REARVIEW MIRROR – AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 23, BALTIMORE RAVENS 20
January 22, 2012
And then it was over, just like that.
The Baltimore Ravens battled the New England Patriots back and forth for sixty minutes of football, but came away losers, 23-20, after botching two chances to win or put the game into overtime in the waning moments.
The CBS broadcast crew pointed their cameras to the losing sidelines, slowly panning the faces of disbelieving Ravens players, blinking skyward, stunned, trying to grasp reality. They had allowed a chance to go to the Super Bowl slip away when Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard field goal hooked grotesquely left, wide of the uprights.
It was hard to fathom. After all, the Ravens defense had successfully boxed-in the Patriots’ passing game and had made quarterback Tom Brady look fairly average all evening long. Meanwhile, the Ravens own, often-maligned quarterback Joe Flacco outplayed the vaunted Brady, which made the loss that much more difficult to understand.
Despite the fact that he displayed a semi-comatose look on his face throughout the game, Flacco stepped-up and performed on the biggest stage, in the game’s biggest moments.
Each time it appeared the Patriots would extend their lead, and their grip on the championship, it was Flacco who seemed to will the team back to within striking distance. And that included a final drive the length of the field, fearlessly firing the ball between defenders to keep the chains moving.
While the outcome is difficult to explain, the team’s performance answered a lot of questions. With nothing left to look forward to now but free agency and the college draft in April, fans can scan through the grades here and find answers to where the team needs to look for help in the off season.
While Flacco may have answered the critics who doubted his future with the team, some other units revealed consistent flaws that will need to be addressed as the team reloads for the 2012 season ahead.
Joe Flacco would not allow the game to get out of hand, and finally showed that he finally deserves to be given free reign to pilot this offense next season. His best moments came with the team trailing. Riding a 7-for-7 streak of completions he quickly brought the Ravens back 10-10 in the second quarter, including long completions to Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans and a clutch touchdown strike to Dennis Pitta.
And with 1:44 left in the game, from his own 21 Flacco drove the team the length of the field, and threw what could have been the game-winning touchdown to Evans on a ball that was stripped from the receiver’s hands. Flacco did leave a TD opportunity on the field when he rolled right and underthrew a wide-open Torrey Smith deep, who had to come back to the ball.
Flacco exactly matched Brady’s accuracy on the night: 22 of 36 passes completed. But he outshined Brady with 306 yards to 239, and tossed two TD’s to Brady’s none. The two quarterbacks also traded interceptions on back-to-back plays at the end of the third quarter. While Flacco took three sacks, he calmly went through progressions and moved very well in the pocket and appeared to focus more on running with the ball effectively when pressured. He not only ran with the ball more decisively, he also threw the ball with more zip than we have seen all season long. A true coming out party for Joe Flacco.
Running Backs: C+
Despite getting 21 carries Ray Rice was held in check most of the night as the zone blocking scheme of the Ravens left him bouncing behind an immobile front, only collecting 67 rushing yards on the night. Ricky Williams was more effective as a downhill runner, picking up 22 yards on six carries. Vonta Leach kept up his consistently fine performance as a lead blocker.
Wide Receivers: A-
Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and Torrey Smith dominated the Patriots secondary. Evans in particularly stood out by finally putting in a 3-for-4 performance that Ravens fans have been waiting to see all year from the third receiver. He had what would have been the game winning catch in his hands with 0:27 left, standing in the end zone, only to have it immediately stripped by rookie corner Sterling Moore.
Anquan Boldin made tough catches in traffic and was effective bullying his way for extra yards. His six catches netted 101 yards.
And Smith spread the field and allowed Flacco to work underneath, even as he picked up 82 receiving yards on his own. Smith showed yet one more wrinkle to his game he took a wide receiver screen, sidestepped a tackle by Moore, and then outraced Devin McCourtey while tight roping the sideline and diving to the pylon for a touchdown. It would give the Ravens their first lead of the game, 17-16.
Tight Ends: B
Dennis Pitta continued to grow into the role of Flacco’s clutch receiver on third down and in the red zone. Pitta snared first down catches on third and six and third and 14, and he did a nice job sliding through zone coverage at the goal line to grab a touchdown as Flacco rolled right. Flacco also unsuccessfully targeted Pitta on a critical fourth and six call and on the final throw of the game after the Evans drop.
Ed Dickson continued to be inconsistent catching the ball. He made a nice, soft catch on a crossing route, but dropped a first down at the end of the half. He also had a critical false start with the team within field goal range and 4:20 minutes on the clock, which contributed to a turnover on downs.
Bryant McKinnie struggled at times stopping Brandon Deaderick and Mark Anderson from penetrating. And Michael Oher was just as ineffective when Vince Wilfork kicked out to his side. There was too much penetration, which forced the Ravens to get away from a gameplan of getting Ray Rice to the outside edges.
Oher made a boneheaded decision to jump up when he thought Dane Fletcher had jumped into the neutral zone. Oher has not played like a first-round tackle while in a Ravens uniform, and when he left the game briefly after rolling an ankle, Jah Reid stepped in and certainly looked no worse in limited duty.
Interior Line: C
Matt Birk had just as much trouble stopping the immense Wilfork from penetrating in the middle and disrupting the running game. In fact, al three interior lineman, including Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda had trouble with Wilfork as the Patriots moved him around. It was Grubbs who allowed Wilfork to blow up a run at the end of the game to force the field goal miss.
