Patriots should know better

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- No matter that the Baltimore Ravens didn't look convincing in their 20-13 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon. Their presence in the AFC Championship Game represents the toughest challenge the New England Patriots have faced this season.

In the words of Bill Belichick: "You know it. I know it. They know it."

That was how Belichick described the Ravens in the documentary "Bill Belichick: A Football Life," emphatically telling his 2009 Patriots team prior to a Week 4 game that John Harbaugh's club was going to be "in it for the long haul."

He could have said the same thing this year because the AFC title matchup is the way it was supposed to be, No. 1 versus No. 2, the conference's top two teams over most of the 2011 regular season. They're both tough, well-coached and have a core of respected, hardened NFL veterans. Sure, there are noticeable weaknesses on both sides, but there's also a lot to like in both locker rooms.

Match 'em up at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (3 p.m. ET) and it's understandable why the Patriots are early favorites, by a shade more than a touchdown. Play the game at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens were 9-0 this year, and it might be a different story.

There is an easy trap to fall into this week, namely being swayed by the way the Patriots steamrolled the Denver Broncos and how the Ravens just hung on to top the Texans. Because of that, the Patriots should roll, right?

Not. At. All.

If we haven't learned over the years that one week seldom carries over into the next, just ask the New Orleans Saints how that worked out for them. Or the NFL's best team in the regular season, the Green Bay Packers.

This is going to be close. It's going to be hard-hitting. And for those who appreciate the top-level, hard-core competition the NFL has to offer, it should be a treat, the type of contest that could come down to one play. When the margin for error is that thin, the focus must be razor-sharp and every little detail in preparation takes on added importance.

Here is what it comes down to if you're a Patriots follower: Given the toughness the team has shown in various situations over the course of the 2011 season, with the defining moment coming Nov. 13 in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets to snap a two-game losing streak with a shorthanded roster, what's not to like about your team in that kind of high-stakes game?

There are no givens in the NFL, but one thing that has been close to a certainty this year is that the Patriots are going to give you their best shot and display a championship level of mental toughness. It's one of their most admirable characteristics.

Had the Patriots' best shot not gotten them into the AFC title game, maybe we'd look at things a bit differently. But now that they've answered the primary question of whether they can win in the playoffs, recording their first postseason win since 2007, it simplifies the picture.

All it comes down to now is whether they can be better than a formidable Ravens team for 60 minutes next Sunday. There is no need to put any window dressings on it.

This isn't about legacy. It isn't about beating a .500 team to prove they are elite. It isn't even about revenge for the embarrassing playoff loss to the Ravens following the 2009 season.

This is about rising up in the moment and doing what the Saints and Packers, widely viewed as the two teams that would be the toughest test for the Patriots in the Super Bowl, couldn't over this past weekend. Those are just the latest examples that remind us it doesn't matter what you did yesterday, only today.

Belichick has preached this for years, although it's easy to dismiss because it doesn't generate sizzling headlines. Truth is, he's been right all along and his work in having players adopt that same mindset has been a big part of the Patriots' success.

So beware of dismissing the Ravens based on what you saw Sunday. A Patriots-Ravens AFC Championship Game is going to be close, it's going to be intense and it's going to be memorable.

You know it. I know it. They know it.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.