(Reuters) - The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens renew their rivalry on Sunday in an AFC title rematch that will either end the career of Ray Lewis or deny Tom Brady another crack at the Super Bowl record book.
The battle, coming on the heels of a see-saw 23-20 victory last year by New England in a game squandered by Baltimore in the last minute, marks the first AFC championship game rematch in consecutive years since 1988.
While the Patriots have consistently excelled with trips to five of the last 11 Super Bowls, the Ravens have played them evenly in recent years and promise another bruising battle.
“They know what we are bringing, and we know what they bring,” said Lewis, a 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker who plans to retire this year when his 17th NFL season ends.
“We’re playing against a great football team that obviously deserves the right to be here. We know how challenging of a team they are,” said Brady, poised to break a tie with John Elway for most Super Bowl starts with six should the Pats win.
The Patriots, who will host Sunday’s game at 6:30 p.m. ET (2330 GMT) have been virtually unbeatable when they come this close to reaching a Super Bowl, with a 7-1 mark in AFC title games, including a spotless 4-0 record at home.
Baltimore is not intimidated.
Five of the last six meetings between the teams have been decided by six points or less, and they split the last four, with the Ravens winning 31-30 this season and taking a 33-14 road victory in a wild-card game after the 2009 season.
The classic portraits of the teams have subtly changed from a defense-dominated Ravens and a pass-happy Pats.
Baltimore has improved offensively with the maturation of strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco and his crew of dangerous receivers, while the Patriots have developed a running game to complement Brady’s pinpoint passing.
The Ravens have even begun the process of passing the leadership baton from the inspirational Lewis to Flacco, who said the burly linebacker confronted him before last week’s double-overtime victory against the top-seeded Denver Broncos.
“I was getting beat up in the tunnel before the game by him, just taking a bunch of hits, and he was talking to me,” Flacco said about Lewis telling him it was his time to take charge.
“It was pretty cool. Anytime somebody like that comes up to you - a leader like that - a guy that’s had so much success in this league and is so loved by so many people, it’s obviously pretty cool.”
Flacco stepped up in the biggest moment of the divisional game, hurling a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones that tied it with 31 seconds left in regulation.
“Joe Flacco is truly our leader. Not only has he taken the role of our leader, he is leading us down this whole stretch,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice.
“Joe Flacco is playing lights out right now. We are riding with him. Everybody has a job. His job, obviously, is the hardest job on the field as the General.”
Stopping the brainy Brady, a master at reading defenses, is one of Baltimore’s biggest challenges, particularly dealing with the hurry-up offense they like to run that confused the Houston Texans in New England’s routine 41-28 divisional victory.
Brady likened the game of wits to a chess match. Lewis said he would like to make it more of an old-fashioned tussle.
“In a game of that magnitude, you have to be able to look at them and say, ‘Come play football,'” said Lewis.
Brady will be without one of his top weapons in injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, but he still has elusive slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez along with running back Stevan Ridley, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards this season in New England’s top-rated offense.
The Patriots’ versatility extends to their back-up players. Against Houston, third-string running back Shane Vereen was called on due to injury and he responded with three touchdowns.
“We only have so many guys out there, so we’ve got to double up,” said New England coach Bill Belichick. “Something that could happen during the game could thrust somebody else right into the spotlight.”
Brady described the mentality as “the Patriots’ way.”
“Coach always talks about doing your job. You do your job so that everyone around you can do their job,” Brady said.
“It’s just coach puts a lot of pressure on us in practice every day to perform at a high level. When we don‘t, we certainly hear about it.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue