While the fans were still shuffling to their seats on a cold January day in 2010, Ray Rice sprinted 83 yards for a touchdown on the very first play from scrimmage. The New England Patriots didn’t know what hit them, and went on to lose 33-14.
The Baltimore Ravens running back is stocky and powerful, but he is also dangerously quick. In that game three years ago, he made the Patriots look lifeless and flustered.
“We want to start games fast,” Rice said after that encounter. “I wanted to be the guy to start fast, whether it was a 5-yard run or an 83-yard run. I wanted to be the guy to say this will be a fast-tempo game. We want the other team to play catch-up to us.”
This time, with the Super Bowl on the line, they will be hoping to avoid the post-season struggles that have plagued them for so many years. But can they?
For weeks now the Patriots’ defence has been criticised as being the worst in the league. But against the Denver Broncos on Saturday, they stepped up to crush Tim Tebow and his unorthodox option offence.
Before last week, the Patriots had been relying on Tom Brady to save the day – and that’s what he has been doing this season for the most part.
Brady threw six touchdowns passes against the Broncos – five of which came in the first half, as the Patriots romped to their ninth consecutive win. Some of his throws were spectacular, arcing down the sideline for 40 yards and dropping perfectly in his receivers’ hands.
He threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns this season, and he may as well have been wearing his pants on the outside of his leggings and an S on his chest en route to racking up his 13 wins.
But last week his defence stepped up, and it will need to again if the Patriots are going to beat the Ravens and advance to their fifth Super Bowl appearance under Bill Belichick.
The memory of Ray Rice ripping them open two short years ago will still be fresh in their minds. They will be determined to stop the young runner, but focussing on one of Baltimore’s weapons too heavily will just free up quarterback Joe Flacco’s other targets.
Still, the Ravens have had their fair share of troubles too. They beat the Houston Texans last week in less than convincing fashion, and their season has pockmarks in the form of losses to the San Diego Chargers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Joe Flacco, seemingly on the cusp of elite status last season, has not had a very good year, throwing for only 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Mark Sanchez of the Jets threw for more points than that.
Flacco has a comfortable situation in that he has a defence that can keep games close and a running back who can carry the team on his shoulders. Flacco will have to hope his defence can keep this one close too, or risk entering a shootout with Brady and his high-tempo, precision offence.
Sunday will mark a crucial test for Flacco, who has proven he can win in the playoffs, but still has question marks hovering over his head. And it could be the last chance for Ray Lewis to win another Super Bowl ring.
How Lewis and ageless safety Ed Reed fare against Tom Brady’s passing attack will determine the outcome of the game. If the Ravens can’t contain the Patriots tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the floodgates will open.
But if they can disrupt Brady’s rhythm – and they have the players to do it – it could well turn into one of those gritty affairs where every single inch counts, and every bit of your will is tested.
And that plays right into Baltimore’s hands.