(Sports Network) - For the first time in over 25 years the AFC Championship Game will feature a rematch from the previous season.
Tom Brady's New England Patriots will once again do battle with Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens for AFC supremacy and a spot in the Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Catch the game live on CTV and CTV.ca, tonight at 6:30pm et/3:30pm pt.
The contest is the first AFC title game rematch since Denver and Cleveland teed it up in back-to-back conference championship tilts following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The Ravens will be returning to Foxboro for the first time since their heartbreaking defeat in last year's AFC Championship Game when New England narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked from the grasp of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff missed an ensuing gimmee field goal attempt that would have tied things in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
Both Evans and Cundiff are gone but Baltimore is back in search of its second ever Super Bowl appearance.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and we know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we've put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a great game."
The Ravens reached the AFC title game for the third time in five years by cutting Peyton Manning's first season in Denver short and extending Lewis' final NFL season when the club's new kicker, rookie Justin Tucker, knocked home a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime period to give Baltimore a dramatic 38-35 victory over the Broncos.
"That game did the game of football proud," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh remarked afterward.
Tucker's deciding field goal came four plays after Corey Graham intercepted Manning in Denver territory for the second time of the game, while the Ravens forced extra time on a thrilling 70-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
It was a desperation heave but in a stunning breakdown of situational football by Denver. Broncos safety Rahim Moore allowed Jones to get deeper than him and compounded that error by badly misplaying the throw in the air before Jones snared it and raced untouched for the startling score.
"At that point in the game when you don't have any timeouts and you've got to go a pretty decent length, you've got to start taking shots at some point," said Flacco. "It happened to work out."
Flacco also hooked up with Torrey Smith for a pair of touchdowns earlier on while amassing 331 yards on 18-of-34 passing, with Ray Rice contributing 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries to the improbable win.
"It was pretty incredible," said Flacco. "We overcame some things today and we fought until the very end. When some of those (negative) things happened, none of us blinked. We just sat over there on the sideline and said 'alright, our turn.'"
The Patriots, meanwhile, advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a 41-28 win over Houston behind Brady, who surpassed his boyhood hero, Joe Montana, to become the winningest signal-caller in NFL playoff history.
"Tom is a great competitor," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's our leader and we all follow him. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Texans, including two TD passes to running back Shane Vereen, who saw extensive playing time in place of the injured Danny Woodhead. Vereen also had a 1-yard touchdown run, becoming the third player in NFL history with two TD catches and a touchdown run in a postseason contest.
"Shane had a great game," Brady said. "Just a huge growing up moment for him."
The Patriots rolled up 457 total yards on Houston's highly regarded defense despite playing most of the way without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who exited the contest on New England's second offensive series with a re-fracture of his surgically repaired left forearm, an injury that sidelined him for five weeks during the regular season.
Along with Vereen, Wes Welker helped offset Gronkowski's absence by amassing 131 yards on eight receptions.
"That's what Josh does best," said Brady in reference to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always comes up with a way to adept and scheme things up. There's no one better in the league."
Woodhead, who injured his thumb on the first offensive series against the Texans, is expected to play against the Ravens, but Gronkowski is done for the year.
"You can't replace him, but we all have to step up," said Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez when asked about Gronk's absence. "It is a huge loss and everyone knows that, but we still have games to win. Everyone has to step it up and we have to do as much as we can do individually to fill his void."
The Patriots are 6-1 overall in the regular season and 4-0 at home all-time versus the Ravens. The two teams have met twice previously in the postseason with each winning a game.