The reigning world-champion New York football Giants came to Baltimore with their playoff lives at stake. Question was, which Giants team would the Baltimore Ravens see? The Giants who were shutout 34-0 in Atlanta a week prior? Or the Giants who had crushed a good Packers team and a surging Saints squad in home contests in weeks 12 and 14?
It wasn’t an easy game to predict. After all, the Ravens were reeling, losers of three straight and playing just as poorly at home as on the road.
They came into this game with a fifth straight playoff appearance already guaranteed, but hanging on by the thread of their reputation – a reputation that seemed seriously overblown, given their injury riddled defensive secondary, their sieve-like offensive line, and their erratic quarterback.
This wasn’t setting up to be one of those intra-divisional nail-biter type games. It had the makings of a definitive statement game for one of these two teams. The kind of game that would put one of the head coaches on the post-game podium looking miserable as he dodged a barrage of unanswerable questions from home town reporters, and the other coach hugging his players and using clichés about heart and momentum to describe the victory that would propel his team into the post season.
John Harbaugh was the latter coach. His Ravens dismantled the Giants 33-14 to run his record to 10-5 and claim the AFC North Division crown, rendering the final game in Cincinnati meaningless (aside from seeding implications).
And really, it wasn’t even as close as the score suggests. Suddenly, inexplicably, the Ravens looked dominant. They haven’t looked this dominant since the start of the season at home against the Bengals. Before that? Perhaps you can go back to the 2000 Ravens beating the Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.
Just as back in January 2001, the lightly regarded Ravens looked faster, stronger, and tougher than their opponent from New York. For at least one week, they had an answer for every question that surrounded units that had struggled in recent weeks. Giants wide receivers were well covered. Their quarterback was hit, pressured and sacked by a front seven that was making individual plays.
The Ravens defense kept Eli Manning and the Giants offense frustrated and idle on the sidelines. The Giants ran just 42 offensive plays, holding the ball for just a few ticks more than twenty minutes, and managed just 217 total yards on the day. The Giants converted just two of their ten third-down attempts.
Compare that to a Ravens offense that came out fast, scored early, and held the ball nearly forty minutes of game time, while keeping constant pressure on the Giants. The Ravens had drives of 12 or more plays in each quarter, and converted 61% of their third downs. In the end, they had piled up 533 yards of total offense. About the only thing they didn’t do was convert in the red zone in the second half, sitting on the lead and settling for three more Justin Tucker field goals.
Their beleaguered offensive line opened holes and gave the quarterback time to throw. And with that time quarterback Joe Flacco – the guy you’d swear trotted onto the field this week with a big white question mark on his back where the number five was usually stitched – played one of his best games of the season.
The Ravens seemed to answer every question. So much so, that you really can’t explain it. It can only be described.
Given the time to throw, Joe Flacco look much more comfortable and confident this week. It resulted in throws delivered on time and on target. He did get some pressure in his face at times, and still played well, including sticking a TD pass to a slanting Torrey Smith with an unblocked blitz coming off the left side. In fact, the Giants sent at least five rushers on 14 of his 36 pass attempts and he went 9-of-14 on those plays, including both of his touchdown tosses.
The game plan clearly anticipated a lot of single coverage on the outside, and rather than throw to the rookie Jayron Hosley’s side of the field, Flacco attacked Corey Webster (something those watching from home were told repeatedly by Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman – it seemed to be the only piece of information they came prepared to share about the Ravens, spending most of the broadcast pandering to the large New York TV audience.)
Flacco did have two close calls on a long fluttering pass to Smith down the left side, with safety help converging, and an ill-advised pass in the left flat that Keith Rivers dropped. He was excellent at extending drives, throwing on the run, getting rid of the ball early, and placing throws where his receivers could make plays. After turning the ball over 14 times in 14 games this season he didn’t commit any this game, including holding onto a quarterback sneak for a score.
