FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) It's been two months since Tom Brady returned to the field after serving a four-game suspension. In his eight games back, Brady has played at an MVP level in leading his team to the cusp of yet another AFC East title.
But as New England (10-2) prepares to host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the ghost of ''Deflategate'' has emerged this week - even as Brady insists it's the furthest thing from his mind.
In the initial months after ''Deflategate'' began, court papers surfaced as a part of a lawsuit Brady filed against the NFL to fight his suspension. They revealed a claim that a Ravens employee contacted the Indianapolis Colts about deflated footballs used in Baltimore's playoff loss to the Patriots the week before the AFC title game in 2015. Those claims were refuted by the Ravens.
Brady was suspended for what the NFL determined was his role in a scheme by the Patriots to underinflate footballs used in that 2015 AFC championship game.
''I think you just try to put everything aside, and whether it was that or whether it was a playoff game a couple of years ago or whether it was a regular-season game a couple of years ago or championship games,'' Brady said this week. ''I mean, none of those really matter.''
What does matter is that the outcome of Monday's game will have playoff implications for both teams.
New England can clinch the AFC East for what would be an NFL-record eighth consecutive season with a victory and Miami loss or tie. The Patriots would also earn a first-round bye with a win and losses by Miami and Pittsburgh.
Baltimore (7-5) has won four of its past five games, but entered the week tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North.
Under coach John Harbaugh the Ravens have been one of the few teams that have consistently played the Patriots close. In six games at Gillette Stadium under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 2-4, but their four defeats have come by an average of four points. That includes the 35-31 loss in the 2015 playoff loss.
''We do appreciate it,'' Harbaugh said of the rivalry with New England. ''We're glad to be in this game. We're glad we've earned the right to play a meaningful game in December, most especially against the team we're about to play, because they're always in that position.''
Here are some other things to watch for in Monday night's matchup:
GROUND GAME: The Ravens entered the week with the NFL's top-ranked defense, giving up 296.1 yards per game overall and an NFL-low 73.8 rushing yards per game. That unit will be tested this week when it tries to slow down New England RB LeGarrette Blount, who has a league-best 13 rushing touchdowns.
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN: The spotlight has been on Patriots TE Martellus Bennett since Rob Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve following season-ending back surgery Dec. 1. Bennett continues to deal with an ankle issue that slowed him in New England's win over the Rams. He was targeted just four times in that game, finishing with two catches for 4 yards. He also had a pair of holding penalties.
Bennett acknowledged he is not 100 percent, but said his working through it.
''The thing about playing this sport is it's always something. You never go through a season without having some kind of nick or tear,'' Bennett said. ''I just keep going. I'm like the Energizer bunny. I just try to find a way.''
OLD MAN'S GAME: While many people have marveled at the play of Brady at age 39, a lot of that same praise was heaped on 37-year-old Ravens WR Steve Smith by the Patriots. Smith has 54 catches for 589 yards this season. He's also been a nuisance in his past two games against New England, amassing 145 receiving yards and a touchdown. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler called Smith one of his favorite players.
''Lot of respect, man,'' Butler said. ''At the age of 37, he looks like he's out there running around like he's 26 or 27.''
EYES ON JONES: It's been a challenging season for Patriots rookie cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones. He had his fourth fumble of the season last week against Los Angeles, and is averaging only 4.7 yards per punt return. He was replaced by Danny Amendola, who promptly suffered an ankle injury. But Jones said he's hoping to get more chances to prove himself.
''I'll just take whatever opportunities I get,'' Jones said. ''Danny's out, so somebody has to get back there and try to do it.''
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