The Ray Lewis Farewell Show rolls into the Boston suburbs this weekend, and most are assured that this will be the final leg of the legendary linebacker's retirement tour. Only trouble is, they've been saying the same thing for weeks.
But under Lewis' impassioned leadership, the Baltimore Ravens have confounded the critics and fought back from a distinctly lacklustre second half to the regular season, scraping into play-off country where they have finally found their feet. Last week's win in the divisional round against the much-fancied Denver Broncos proved that anything is possible, as the Ravens rode both their luck and the hot hand of Joe Flacco for a thrilling triumph in overtime.
Their dubious reward is Sunday night's AFC Championship showdown with the New England Patriots, a team they are encountering for the third time this term. The Ravens also lost last year's championship game to the Pats - and really should've won but for some costly errors in the closing minutes - but they have at least beaten them once in a troika of tries and will be emboldened after scaling new offensive peaks in the Mile High City.
As much as Lewis has provided the emotional beat at the heart of their endeavour, Joe Flacco is the man who has really stepped up with some cool plays under extreme pressure. The temptation with the erratic Flacco is to never expect the same performance twice. However, his record in the postseason, especially on the road, is exceptional. He has amassed a 7-4 career playoff record, while five away victories in five years puts him ahead of elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and even this week's opponent, Tom Brady.
Flacco's recent head-to-head with Brady also compares favourably over their past three meetings, where the Baltimore QB has passed for five more touchdowns and 107 more yards than his celebrated counterpart. Even Lewis is more than a motivational mascot, producing a league-leading 30 tackles already in the play-offs and taking the line for all 188 snaps in the play-offs. It's a herculean effort.
Even Hercules' boundless energy and strength was not limitless, though. And the main fear for Ravens supporters is that this level of performance from their playmakers will eventually drop off. The most powerful waves crash to nothing and Baltimore's exciting surge must have peaked now. Not only did last week's relentless, ding-dong match go deep into extra time, but before that they also endured another 90-snap-sapping contest against the Colts of Indianapolis.
The Patriots, on the other hand, look comparatively fresh and are once again peaking at the right time. True, they have lost tight end target, Rob Gronkowski, with a broken forearm. Yet they've been without "The Gronk" for most of the season and have learned to adjust. In any case, it's not as if the Patriots have ever lacked for offensive options in the Brady-Bill Belichick era. And Wes Welker (receiving team-leader with 118 catches), Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd will back themselves to repeatedly punch through an increasingly porous Purple Wall with a sluggish secondary.
New England's own D has been a leaky bucket as well this term. Still, true to form, coach Belichick has found a way to plug the holes in recent weeks. His 29th-ranked pass defense have now conceded fewer than 20 points in five of their last seven games and will draw further solace from Flacco's propensity to seek out deep strikes downfield. This tendency may have served him well lately, but it is likely Flacco's only recourse to keep tabs on Brady in what could amount to a shootout. And when a team relies on a one-dimensional get-out strategy, Belichick invariably takes it apart with sacks and picks.
In short, in his seventh conference title match-up, Brady has been there and got the T-shirt. He's also got three Super Bowl rings, one shy of his hero, Joe Montana, so Hall of Fame incentives abound. If the Patriots can effectively bring the blitz against a banged-up Baltimore, there could be a chasm between these two teams at the final hooter.
In terms of collective physicality and dynamism, the Patriots have a full tank while the Baltimore needle is in the red. Don't let your heart rule your head and go with the Patriots to win by a street, mixing dependable ground gains with some fast strikes and Brady's typically ruthless conversion rate (4,827 yards passing for 34 TDs and just eight interceptions is not to be sniffed at).
This will be Lewis' last game. And the Foxborough faithful won't be shedding one tear.
Back New England Patriots (-8.5 points) on the Match Handicap @ 1.824/5 or better
Back New England Patriots (-5.5 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ 1.824/5 or better
Back Under 51.5 Total Points @ 1.9720/21 or better
Back New England Touchdown to be First Scoring Play @ 2.56/4 or better
Back W Welker to be First/Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ 9.08/1 or better