Running Backs: A
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce each rushed for over 100 yards, the first time the Ravens have had two backs accomplish the feat since the Dallas game in 2008. Rice added 51 receiving yards, including a 27-yard touchdown. He ran with power, catching the Giants in blitzes multiple times to pick up quick yards up the middle. Pierce was extremely impressive running through arm tackles and getting around the corner. He followed a huge block by fullback Vonta Leach on a lead draw and exploded up the seam for 78 yards before running out of gas at the goal line. Jim Caldwell has worked Anthony Allen into the offense a bit the last two weeks and Allen responded with a nice catch he turned upfield for a first down.
Wide Receivers: A-
The Giants had no answer for Anquan Boldin, who caught all seven balls thrown his way for 93 yards. A run of the last six catches he made all went for first down conversions. He left the game with six minutes remaining in the third quarter after landing on his shoulder extending for his second-best catch of the day. The most impressive play for Boldin was a catch in full stride up the right hashes where he spun through three tackles for a 39-yard gain on third-and-very long. He was flagged for a questionable holding call that brought back a nice run by Pierce around the right end.
Torrey Smith ran very effective patterns to get open and made some tough catches on back shoulder fades and slants, but he also allowed a couple of passes to clank off his hands.
Jacoby Jones had one catch near the goal line, spinning to extend the ball into the end zone, initially called a TD, but later reversed. More on that reversal later.
Tight Ends: B
Ed Dickson was finally back in action, and while he didn’t figure in the game much, the offense seems to run better with both tight ends in the game. Dennis Pitta waited until midway in the third quarter before he had a catch, but finished with four catches on five targets, including a fine grab with two defenders around him that went for 36 yards.
Other than tackling Osi Omenyera when he was beat on an inside move, Michael Oher rebounded with a nice game. He provided reliable protection on the left side, got to the second level to make a number of blocks and sealed the edge nicely when called upon, including a short yardage pitch that went for 14 yards.
On the opposite side Kelechi Osemele looked quick to cut off defenders in space and played with better technique, using a wide base to set up and easily win his one-on-one battles. He showed a tremendously strong punch to neutralize and blow back defenders.
Bryant McKinnie saw a number of snaps in short yardage and seemed to play with a lot of motivation, even on running plays near the goal line where he has looked indifferent in past games.
Interior Line: B
Other than Matt Birk getting blown into the backfield on stretch blocking runs, this group played well. Having Marshal Yanda back seemed to help. He made some nice lead blocks, but was beaten once by Jason Pierre-Paul for a run stuff in the red zone to force a field goal.
Jah Reid made a number of very good lead blocks. He had one bad series where he allowed Chris Canty to blow past untouched on two plays as the left guard tried to get to the linebacker, allowing the play to be blown up in the backfield.
The Ravens corners shut down the Giants’ big-gun receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, holding them to one three-yard catch combined.
Cary Williams gave up one big play, a 43-yard catch by Rueben Randle. Williams was in good position but failed to make a play on the ball. Overall he provided tight coverage and did later make a nice adjustment to ball in the air at the goal line, slapping it away and nearly allowing Ed Reed to come down with it.
Chykie Brown got the start over Jimmy Smith and it paid off. Although Brown was a step late at times, and susceptible to double moves and comeback routes, he recovered well and made plays. He allowed Dennis Hixon to run past him to the corner of the end zone for an easy score late. He was effective in run support, as was Cory Graham playing the nickel.
Subbing for the injured Bernard Pierce, James Ihedigbo again came to play. He was able to get a two quarterback hits on Manning as a blitzer and closed well at the line of scrimmage, picking up four tackles.
Ed Reed played fast over the middle. He was ineffective on the goal line attempting to stop David Wilson’s TD run right at him. He also got flagged for another personal foul closing on a defenseless receiver that he hit just high enough in the chest to clip the helmet on initial contact.
Omar Brown was up from the practice squad and contributed right away with a sack coming off the edge.
Dannell Ellerbe was back and made a big difference patrolling the middle. He timed a blitz perfectly up the middle to sack Manning before Ahmad Bradshaw could slide protection, but Terrell Suggs was ruled offsides on a questionable call. Ellerbe showed some power when he took on Henry Hynoski after a catch over the middle, stonewalling the fullback. He led the team with five solo tackles.
