Sunday school on tap;Both teams have plenty to learn

FOXBORO – Regardless of the outcome, Sunday is a statement game.

What makes it interesting is that no one can be totally sure what

those statements will be, and that includes the Baltimore Ravens

and

Patriots.

With the beatdown the Ravens put on the Pats at Gillette Stadium

last January, it seemed a torch had been passed. But until teams

like the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets clearly

establish that a new day has dawned they must yet contend with both

the reality of the team Bill Belichick is laboring to rebuild on

the fly and the aura that has for so long surrounded it. To do less

is to burn your fingers on that torch rather than grab it.

If you win three Super Bowls in four years and dominate a decade

of football your reputation precedes you everywhere you go. That is

why, when the Ravens arrive at Gillette, they will understand they

still have something to prove to a Pats team that seems a defensive

shell of what it was.

If Baltimore comes in and dominates the line of scrimmage again

and leaves with another victory, perhaps it will have convinced

itself there is a new sheriff in the AFC. But until that happens

they will come here clearly understanding one thing: If you

challenge the king you must kill the king, and one off day in

January doesn’t get that done.

”This is a huge game for us,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis

conceded. ”Everybody knows at the end of the year New England is

going to be up there, fighting for the playoff berth and things

like that. So for us to go up there and beat them, or try to get a

victory at New England, is going to be huge. It’s one of the

matchups that you always say – here you go. You know exactly what

you get.”

Most of the time the Ravens, who are 0-5 against the

Patriots during the regular season,

have gotten a beating. They’ve lost high-scoring games (46-38),

blowouts (24-3) and tight-as-a-coffin games (27-24, 27-21). They’ve

lost to Tom Brady and to his predecessor, Drew Bledsoe. They have

yet to find a way to escape with a regular-season victory, and

until they do, that playoff win will be seen as an anomaly not a

statement.

”You’ve got to think about these kinds of games,” Ravens

running back Ray Rice said. ”We don’t want to single out the

Patriots, but the success that

they’ve had, you can’t forget that. They have a long-term history

of success.

”They’ve won Super Bowls. We’ve won one in the past; they’ve

won many. So, obviously, this kind of game you don’t really have to

ramp yourself up for. You get up there to New England, you come

into that stadium and you feed off their environment.”

Whatever that environment is Sunday everyone in it will be

seeing a game that will say a lot about the Ravens and just as much

about the

Patriots, who, though 3-1, seem to

lack the total self-assurance of past teams.

That is natural because it’s a time of transition in New

England, the unraveling of a dynasty and the knitting together of

what will follow it. To beat the Ravens, who are 4-1 with road wins

against the Steelers and Jets, would be a reminder to all those

intending to bury them that they should bring a lunch pail because

it may take a while.

Conversely, if this becomes a repeat of what happened in

January, that also would be a statement, and not one the

Patriots are interested in making.

What it would say is that they have sunk a notch below the best

after losing to both the Jets and Ravens. Perhaps they have, but

Baltimore still must prove that to the only people in the stadium

who count – the players staring at them from across the line of

scrimmage, and, just as importantly, themselves.

”We know how hard it is to play them and to play there and

about what kind of program they’ve been what they stand for and all

that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the Pats. ”Why they

feel that way doesn’t matter to us.”

Why they feel that way is obvious. Whether the Baltimore Ravens

can do anything to change their opinion will say more about how

this season will go for both of them than either side might want to

admit.