By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - It is rare to get a do-over in professional sports, but the Baltimore Ravens believe they have earned just that opportunity in their AFC title showdown on Sunday against the Patriots in New England.
One year ago, the visiting Ravens squandered a golden chance to book a trip to the Super Bowl when a dropped pass in the end zone followed by a short field goal miss at the end of the AFC title game allowed the Patriots to claim a 23-20 victory.
Ravens linebacker and inspirational leader Ray Lewis, who is retiring at the end of the season, vowed after that game that Baltimore's championship aspirations were not finished.
"If you write it up, there's no better way to write it up," Lewis told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday. "We all felt the same way leaving there last year, that we had an opportunity to win that game.
"And what better way, than to go back at New England again. Going back to last year, we made up our mind that that wasn't it for us. For us to be back here again, same position, same situation, who would ever have thought of it but us."
The Ravens, beset by injuries this season including a torn triceps that sidelined Lewis for the last 10 regular season games, advanced to the title game with a 38-35 double-overtime victory over the top-seeded Denver Broncos.
New England beat the Houston Texans, 41-28, in their divisional playoff game to set up a rematch with the Ravens.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he appreciated the mental and physical toughness of the Ravens.
"We know it will be a big challenge this week," he told reporters. "We've had some great games against them, recently. Four of the last five games have come literally down to the final play and in one case, overtime.
"They've shown they can handle difficult situations, whether it's playing on the road or in the double overtime game last week against Denver. Whatever the challenges are, they stand up to them."
Kicker Bill Cundiff, who missed a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds in last year's clash, and receiver Lee Evans, who failed to hold a potential game-winning touchdown pass two plays earlier, are gone from the Ravens but the holdovers will be burning for revenge on Sunday.
"You're probably influenced and motivated by everything in life," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "Having it be such a great football game, an epic kind of game, and then losing it (that way) was tough.
"We have all the respect in the world for the Patriots. We've played them a lot. They are always tough battles."
This season the Ravens eked out a 31-30 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 3 of the regular season.
While the Patriots are aiming to reach their sixth Super Bowl in 12 seasons, the Ravens, competing in the postseason for the fifth time in as many years, are striving to return to the NFL title game for the first time since they won it in 2001.
"It always seems to go down to that last play, that last drive," Lewis said about the classic battles the Ravens have had against the Pats and quarterback Tom Brady, who leads the top-scoring offense in the National Football League.
"I think they know what we are bringing and we know what they bring. We have to deal with arguably the best offense in football, probably the best quarterback, give or take, coming from Peyton (Manning) last week to Brady this week.
"You're talking about the top. If you're going to win a ring, then why not go through the top."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)