Courtney Upshaw continues to be a steady presence, crashing down from the outside in solid run support, but he is not as comfortable in space, looking a little lost on Wilson’s TD run. Brendon Ayanbadejo showcased some speed to pick up a sack of Manning.
Defensive Line: A-
Art Jones continues to play at a high level., looking unblockable at times. He got two quarterback hits on Manning, wreaking some havoc from the inside. Haloti Ngata each week looks stronger, and he picked up a sack. Pernell McPhee was very steady as well. Ma’ake Kemoeatu still struggled to hold ground and didn’t register on the stat sheet. Likewise Terrance Cody, who did get in on one assisted tackle.
Special Teams: B
Adrian Hamilton, the rookie pass-rushing specialist out of Prairie View, was up from the practice squad and stood out covering kicks. Courtney Upshaw showcased tremendous strength to reach out and grab David Wilson by the front of his jersey as he sped by, pulling the returner to the ground with one hand.
Sam Koch averaged an incredible 52 net yards on punts and Justin Tucker was perfect on four mid-range field goals.
Five of Joe Flacco’s seven longest completions came out of the shotgun, where he seems more comfortable (the remaining two were both go-routes to Smith when singled on the outside). Credit Jim Caldwell for moving the offense in that direction and also going with the no-huddle attack that Flacco also seems to prefer. The aggressive approach put the Giants on their heels and forced an early timeout when they had too many men running off field. The coaches dialed up the right attack against the Giants’ weak points on both sides of the ball.
Also credit John Harbaugh and staff for preparing his team to come out with intensity after looking lethargic in previous weeks. Harbaugh had been under a lot of heat in the media, but seemed to respond definitively with this game. Harbaugh also managed the clock well at the end of the first half with 10 seconds left to force the Giants to punt to Jacoby Jones.
The one nitpick was Harbaugh’s lack of a challenge flag on a confusing play when Paul Kruger knocked a fumble out of Manning’s hand, which was recovered by Courtney Upshaw, but incorrectly ruled an incomplete pass on the field.
The officials inadvertently whistled the play dead. A challenge would have confirmed that it was a fumble and the ball would have been awarded to the Ravens at the spot where Upshaw recovered. The rules state that when a whistled-dead call is overturned on replay the ball can’t be advanced, so the play would have been dead upon Upshaw’s recovery, and his fumble would not have counted. The officials ostensibly announced this to Harbaugh when they explained to the Giants that they could not benefit from challenging the play.
Carl Cheffers’ crew was awful. A conspiracy theorist may wonder how badly the NFL wanted to see the Giants make the playoffs with the huge TV audience they bring. It was that bad as the Ravens repeatedly had to overcome questionable calls and deep holes to keep the chains moving.
The Manning fumble that was ruled an incompletion was a mess, from the inadvertent whistle down to the crew’s refusal to allow the Giants to blow a timeout on a challenge they couldn’t win.
The reversal of Jacoby Jones’ touchdown catch was an embarrassment to the NFL, with officiating expert Mike Pereira explaining on the broadcast that Jacoby Jones had performed all requisite moves to finish the catch, including the arcane “second act” when he twisted and reached out to place the ball on the turf in the end zone before the turf caused the ball to pop out of his hands. Just as Pereira was done with the explanation, Cheffers flipped on his mic to explain there was no second act and therefore no catch. Embarrassing.
There was a really poor chop block call on Micheal Oher when the defender was not already engaged by Jah Reid but the flags came out regardless.
Anquan Boldin was not happy with his holding call, and rightfully so. While holding calls are highly subjective, on the previous play from scrimmage David Wilson scored on a run where Courtney Upshaw was completely wrapped in a, well, bear hug, by Bear Pascoe, who had both arms under Upshaw’s arm pits and hugging his back as he steered Upshaw away from the play in clear view.
It was reminiscent of replacement officials from the start of the season.