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Ravens embrace underdog role in AFC title game

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Ravens embrace underdog role in AFC title game

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The Ravens have another opportunity to embrace the underdog role, this time in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.

Playing at home - where they've won seven of nine this season - the Patriots have been installed as 9 1/2-point favorites Sunday to beat Baltimore and advance to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens have already defeated New England this season and are coming off a stunning upset on the road against top-seeded Denver. Yet, it appears they're still not getting any respect.

And the Ravens are just fine with it.

``It's just what everyone else thinks,'' defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said Monday. ``In here, on our team, we believe in ourselves. Whatever anyone else thinks, that their thoughts. We'll just have to go back out there and prove people wrong again.''

After eliminating the Broncos 38-35 in double-overtime Saturday, the Ravens (12-6) watched New England (13-4) defeat Houston on Sunday. Baltimore might have had an easier time against the Texans, but many of the Ravens longed for a rematch of last year's AFC title game, won by the Patriots 23-20.

``I think we personally kind of wanted to play the Patriots again,'' Ngata said. ``If we go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough.''

The Ravens were also 9 1/2-point underdogs against Denver, which came in with an 11-game winning streak and as the odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Yet, Baltimore is still in the hunt and the Broncos are done for the season.

``It will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history,'' linebacker Ray Lewis declared afterward. ``It's partly because of the way everything was stacked up against us coming in. ... For us to come in here and win, 9- to 10-point underdogs, that's the beautiful part about sports. That's the thing that, if I'll probably miss anything about my career, it will be to listen to what people say you can't do, and then to go do it.''

The 37-year-old Lewis, who has been with the Ravens since their first game in 1996, plans to retire of Baltimore's current playoff run. If the Ravens go all the way, he will no doubt recall they were underdogs this season from September through the first weekend in February.

It always seems to be that way for Baltimore, at least in Lewis' mind.

``My Super Bowl year in 2000, we were never picked one time the entire season to win a game. Not one time,'' Lewis recalled. ``But at the end of the day, we held the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs. That alone taught me a valuable lesson - that no one outside dictates how we play on the inside.''

OK, so the Ravens weren't underdogs in every game and were 3-point favorites over New York in the Super Bowl. But, with the aid of some revisionist history, Lewis made a valid point.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith echoed that sentiment Monday after someone asked him if he reads media reports before the game.

``They are irrelevant,'' he said. ``None of you all thought we were going to be right here this week anyway.''

For one year now, the Ravens have been striving to be in this position - back in the AFC title game. Ever since Lee Evans had the potential game-winning catch poked from his grasp and Billy Cundiff followed by hooking a 32-yard field goal attempt, Baltimore has been eager for another chance to play for a shot at a Super Bowl berth.

``The feeling we had in the locker room, I think we all wanted to get back to the AFC championship,'' Ngata said. ``Hopefully we can get it done this time.''

Underdogs or not, the Ravens are playing the Patriots for the conference crown. Again.

``It's been a long road getting back to this point, and the way we left it last year didn't sit well with us,'' tight end Dennis Pitta said. ``So we're excited to be in this position against and give it another shot.''

Because the Patriots and Ravens are usually among the top teams in the AFC, they have met quite often in recent years. Baltimore's 31-30 win in September was the fifth matchup between the teams since the start of the 2009 season. New England is 3-2, including 1-1 in the playoffs.

``It's definitely grown into quite a rivalry, we would like to say. I don't know how they feel about that,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. ``But we have tremendous respect for the New England Patriots. ... They just have a tremendous staff, tremendous players, tremendous tradition. It's always a huge challenge for us, but it's one we're excited about and look forward to.''

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Injured guard Lewis makes surprise return to practice

Injured guard Lewis makes surprise return to practice

Ravens offensive guard Alex Lewis returned to practice on Friday, almost a month to the day after he suffered a right ankle injury against the Cleveland Browns.

Lewis’ recovery is ahead of schedule, considering coach John Harbaugh initially estimated the high ankle sprain to be a six-week injury. Even as recently as Monday, Harbaugh said Lewis was “a good ways away” from returning.

“He’s done a great job” on his rehabilitation, Harbaugh said after Friday’s workout, adding that Lewis has been at it “practically 24/7. …  To see him back out there today is a real plus. Credit to him.”

Lewis was carted off the field when the injury occurred, leading some to speculate his promising rookie season could be over.

“We’ve been in there working, trying to get treatment, trying to back out there as quick as I can,” Lewis said on Friday. “I want to be part of the fun. I want to get out there and win some games with the fellas.”

Lewis is unlikely to suit up Monday night at New England, and his role after that remains unclear; Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda has taken Lewis’ spot at left guard, in large part because it allows Yanda to play through an injured shoulder.

Lewis was the Ravens starting left guard when the season began, and then started three games at left tackle while Ronnie Stanley was injured. The Ravens went through a stretch where they started a different offensive line in eight straight games, but have now found some consistency with an offensive line group that has not included Lewis.

Yanda is likely to stay at left guard, and veteran Vladimir Ducasse has filled Yanda’s spot at right guard.

Presumably Lewis would be an option to play on the right side, although he said he not played right guard since high school.

“If that’s my calling card, then I’ll do it,” he said.

Harbaugh said given the injuries the Ravens have had up front this year, having a surplus of healthy linemen would be a nice problem to have.

“(Lewis) being added to the mix is going to be a plus,” he said. “We’ll just have to see how it goes as we go forward.”

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Ravens coordinator Dean Pees knows defense and Patriots very well

Ravens coordinator Dean Pees knows defense and Patriots very well

OWINGS MILLS – After spending six seasons (2004-09) on Bill Belichick’s staff, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees admits facing the Patriots is a little personal.

“It’s kind of like playing against your brother in golf,” said Pees, as the Ravens prepared to visit the Patriots on Monday Night Football. “Sometimes you want to beat your friend and your family more than you want to beat somebody you don’t know.”

Pees knows Belichick and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady very well. Does that knowledge give the Ravens an edge in matchups against the Patriots?

“None, zero,” Pees said. “Their playbook is so big and massive on offense. They just have a lot of stuff, and they utilize it to the best of their ability. That’s what I know about them. The only advantage I have is just knowing that they have a lot of stuff, and they can do a lot of things. That’s the advantage I have, if that’s an advantage.”

However, Pees’ ability as a coordinator should not be overlooked. The Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, yielding just 296.1 yards per game. Ravens players trust that the 67-year-old Pees will put them in the best positions to make plays.

“He’s been coaching longer than my oldest brothers have been alive,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s a play he hasn’t seen, or a formation. The thing I’ve always admired about coach Pees is he covers everything. Even the things that you’re like, ‘What if?’ He’s already thought about that what if.”

Pees hopes he can devise a game plan that will thwart Brady on Monday. The Patriots (10-2) won’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski (season-ending back surgery), and they may not have wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle), yet Pees expects a difficult challenge.

“There’s nobody that does a better job with personnel than the Patriots,” Pees said. “They’ll be ready.”

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