KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The enticing smoke from meat roasting over a flame kept wafting through the air from the multitude of grills surrounding Arrowhead Stadium.
That wasn’t the only massive barbecue that took place here Sunday.
An emotional Baltimore Ravens football team feasted on the unprepared, outclassed Kansas City Chiefs, gobbling up their miscues with five turnovers and exposing quarterback Matt Cassel.
Behind the strength of a defense inspired by the tragedy suffered by free safety Ed Reed’s brother missing and presumed dead after jumping into the Mississippi River and a gritty performance by quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens steamrolled the Chiefs.
The Ravens’ 30-7 AFC wild-card victory propels them into a rematch Saturday with the second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, facing their AFC North blood rivals for the third time this season.
“It seems like poetic justice, Pittsburgh in the playoffs at their place,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “One of these days we’ll be good enough to earn the right to play them at our place. I’m sure they’ll bring their ‘A’ game and we’ll try to bring our ‘A’ game.”
After two years of lackluster performances in the playoffs, a composed, accurate and unchained Flacco set the tone for the Ravens with two touchdown passes. He endured four sacks, but still completed 25 of 35 passes for 265 yards with no interceptions for a 115.4 passer rating.
“Oh man, Joe was stone cold out there,” offensive guard Ben Grubbs said. “No matter how many times he got hit, he’s always a stone-cold killer back there. The way he performed was unbelievable.”
The Ravens silenced a raucous crowd by scoring 27 unanswered points following running back Jamaal Charles’ touchdown run in the first half.
Flacco connected with tight end Todd Heap 10 times for 108 yards, establishing a new franchise postseason record for receptions.
And Flacco capitalized on a Dawan Landry interception in the third quarter, lobbing a four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the back of the end zone to stake the Ravens to a 23-7 lead.
He delivered a spiral between two leaping linebackers to hit Boldin in stride for his first score in five games.
“It’s a lot of fun to come on the road and into places like this and be confident in yourself and be confident in your teammates that you’re going to get the job done,” Flacco said. “That’s really how we feel. We don’t have any doubt that we are going to come in here and win the football game. That’s how we feel and that’s what we showed.”
While Cassel melted down, Joe Cool stayed icy.
In his five previous playoff games, Flacco had completed just 57 of 120 passes for 660 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions for a dismal 46.5 passer rating. He averaged 132 passing yards in those games.
This marked the first time that Flacco was asked to be more than a game manager, and he responded with his top performance ever in the postseason despite being battered by superb Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali.
“It doesn’t get any better,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “From Year One, we told Joe, ‘We’re with you, so come out and do it.’ We like to see Joe. We like to play with Joe.
“We know what Joe’s mindset is. Anytime you have a young player in his third year like Joe, I’m a little biased. I do like the way Joe plays.”
Unlike the majority of their games this season where the Ravens stopped applying pressure and turned conservative with a lead, they showed a killer instinct in this one.
They outscored Kansas City 20-0 after halftime.
They intercepted Cassel three times and forced two fumbles.
"You cut a team once and they’ll keep fighting,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who sacked Cassel twice. “You got to keep cutting them. We’ve had some teams beat in the fourth quarter and they’ve come back, either winning the game or scaring the hell out of our fans. We’re trying to learn from our mistakes and kept their heads under water.”
The Ravens also displayed a resilient streak following Charles’ 41-yard touchdown scamper that briefly gave the Chiefs a 7-3 lead in the first quarter.
Charles ran through an arm tackle from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and broke a tackle from Ed Reed as he and Landry took poor angles on the play.
After rushing for 87 yards on seven carries in the first half, Charles lost five yards in the second half on two carries as Kansas City offensive coordinator Charlie Weis abandoned the run in his final game with the staff before heading to the University of Florida.
“I really didn’t have a concern outside of coming to the sideline and talking to a couple of players who did something we don’t normally do,” Lewis said. “You can never cut off. We kept him in the box after that and corrected those mistakes. That’s when we started playing our game.
“Anytime you have somebody with that type of speed and that type of ability and a wide open hole like that, it’s going to be hard to shut it down. I credit my defense. They didn’t panic. It paid off for us.”
This is the fifth-seeded Ravens’ fourth road playoff win under Harbaugh.
This one was marked by the adversity of Reed dealing with his family situation and linebackers coach Dean Pees’ sister dying last week and him missing two days of practice.
Afterward, Reed was awarded the game ball for his entire family.
“What Ed and the Reed family are going through is a big part of this victory,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s what will be remembered by our players. We’re a family and the Reed family is part of the Ravens family. That’s the way it works with our organization.”
Running back Willis McGahee capped the Ravens’ scoring with a 25-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, celebrating by mimicking the Chiefs’ tomahawk motion in the end zone.
“I saw their fans doing that and I felt like I needed to do that and see what that was all about,” McGahee said. “It reminded me of Florida State and I don’t really like Florida State. Some of the fans were trash talking. The offensive line did a great job of blocking it. All I had to do was take off.”
The Ravens’ offense had been in a slump for weeks with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron drawing heavy criticism.
They looked sharp this game, though.
With Flacco going after rookie safety Eric Berry and repeatedly finding Heap downfield on crossing patterns, the Ravens failed to score a touchdown even though they had three opportunities at the Chiefs’ 1-yard line.
Flacco fumbled a snap. McGahee got slammed for no gain on second down. And Berry knocked down a pass intended for Heap in the end zone on third down, so they settled for a 19-yard Billy Cundiff field goal.
Flacco lost his fifth fumble of the season when Hali beat Michael Oher with a power move for a sack.
Just two plays later, Charles dashed away from the Ravens for the longest touchdown run allowed by the Ravens in franchise postseason history and the first touchdown run they’ve given up since the eighth game of the season when Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown scored on a 12-yard run.
Flacco would respond, though.
He rushed three times for 24 yards and hit Heap three times for 46 yards.
Flacco had plenty of time to locate running back Ray Rice on a dump pass, and Rice ran away from a linebacker to score on a nine-yard touchdown catch without having to break any tackles.
That capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with 19 seconds left in the first half and gave the Ravens a 10-7 lead.
“I think that was a really big drive,” Flacco said. “A lot of playoff games are decided in the final two minutes. For us to get that right there, that’s a big part of the game.”
Nose guard Kelly Gregg decked Charles on fourth-and-one on the Chiefs’ opening drive of the second half.
That led to a 29-yard field goal from Cundiff.
Then, Lewis stripped rookie wide receiver Dexter McCluster to set the Ravens up for a second 29-yard field goal from Cundiff.
The Ravens were in control, and they looked like a team with legitimate Super Bowl ambitions.
“We weathered the storm as a defense, offensively we started clicking,” Lewis said. “It’s good, but this is not where we’re trying to stop. We understand what the big prize is.”