Both Grubbs and Yanda jumped offsides as Flacco was calling an audible. While the unit was atrocious in the first half, they did begin to get push up front in the third quarter. Yanda made a nice counter block to spring Rice up the middle.
Jimmy Smith showed why he was a first round pick, and he showed that he is a rookie in the NFL, too. He made an incredible shoestring grab of a ball in the end zone tipped by Bernard Pollard, and then got up and returned it half the distance. But he fell asleep on the sideline when the Ravens only had ten men on the field, forcing a timeout. He also whiffed on an open field tackle of Danny Woodhead.
Cary Williams was better in run support and tackling. Lardarius Webb got flagged for illegal contact on Wes Welker, which reversed an interception, but he also made an incredible interception while falling backwards. The shifty Wes Welker was too much for Webb to cover in the interior.
Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard were effective enough between the hashes to alter routes and throw off Brady’s accuracy. Pollard’s tip of a pass in the end zone intended for Mathew Slater was highlight reel-worthy. Pollard was given the unenviable task of covering the big tight in Rob Gronkowski in the seams — we’ll call it a draw. Gronkowski led the team with 5 catches for 87 yards. Pollard made one poor tackling attempt on Deion Branch to allow a first down run after the catch.
Ed Reed was fooled on one play action call to nearly give up a TD to Gronkowski on a pass Brady misfired on. But Reed made a critical break on a ball intended for Hernandez to give the ball back to the Ravens with a chance to win it.
Other than when trying to cover Welker, the sixteen-year veteran Ray Lewis looked very good in space dropping into coverage or moving sideline to sideline. Lewis tied Pollard for the team lead with 12 tackles. After the game, Lewis insisted to reporters he’d be back for a seventeenth year and after seeing the way he finished the season, there is little reason to doubt him.
Playing next to Lewis most of the game, Dannell Ellerbe was not as effective. He was poor tackling in space and covering receivers to the sidelines. He was also flagged with a facemask penalty. He was wiped out on the goal line touchdown run.
Jameel McClain played sparingly against the pass-first Patriots. McClain was however effective on the goal line.
Jarrett Johnson was his usual technique-perfect self penetrating and containing the edge. Brendon Ayanbadejo added some pass-coverage help in an area the team will need to improve on going into next season.
Defensive Line: C+
The Ravens did not get a lot of penetration up front. They did manage some tipped passes by Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding, and moved well down the line of scrimmage, but need to get better penetrating. Terrance Cody was beaten off the ball on a quick count and Art Jones had trouble holding ground on the interior.
Paul Kruger played a lot of minutes and did manage to blow past Nate Solder for a sack and dropped well in coverage. Terrell Suggs was consistent if not spectacular. He too beat Solder, on an inside move to force a throw-away. He made a nice play to stuff Hernandez on a sweep. Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis averaged 4.5 yards on 15 carries. Suggs did jump offsides to erase a Cary Williams interception on a ball Brady would not have thrown up for grabs otherwise.
Special Teams: D
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion the game was lost on a missed chip-shot field goal by Billy Cundiff, who struggled with consistency all season long. Sam Koch faltered slightly on the hold, but it was solid enough that the kick should have been made. Koch had to make a nice recovery on an early hold.
The punt coverage unit did a nice job and seemed to improve as the season wore on. The team still struggled with kick coverage, including allowing a return near midfield for Woodhead. Credit LaQuan Williams for a tremendous tackle and strip of the ball from Woodhead on a kick return that bounced around before Emanuel Cook fell on it for the Ravens.
Other than a little confusion getting personnel on the field and in position on defense on a few instances, including a Brady sneak for a TD that was reversed, it was a well-managed game. The decision not to go for a first down on fourth and a half yard from the seven was a good one when the offensive line had been getting blown back early in the game. And the decision to go for it late in the game on fourth and six was also justifiable when Flacco was riding a hot hand.
Credit Cam Cameron for adjusting a game plan that was not working early. The team had negative six yards of offense on the first three drives, but nearly 150 on the next two. Spreading the field on the goal line to get Pitta the touchdown was a good call, as was the first down toss to Dickson on third and one. Cameron did a good job of compensating for troubles on the offensive line. He managed to ride Flacco’s hot hand and also get Rice his 20+ carries. This loss can’t get pinned on the oft-criticized Cameron.
Chuck Pagano had a nice game plan to bracket the Patriots interior passing game and not allow receivers to run free in the secondary.
The only real controversy on the officiating was the lack of a booth challenge on the ball caught by Lee Evans in the end zone that was stripped. With less than two minutes to go, and no ability by the Ravens to challenge whether possession was established, there should have been a second look upstairs, even though it was unlikely to be reversed.
The officials did a good job not over-officiating pass interference, including a good no-call on Webb with Welker crying for a flag on the sideline. They missed Brandon Spikes taking a cheap shot at Marshall Yanda after a false start, but did a good job of ignoring Spikes when he took a dive after Yanda shoved him back. John Harbaugh wanted a call for hitting a defenseless receiver on Dennis Pitta in front of the Ravens bench, but it was another good no-call. Pitta took three or four steps before colliding with the ongoing Antwaun Molden.
Jim Nance and Phil Simms did not lend much to the game. But they didn’t need to. The game was exciting enough to not need any hyperbole from the booth. They were a little sloppy getting around to letting viewers know that Michael Oher was down with an injury, and then Nance referred to Oher’s right tackle spots as the blind side, which of course it is not. The production crew was excellent, as you would expect for a championship game, with plenty of replays.