FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Thirty years ago, when restricted free agency kept NFL roster turnover to a minimum and parity was not the goal of the game schedule, it was customary for powerhouse teams to meet in the postseason year after year.
The familiarity of those matchups bred contempt. Rivalries grew fierce, and the trash-talking became personal.
The NFL is more antiseptic now. Taunting is actually a penalty. The recurring, heated and ill-mannered playoff matchup is less common.
Saturday’s divisional-round game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots is a nasty exception.
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Ravens-Patriots might not be a historic rivalry, as the teams have met in the playoffs a mere three times since 2009, but they have packed a lot of malevolence in a short period.
Consider that Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs refuses to speak the name of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. To Suggs, Brady is always “the pretty boy from up north,” or something worse.
“I don’t like him,” Suggs said in 2013. “He don’t like me. I don’t like his hair. I don’t like his smug attitude.”
Brady knows Suggs’ name and even utters it — sometimes loudly and coarsely. Brady has had shouting matches with Suggs during games, and sniped at him when the game was over, too.
“He talks a lot, but he had his chance to back up his words,” Brady said after a Patriots victory.
Suggs fired back when the Ravens crushed the Patriots’ Super Bowl dreams in the AFC Championship Game two years ago. Jogging off the field, Suggs yelled to Brady, “Have fun at the Pro Bowl.” The Patriots did send seven players to the Pro Bowl that year. The Ravens raised the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions.
Brady and Suggs are not the only notable combatants eyeing each other from across the line of scrimmage. There is typically trash-talking all over the field, and it could escalate with Baltimore having added wide receiver Steve Smith, a Pro Bowler and an all-time agitator.
The jawing between players has even been addressed by the coaches this week. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh never muzzles his players as the game is being hyped.
“We’ve always told guys to speak their mind and be themselves,” Harbaugh said this week. “Be their best self.”
This week, stoic New England coach Bill Belichick responded in a spirited fashion, at least for him, when asked about the Ravens’ 2-1 playoff record against New England.
“We’re not really worried about any of those games or any of those other years or any of those other players,” said Belichick, his lips curling.