The temperature drops, friendly fans roar and the Patriots pile up victories.
New England has the best home record in the NFL in Bill Belichick’s 15 seasons as coach, playoffs included.
Watch out, though. Here come the road-tested Baltimore Ravens for a divisional game today.
“There’s nothing that the crowd can do to help you make the plays that you’re supposed to make,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
The Ravens aren’t likely to get rattled even against the AFC’s top-seeded team. Not with cool Joe Flacco at quarterback and a 2-1 playoff record at Gillette Stadium in the past five seasons.
Baltimore has 10 postseason road wins, all since 2008 and tied with Green Bay for most in NFL history.
Why so many?
“Well, shoot, we can’t get ourselves any home (games), I guess,” Flacco said. “We’ve obviously had a lot of chances at (road games), a lot of experience with it, and reacted well in it.”
The Ravens won three road playoff games and the Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Last Saturday they won a wild-card game 30-17 in Pittsburgh while the Patriots had a bye.
“We could be going to play on Mars and I’d still be very confident,” Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
Since Belichick became coach in 2000, the Patriots are 1-2 in the playoffs against the Ravens and 11-1 against all other teams.
New England lost AFC championship games to Baltimore in the 2009 and 2012 seasons and beat them in the 2011 season before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
Both the Patriots (12-4) and sixth-seeded Ravens (11-6) insist that’s irrelevant now with players and assistant coaches who weren’t in those earlier games.
“That’s all overblown,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s how well you play the game in that three-hour block against the opponent.”
Despite the personnel changes, the teams know each other very well.
“It seems like the Baltimore Ravens are a division opponent, we play them so much,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said.
The last time they met, the Patriots won 41-7 late last season. But that was in Baltimore.
On Saturday, the Ravens will be in a stadium where their only playoff loss was by three points.
“We’ve had a good football team around here,” Flacco said, “and guys that are strong and not intimidated.”
Some things to watch as the Patriots seek their fourth straight AFC championship berth:
Playoff time is Flacco’s time to shine. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions during the Ravens’ current five-game postseason winning streak. In the wild-card win over Pittsburgh, he threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
“Big-time players show up when you need them most,” Smith said.
He and Flacco’s main target, Steve Smith, will have stiff challenges in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, both in their first season with New England.
The Ravens were tied for second in the NFL with 49 sacks, led by 17 from Elvis Dumervil and 12 from Terrell Suggs. The Patriots offensive line has improved after early-season problems, but Brady may have to throw quickly to avoid being sacked.
“I don’t think you want to stand back there and see how long you can hold the ball against these guys,” he said.
Rob Gronkowski has been healthy and dominant all season after a knee injury kept him out of the last five games last season, including a playoff loss to Denver.
“It’s always special just being in the playoffs,” he said. “I can’t take it for granted.”
Gronkowski had 82 catches, led all tight ends with 1,124 yards receiving and tied Antonio Gates for most touchdowns at that position with 12.
“He’s big. He’s fast. He’s tough. He’s nasty,” Harbaugh said. “He gets the ball in his hands and he wants to punish people.”
Journeyman running back Justin Forsett turned into a cornerstone of the Ravens’ offense after Ray Rice was released and suspended. Forsett was fifth in the NFL with a career-high 1,266 yards rushing and led the league’s running backs with 5.4 yards per carry.
“He reads blocking schemes very well, sets up blocks well, has got good vision and he makes a lot of yards on his own,” Belichick said.