FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Dont'a Hightower was two weeks removed from winning the national championship with Alabama in January when he sat down to watch the AFC championship game.
Now a rookie linebacker with New England, Hightower remembers the title game fondly, and not for the reason you may think.
When asked what he recalled most from that epic clash, a 23-20 win by the Patriots that propelled them to the Super Bowl, Hightower on Friday declined to mention former Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff shanking a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left that would have sent the game to overtime.
Instead, he focused on the whole thing.
"The definition of a football game," he said. "Hard-nosed, coming down to the wire, guys making big plays whenever they need to. Definitely proud of the outcome."
Hightower will play a pivotal part in the outcome of Sunday night's rematch against the Ravens, who like the Patriots enter this early season showdown coming off a setback. While New England (1-1) was busy losing, 20-18, to Arizona, Baltimore (1-1) allowed Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick to score with just under two minutes to play, leading the Eagles to a 24-23 comeback victory.
Too bad for the Patriots, too. As if Baltimore needed any extra motivation for a nationally televised home game under the lights against New England.
"I'm living my dream now, just being able to play in the NFL. Definitely looking forward to this game," Hightower said. "It's definitely going to be a big game. Those guys got a chip on their shoulder from this past season, so definitely it's going to be a real good game."
New England's defense is ranked second in the league in total yards allowed with 264.5, but is in for a true test trying to slow Baltimore's offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. The Ravens are averaging 33.5 points per game, tied for second in the league.
"Everywhere you look on offense, they have somebody that's special," Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You're not talking about one guy, you're talking about the whole Ravens offense. We're going to have to do a real good job defensively."
New England knows it starts and ends with Flacco and Rice, though.
Traditionally a run-oriented team behind the nimble 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame of Rice, who is coming off three straight 1,200-yard seasons, Baltimore now operates more of a pass-heavy offense, allowing Flacco to flaunt a no-huddle attack that led to a convincing season-opening win over Cincinnati.
Flacco, now in his fifth season, has always been a threat, perhaps just overshadowed by Rice and the Ravens menacing defense.
"He's very physically tough and mentally, don't let much get to him and that's a big-time leader when you can have a guy _ especially the quarterback _ who can be physically and mentally tough. That says a lot about that guy as an individual and a player," Wilfork said. "He's playing lights-out right now. Once again, our hands our full up front dealing with this whole Ravens offense because they're very explosive everywhere."
While the Ravens have called 74 passing plays against just 44 runs so far this season, containing Rice still will be paramount to the Patriots success. He scored twice on just 10 carries in the win over the Bengals, and followed that with a 16- carry, 99-yard performance in the loss to the Eagles.
But it's hardly just his feet the Patriots need to remain wary of. The dynamic fifth-year back caught six passes Sunday, and has averaged 72 receptions over the past three seasons.
First thing's first, though. New England must find him behind Baltimore's massive offensive line.
"If Rice gets five carries or 30 carries, he's making a lot of yards," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "He's strong, fast, has great hands out of the backfield and he's short, so it's kind of hard to see him at the same time.
"But he's strong like a big back as well."
Wilfork likened this brewing rivalry to a divisional matchup, as this is the fifth time in the last four seasons these two teams have met. He and the rest of the Patriots defense know exactly what to expect.
"We're going to have to play almost a perfect game to walk away on the road Sunday night with a victory," Wilfork said. "The fans are going to get everything they want out of this football game.
"If you like being in a tough, physical football game, well, here it is. Sunday night it will be one."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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