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Not many outside of Baltimore expect (or want) Ravens to beat Patriots

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Baltimore is known as "Charm City," but its football team hasn't charmed many fans across the United States. In fact, I saw something on a network website this week that identified the ideal Super Bowl matchups as New England vs. San Francisco and New England vs. the Giants.

There was no mention of Baltimore, and now I know why.

"The sexier story is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick," said former Washington GM Vinny Cerrato, now a radio talk-show host in Baltimore.

That's one way of putting it. Another is this: Most of NFL Nation really doesn't like or care for the Baltimore Ravens. It doesn't believe they can beat New England this weekend, and, deep down inside, it hopes they don't.

I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. Or, at least, that's just the way it seems.

"And I can tell you why in two words," said a friend of mine in San Diego. "Ray Lewis. People are tired of him. They're tired of his dance, and they're tired of his story. People just don't like him."

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Maybe, but then they're missing out on something bigger, and that something is a decent football team. I understand why people enjoy watching Brady. I enjoy watching him, too. He's the best quarterback in the game and the most successful. I also understand why they would like to see a rematch of Super Bowl XLII with the Giants and Patriots. I mean, if you can replay one of the most memorable games in Super Bowl history, why not? I even understand wanting to see San Francisco and coach Jim Harbaugh, just because their stories are fresh.

But why not Baltimore?

The Ravens have one of the league's premier running backs in Ray Rice. They have one of the league's top defenses. They have future Hall of Famers in Lewis and safety Ed Reed. And they have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Terrell Suggs. Heck, they even have a Harbaugh of their own, Jim's older brother John, who has taken the team to the playoffs in each of his four seasons with Baltimore and is one of the game's most likeable individuals.

But there's something more. If Baltimore were to win Sunday, fans there would have an opportunity to do something they've been waiting on for decades ... and that's to parade through the streets of Indianapolis, the city that stole their Colts.

OK, so that's overdramatic, but, trust me, that's how Baltimore feels. I know because I not only lived in Baltimore in 1984 when the Colts left town; I had been covering the team.

"There's a lot of angst here," said Nestor Aparicio, CEO/owner of wnst.net.

I get it. What I don't get is why there's not a lot of love everywhere else. I've seen the Ravens this season, and there's a reason they're 13-4. They're a good, solid, physical team that can beat you on both sides of the ball. They beat Pittsburgh twice. They beat Cincinnati twice. And Houston. And San Francisco. Put them together, and what do you have? I'll tell you: They're all playoff teams.

Now, quick, tell me how many playoff teams New England conquered this season? One -- the Broncos. In fact, it didn't beat one opponent that finished the season with a winning record. Baltimore, on the other hand, is 8-1 vs. winning clubs, including the playoffs. Yet the Patriots not only are 7½-point favorites to reach their fifth Super Bowl with Brady; they're the People's Choice, with fans everywhere pulling for them and against the Ravens.

"One reason," said Aparicio, "is that it wasn't often that people saw the Ravens on national TV, but, when they did, they stunk. In the Jacksonville game they were awful. In the San Diego game they were awful. And they were less than impressive in last weekend's victory.

"But I think there's something else, and that's what it says about the country not liking Ray Lewis or some of the other players. It's kind of a winning-ugly scene."

That goes beyond Lewis to quarterback Joe Flacco, and, granted, there's a big difference between what people see in him and what they see in Brady. Flacco looks good one day, not so good the next, and he didn't look so good last weekend. Brady seldom is anything but Tom Terrific, throwing for six touchdowns and 363 yards in last weekend's demolition of Denver, and tell me you were surprised.

It's Tom Frickin' Brady, for crying out loud.

It's also entertainment, and that's what people want. But it's not necessarily what wins ballgames, and maybe it's Brady or maybe it's his 9-2 home playoff record or maybe it's Baltimore going 4-4 on the road this season that has people down on the Ravens ... I don't know. All I know is that few give them a shot, and most would be glad to see them go away.

"I think," said Cerrato, "it's because people don't think Flacco can keep up with Brady."

Maybe, but he doesn't have to. In fact, when Baltimore went into Foxborough in the 2009 playoffs, Flacco completed all of four passes ... and the Ravens won by 19. That can happen when you run for 234 yards, which the Ravens did that afternoon. It can happen when you frazzle Brady, too, which the Ravens also did, sacking him three times and intercepting him three times.

Apparently, nobody thinks that will happen again. I think it could. Some people hope it doesn't happen again, and, sorry, I don't get it. The Ravens don't have Tom Brady, but they do have a team worthy of reaching a Super Bowl. The problem is: Few believe in them, and fewer still want them.

"This is an emotional thing," said Aparicio. "It's warfare for the city."

Now, more than ever, I can understand.

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