It’s the thing about champions – they win games even when it looks like they will not. Champions act like they have been there before when other teams do not know how to even get there. The Ravens, in a road Monday night contest that featured the playoffs on the line for both teams, played like champions.
The Ravens seemed like a team that had been there before. They played like it anyway. In a game that just a few weeks ago would likely have been a blow-out loss, turned into yet another gut-check win when superstar kicker Justin Tucker nailed six field goals, including a sensational 61-yarder to give the Ravens a lead with 38 seconds left on the clock.
Then Matt Elam snagged Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s third interception of the game to finally put the game away.
I wrote a few weeks ago that it would take a miraculous finish for this team to put the playoffs in the viewfinder. The team looked leaderless and rudderless earlier this year as it struggled to find a post-championship identity and to overcome injuries.
But four consecutive wins later, three of which came at home, the Ravens suddenly look like the team that they were last year – a team that found ways to win close games.
Don’t look too far ahead – as ESPN analyst Steve Young said on the network’s broadcast, this team is deeply flawed. The offense is still pitifully one-dimensional as the running game continues to be only slightly better than nonexistent. Yet, the rush worked just enough to keep the Lions honest in Monday night’s contest.
Joe Flacco also seems to be finding his post-season form a little bit early. He tends to look better and better when the postseason starts. He makes smart reads and big throws far more often, it seems, when everything is on the line, the two exceptions being his 2009 Divisional Round nap against the Indianapolis Colts and a disastrous AFC Championship Game interception to Troy Polamalu in 2008. But otherwise, Joe Flacco has looked strong when the playoffs are on the line.
The other important thing is that the Bengals look like they doubt the men in the mirror. Just a few weeks ago, this team was an overtime win over the Ravens away from burying Baltimore’s playoff and division chances, but they couldn’t pull it off. The Bengals then slipped up, and have a losing record on the road.
After a weekend in which nothing went Baltimore’s way except for losses by the Bengals and Jets, suddenly Baltimore has accomplished the hard part – beating a Lions team that looked to have a strong matchup advantage going in.
The Ravens can’t breathe easy, but they have a very bright future ahead of them if they can somehow win the next two. They will once again win the AFC North in a year they looked like anything but a Division champ, and get into the playoffs no matter what any other team does.
But that’s the issue – they can’t slip up.
Next week at home Ravens fans will likely come out in force and make the surroundings miserable for Tom Brady in a game that could mean relatively little for the Patriots but everything to the Ravens.
The final game, against the Bengals, should determine the AFC North winner, and probably the playoff fate for the team that loses.
The Dolphins are playing lights out suddenly, but they haven’t “been there” in a long time, though Baltimore has. That’s the one advantage the Ravens have over their competitors the Chargers, Dolphins and Bengals.
The Ravens have that championship mentality.
As for the others while they seem game enough, it’s just not something they know.