Now, there appears to be just one team capable of that that will play on Sunday night.
The Ravens don’t have an easy challenge without Brady, however, as Newton provides his own unique challenges.
“He’s a big-body guy who can move, so you have to tackle him like a back,” Wolfe said. “You have to be aware of him at all times. People forget that he won the MVP not too long ago. So, he’s still got it. He’s still a good football player. I have a ton of respect for him. I’ve played against him a bunch. So, we just have to respect what he can do with his legs.”
No matter what he can do with his legs, it’s unfair to expect him to recreate the same magic that Brady had when he faced the Ravens.
Frankly, it’s unfair to assume anyone else even could.