BALTIMORE — Ray Rice was watching every moment Saturday night when the New England Patriots obliterated the Denver Broncos.
He saw how superstar quarterback Tom Brady carved up the Broncos’ secondary for six touchdown passes to tie an NFL playoff record, breaking another one with five scoring tosses in the first half of a 45-10 romp.
Watching the game intently on his hotel television the night before the Ravens’ 20-13 victory Sunday over the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium, Rice witnessed how the Patriots ended the dream season of quarterback Tim Tebow.
“Denver was the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL, and you saw what they did to them,” Rice said. “It’s not a surprise that these guys know how to win playoff games. They’ll be ready and obviously, how can you not think about the Patriots and know what Tom Brady is doing over there. They’re a well-respected opponent, and I’m sure they are over there saying the same things about us.”
Now, the Ravens (13-4) advance to the AFC championship game for the third time in franchise history where they’ll square off with the Patriots (14-3) next Sunday at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have a prolific offense headlined by Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker.
“We know we have a big test next week,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Tom is playing excellent up there. What they did to the Broncos, I think they sent a strong message to whoever was coming up there. So, we’ve got our hands full, and we’ve got to go up and get ready to play in the AFC championship.”
The Ravens mustered only 227 yards of total offense against the Texans, allowing five sacks.
They struggled in short-yardage situations and Rice was limited to an uncharacteristic 60 rushing yards.
They didn’t score a point for nearly 45 minutes after building a 17-3 lead in the first quarter.
And now here comes Brady and the Patriots.
“They’re a big, tough road block that throws a lot of touchdowns passes,” strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “Brady is a great player. We all understand what he’s been doing. Dude isn’t scared to take shots. You look at him throwing the ball all over the field. He’s got weapons. We’ve got to be sound and ready to play.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that his team might need some improvement on offense to compete with the Patriots.
“I think you have to do whatever you have to do to win a football game,” Harbaugh said. “I would anticipate against the team we’re about to play you have to do a better job offensively in terms of numbers and stats and points of course than we did.
“That’s what the humility is all about. We’re not looking behind us. We’re not looking to either side. We’re just looking forward to the next challenge, and that’s the one we’ll be going after.”
The Ravens advanced to the AFC title game three years ago during Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco’s first season in Baltimore.
The Ravens haven’t won a Super Bowl or made it to the game since winning the Vince Lombardi trophy following the 2000 season.
Lewis, 36, is the lone remaining player on the roster from that championship squad.
“It’s always time to go ahead and win one,” Harbaugh said. “That goes for this game and every game, championship game, opener. It’s time to go ahead and win.”
The top-seeded Patriots lost to the second-seeded Ravens two years ago in the playoffs, falling 33-14 at home.
With Flacco nursing a badly bruised hip and leg, he attempted only 10 passes and completed four for 34 yards and one interception.
Rice carried the Ravens that day, rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns that included an 83-yard jaunt on the first play from scrimmage.
“We’ve gone out there and played before,” Flacco said. “We have won in New England. They are one of the teams, just like us, that’s tough to beat at home. They play very well up there, but we know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we’re going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our ‘A’ game up there.”
Especially against Brady.
The former NFL and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns this season with only 12 interceptions for a 105.6 quarterback rating.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “When it’s all said and done it’s going to be Johnny [Unitas], him and Peyton [Manning], end of discussion. We’re playing against a phenomenal player, we’re playing against a phenomenal team. You can’t make that many mistakes or else they’re going to expose you.”
Welker caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season.
And Gronkowski flourished with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“They have real good tight ends, but they’ve also got real good receivers out there,” Reed said. “You got to know who’s on the football field at all times, but you’ve got to cover your guy. Brady doesn’t have a favorite target. You’ve got to cover everybody, and they understand football so much the way they will scheme things. They’re going to go back to the years past and understand what we do as a defense and how to try to defeat it.”
The Patriots’ Achilles heel is their vulnerable defense.
They finished 31st in the league in total defense.
Rice emphasized that the Patriots will have to play an excellent game in order to stop the Ravens.
“They have to play their best game, too,” Rice said. “If they don’t play their best game, they’ll get beat. If we don’t play our best game, we’ll get beat. And that’s not taking anything away from them. There’s a reason why one and two are playing each other. It’s not David and Goliath. We are right up there with them.”
The Patriots hadn’t won a playoff game in three seasons until they ended the Broncos’ season Saturday night.
Now, the Ravens want to avoid becoming the Patriots’ next victim so they can fulfill their own Super Bowl dreams.
“They’re the Patriots,” center Matt Birk said. “They’re like the New York Yankees, great team, been great for a long time. The road to the ultimate goal for any team is very hard, very difficult and you have to meet all the challenges.”