OWINGS MILLS — History is intersecting with the Baltimore Ravens’ heavy underdog status tonight against the undefeated, merciless New England Patriots, yet another motivational factor for a football team with little at stake at this point except for pride.
In this high-profile encounter against New England (11-0) at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens (4-7) have an opportunity to spoil the Patriots’ bid for a perfect season, halt a franchise-record five-game losing streak and pull off a significant upset in the opinion of Las Vegas oddsmakers.
In the dozen years of the Ravens’ existence, they have never been in this position before: expected to lose by 20 points or more on most betting lines.
Plus, this is the largest point spread against an NFL home team since 1987 in the midst of replacement games during the players’ strike when the San Francisco 49ers were favored over the Atlanta Falcons by 23 points. In league history, only one team has won after being predicted to lose by 20 points or more and that was in 1974 when the San Diego Chargers pulled off a 20-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Reaction to the point spread has run the gamut in the Ravens’ locker room from being personally offended, to understanding the mathematics and trends that go into devising the line and being downright amused.
Count wide receiver Derrick Mason among the angry.
"To hell with it," Mason said. "It doesn’t matter to me. We could have been 100-point underdogs. I know a lot of people figure we should just pack it up and not go out there and play. But we’re a football team just like they’re a football team. I feel that if we go out there and do what we need to do and don’t turn the ball over, then we have a good shot at winning this game.
"I’m not saying it just to be saying it. I believe in what we’re doing as an offense and as a defense and special-teams unit. So, let’s be a 20-point underdog. We’ve just got to go out there and allow our play to dictate the way the game goes. To hell with the 20 points."
The primary reason why the Patriots are favored by so much is how they have gleefully dismantled the competition by an average margin of victory of 23.3 points.
Their powerhouse offense averages 40.2 points and 434.4 yards per contest. Baltimore is averaging 16.5 points and allowing 22.0 points per contest.
"How many points are they averaging?" linebacker Bart Scott asked rhetorically. "How many points are we averaging? That’s simple math to me."
Meanwhile, Baltimore has allowed 30 points in each of the past two games and fell 38-7 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Monday night game last month.
And New England was stung by having to make up a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to escape with a 31-28 win over the Philadelphia Eagles last week. The Patriots were favored to win that game by 24 points, but didn’t come close to covering the spread.
"All people are talking about is the truth," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "They haven’t lost a game and we’ve already lost seven. Why wouldn’t they be favored by a lot? That doesn’t bother me. You still have to play the game.
"Rightfully so, everyone’s not giving us a chance because of our record and the Patriots are probably the best team the NFL has seen in a while. So, we take it as a challenge and we know we have to play a perfect game."
Only six other NFL teams in the past three decades have been 20-point underdogs. Baltimore is the fourth-biggest underdog since 1992.
Does that motivate the Ravens?
"Motivate to make a bet? Or to play the game?" Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I’m not a bettor. I don’t know how all that works. Is it a Ouija board or some monkey pointing at a board with a dart? Is it something like that?"
New England has been demolishing the competition, including: a 48-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys, a 52-7 win over the Washington Redskins, a 56-10 win over the Buffalo Bills where Randy Moss caught four touchdown passes.
The Patriots’ most satisfying victory was undoubtedly a 24-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
"This is as good a team as I’ve seen in this league in a long, long time," Billick said. "They’re as advertised."
The Patriots are threatening the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ unmatched perfect season.
Hall of Fame former Dolphins coach Don Shula will be in attendance tonight to get a glimpse of the juggernaut that’s chasing what his team accomplished 35 years ago.
"We would like to be the first one to end that streak," running back Willis McGahee said.
All but officially eliminated from playoff contention, last year’s AFC North champions would like to be remembered for beating the Patriots, a feat few believe is possible.
"This is our Super Bowl," said Rolle, who has battled epileptic seizures all season. "If I wasn’t going to play any other game this year, I told them after the second seizure, I was going to play this week."
NOT SCARED: Hard-hitting Patriots safety Rodney Harrison carries a reputation as an enforcer as one of the most heavily fined defenders in league history.
His intimidation tactics apparently don’t bother Mason, who could be put in harm’s way if quarterback Kyle Boller hangs his passes up in the air too long.
"I don’t worry about it," Mason said. "The guy is a very, very good player. I’ve played against him six or seven times and I’ve never been intimidated going across the middle. Am I intimidated by him? No. Is he a very good player? Yes.
"You just got to be aware of what’s going on. I’ve got enough faith and the other receivers have got enough faith in Kyle that he’s going to put the ball on us so we’re able to make a move and not take that vicious hit."
BALL-CONTROL: With 910 rushing yards to rank third in the NFL, running back Willis McGahee is on pace or a career-high 1,324 yards. He has scored a touchdown in each of the past six games.
"I’m going to try to make some noise," McGahee said. "I want to be the spark to get us going."
McGahee could play a pivotal role for the defense if his ability play ball-control keeps Brady and Co. off the field.
"When they get a good rest, they go out there and perform to their abilities," he said. "When we keep them on the field, it tends to get weakened. It doesnâ€™t break, but it gets weak."
HONORING TAYLOR: The Ravens plan to wear No. 21 patches on their helmets to honor the memory of slain Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor.
"I left that up to them," Billick said.
QUICK HITS: With 442 points scored for a 40.2 average per game, the undefeated Patriots could break the 1998 Minnesota Vikings’ NFL single-season scoring record of 556 points. Billick was the Vikings’ offensive coordinator that year prior to landing the Baltimore job. "I think we had a tremendous broad base of talent in that ’98 Vikings team," Billick said. "Randall Cunningham did a very good job. This team is very well-structured. Tom Brady, taking nothing away from Randall, he had a magnificent year, but you’d have to show me the film of a quarterback that played better in a given year than Tom Brady is playing right now." … Linebacker Bart Scott said he was in a bad mood Thursday and wasn’t doing an imitation of Belichick wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He’s trying to avoid being in an even worse mood following the game.. When asked if he viewed Monday night as the Ravens’ Super Bowl, Scott responded: "If I was getting a ring, I would approach it like that. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to get a win and not feel crappy Monday or Tuesday morning."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.