The Baltimore Ravens have worked hard and admirably persevered through multiple challenges this season to get back to the same position they were in last year: playing at New England in the AFC Championship game. But history says the chances of the outcome being different for Baltimore are abysmal. The Ravens lost a heartbreaker, 23-20, to the Patriots last January, and they'd have to look back at more than 60 years of championship game results to find the last time a team won revenge against the same opponent, after losing the first meeting the year before.
Did you get the historical heft of that statement? The last time a team won being in the exact situation Baltimore finds itself this Sunday was more than six decades ago, when the 1951 Los Angeles Rams beat the Cleveland Browns 24-17 in the NFL title game in L.A., after having lost the 1950 NFL championship 30-28 to the Browns in Cleveland.
It's an astounding trend. The past 11 times teams have met back-to-back in NFL title games, AFL title games or AFC, NFC championships, the same team has won both games. When you throw in the Cowboys-Bills consecutive Super Bowls of 1992-93 (each won by Dallas), it's an 0-12 rematch record for the team losing the first of two back-to-back championship games.
There is just one caveat: If those teams faced off three consecutive years in championship games, the team that lost the first two meetings won the third showdown three times (San Francisco over Dallas in the 1994 NFC title game; Oakland over Pittsburgh in the 1976 AFC title game; and Cleveland over Detroit in the 1954 NFL championship).
So there's hope for Baltimore to beat New England in next season's AFC title game, but not much Sunday night, based on the repeat factor at play in professional football since well before the 1970 merger and even before the seminal 1958 NFL title game between the Colts and Giants -- the overtime classic that is credited with putting the pro game on the map.
Keep in mind as well, even without the rematch factor, the statistical odds don't favor the Ravens. New England is 7-2 all-time in AFC/AFL championships, including a 4-0 record at home. The Ravens, who moved to Baltimore for the 1996 season, are just 1-2 in AFC title games, all of them coming on the road.
Here's the data to back up the sizable task the 12-6 Ravens face against the 13-4 Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro:
-- First in the AFC or AFL....
* Broncos over Browns, 1986-87 AFC title games -- Denver beat Cleveland twice in a row, the first time in Cleveland (Can you say "The Drive''?) and then in Denver (Earnest Byner fumbles). Adding more salt in the wound, the Broncos and Browns took a year off, then squared off again in the 1989 AFC title game, with Denver winning easily in Denver.
* Steelers over Oilers, 1978-79 AFC title games -- Pittsburgh swept Bum Phillips' Houston Oilers, who never did quite kick that door down in that rivalry with the vaunted Steelers. The first meeting was a 29-point blowout, but in the rematch, a controversial non-touchdown call in the end zone, on a late-third-quarter catch by Houston receiver Mike Renfro, was pivotal in Pittsburgh's 14-point victory.
* Steelers over Raiders, 1974-75 AFC title games -- Oakland used to lose AFL-AFC title games like nobody's business, dropping seven out of its eight appearances in a 10-year span between 1968-1977. They lost close games to the Steelers in 1974-75, but then came back to beat Pittsburgh in 1976, the Raiders' first of three Super Bowl-winning seasons.
* Bills over Chargers, 1964-65 AFL title games -- The Bills might be 0-4 in Super Bowls, but football fans might forget they had a little AFL dynasty going in the mid-60s, going to three consecutive AFL Championship games, and winning the first two, both against the San Diego Chargers. Buffalo beat the Chargers a combined 43-7 in those two games, with quarterback and future U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp leading the way.
* Oilers over Chargers, 1960-61 AFL title games -- In the first two seasons of the newly formed AFL, Houston swept the Chargers, who were based in Los Angeles the first year and San Diego the second. The Oilers peaked early in their franchise history, because between them and the transplanted Titans, they haven't won another league championship since. The only title the Chargers own came with a 1963 AFL Championship game victory over the Boston Patriots.
-- And then in the NFC or NFL....
* Cowboys over Bills, 1992-1993 Super Bowls -- It's the only time in the 46-season history of the Super Bowl that we've had the same pairing in consecutive years, and Dallas won both games handily, giving Buffalo its third and fourth of a record-setting four Super Bowl defeats in a row.
* Cowboys over 49ers">49ers, 1992-93 NFC title games -- Dallas versus San Francisco was the game's best rivalry in the first half of the '90s, and Jimmy Johnson's team won a pair of entertaining title games against George Seifert's club. The 49ers, as we noted, did get a measure of revenge in 1994, beating Dallas in their third consecutive NFC title game meeting.
* Cowboys over 49ers, 1970-71 NFC title games -- This was a Dallas-San Francisco rivalry of a different, earlier vintage, when Tom Landry and Dick Nolan coached the two teams, and the quarterbacks were Craig Morton and Roger Staubach for the Cowboys, and the underrated John Brodie for the 49ers. San Francisco couldn't get over the hump against Dallas, losing 17-10 at home in 1970 and 14-3 in Dallas in 1971.
* Packers over Cowboys, 1966-67 NFL title games -- The rematch is the one everyone remembers, the legendary "Ice Bowl'' at Lambeau Field, won in the final seconds by Green Bay on Dec. 31, 1967. Vince Lombardi's Packers won the first two Super Bowls after earning these two wins, and the snakebit Cowboys remained "Next Year's Champions.''
* Packers over Giants, 1961-62 NFL title games -- Lombardi won his first two NFL championships by sweeping the star-studded but title-starved Giants. From 1958-63, New York reached the NFL's final game five out of six years, but lost all five. Green Bay routed the Giants 37-0 in 1961, but squeaked by them 16-7 in the rematch, in frigid conditions at Yankee Stadium.
* Colts over Giants, 1958-59 NFL title games -- Everybody knows the Colts outlasted the Giants 23-17 in overtime in ....wait for it... "The Greatest Game Ever Played.'' But the rivals met again the following year, without anywhere near as much drama occuring in Baltimore's 31-16 victory at home. In the pre-Super Bowl era, those were the only two NFL titles the Baltimore Colts ever earned.
* Lions over Browns, 1952-53 NFL title games -- Detroit and Cleveland met in the NFL championship three years in a row, but the Lions and Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne got the best of the Browns and Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham in the first two showdowns, winning 17-7 in Cleveland in 1952 and 17-16 in Detroit in 1953. The Browns got a heap of revenge in 1954, winning 56-10 at home.
* NOTES: In the past nine seasons, only New England (four), Pittsburgh (three) and Indianapolis (two) have won AFC titles. The Ravens can become first team to crack that three-team domination since Oakland in 2002...... No matter who wins in the NFC, San Francisco or Atlanta, there will be a new NFC champion for the 15th consecutive season. The last team to repeat in the NFC were the 1996-97 Packers. Eleven different teams have won the previous 14 NFC championships......
The four coaches working this weekend know their way around the NFL playoffs. Bill Belichick (11 playoff berths in 18 seasons), John Harbaugh (5 in 5 seasons), Mike Smith (4 in 5 seasons) and Jim Harbaugh (2 in 2 seaons) are a combined 28-15 in the postseason, with Belichick's 18-7 record and John Harbaugh's 7-4 mark leading the way..... While the Patriots have played in five of the past 11 Super Bowls, the Ravens are trying to get back for the first time since 2000. The droughts are even longer in the NFC. Atlanta hasn't made a Super Bowl since the 1998 season, and San Francisco last went in 1994.