This week has a familiar feel.
As fans of the Ravens we’ve been here before.
This is our fourth AFC Championship Game in the last 13 seasons and the third in the last 5. Let that marinate for a bit.
But while the feeling is familiar, this time it is laced with more confidence. Maybe it’s this prevailing feeling of destiny that embraces Ravens Nation – a feeling inspired by the pending retirement of Ray Lewis, the end of an era and the emotions that go along with it.
We want the story – Ray’s story – to have the perfect ending.
And then of course there’s all of the adversity the 2012 Ravens have encountered.
The injuries were significant starting with Terrell Suggs’ torn Achilles prior to training camp. Haloti Ngata has been nicked up for most of the campaign. Ray Lewis missed significant time with a triceps tear. Early in the season the Ravens lost top corner Lardarius Webb to a torn ACL.
There were losses off the field as well.
Torrey Smith’s brother died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. And of course the man who ushered in the restoration campaign of civic pride in Baltimore, former Ravens owner Art Modell, passed away before he could attain his righteous place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Speaking of places, the Ravens went wire to wire in first place yet through it all they struggled to find their place in a flawed league.
A team whose identity has always been steeped in great defense suddenly fell to depths that they hadn’t seen since the Testaverde years. And the offense couldn’t quite develop the consistency to pick up the slack for an injury-depleted defense, hence the in-season firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Yet somehow they persevered.
Somehow they found ways to win and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Ravens clinched their second consecutive AFC North Title in Week 16 yet the mood wasn’t celebratory since the team seemingly limped their way into the playoffs. Many didn’t expect the Ravens to still be around for the championship round.
Yet here we are.
So what lies ahead for the Ravens? Are they a team of destiny?
The talk of destiny has a romantic flare to it but let’s face it, it is just talk with overtures of hope craved by those who need a little confidence booster; repeated by those who in some ways are trying to convince themselves and/or others who need the convincing that fate will deliver another Lombardi.
Clearly the national media doesn’t buy in to the Ravens, as they almost universally agree that the Ray Lewis & Co. will be watching the Super Bowl at home. They seem to feel that the Ravens have ridden that wave of emotion about as far as it can go.
But how will it end? We are all so anxious to find out if a happy ending in New Orleans on February 3 is the Ravens’ destiny.
For me destiny is defined by the journey and the journey by each successful step forward. In a strange kind of way the Ravens are taking more positive steps and they seem to be peaking at just the right time, like the New York Giants did last season and the Packers the year before.
There’s something to be said for saving your best for last and as we examine in the Good, Bad, Ugly and The Megan Fox, the Ravens appear to be doing exactly that.
THE GOOD: The Ravens offensive line for most of the 2012 campaign has been a mess but suddenly, with the reinvigorated Bryant McKinnie reinserted at left tackle, O-Line Coach Andy Moeller’s unit is rounding into shape. Over the course of the last 3 games (excluding preseason game No. 5 in Cincinnati) Joe Flacco has dropped back a total of 95 times and has been sacked just twice. One was clearly a coverage sack and on the other, Flacco slipped while trying to execute a poorly designed waggle play against the Colts.
Meanwhile the running game has averaged 5.4 yards per carry during that same timeframe. Anquan Boldin is more involved in the passing game averaging 6 catches for 103 yards in his last 3 starts. Torrey Smith is creating deep separation on a regular basis.
Defensively Ray Lewis has been a tackling machine since his return while Terrell Suggs has begun to resemble the 2011 player who won the Defensive MVP in the AFC. Paul Kruger continues his ascent amongst the league’s best pass rushers and Dannell Ellerbe is more impactful next to Ray Lewis than he was beside Jameel McClain.
THE BAD: It’s a shame that Jimmy Smith hasn’t stepped up this season, though he’s been plagued by a nagging abdominal injury that limits his change of direction skills. Hopefully his excellent special teams tackle of Trindon Holliday for a loss during a punt return in Denver is a sign of Smith inching closer to 100%. If so he should replace the struggling Chykie Brown who can’t shed blocks and is vulnerable to bubble screens and runs on the perimeter. He’ll be a marked man by Tom Brady.
With the first unit at the helm Bernard Pierce had back to back 100+ yard efforts against the Giants and Colts averaging 8.4 yards per carry on 27 attempts. His injury is a concern heading into Foxboro. He was limited on Wednesday but did not practice on Thursday…Jim Caldwell’s play calling in the second half was very conservative. He ran the ball 13 of 17 times on first down after the break. One might think that after the Broncos had to give help to Champ Bailey who was beaten regularly by Torrey Smith that the middle of the Denver defense would have been very susceptible to play action on first down… Having Tandon Doss up at the expense of David Reed, who is an excellent special teams player, is a mistake. Reed could double as a receiver who doesn’t catch the ball like Doss.
THE UGLY: Two returns for touchdowns totaling nearly 200 yards in one game, is insanely ridiculous. Had the Ravens lost in Denver one of the biggest scapegoats would have been Jerry Rosburg. Jerry gets a mulligan courtesy of Joe Flacco. It’s time for his unit to get back to regular season form.
THE MEGAN FOX: After what I will call the “adjustment game” when Jim Caldwell took over play calling duties against the Broncos on December 16, Joe Flacco has been on fire. It’s no coincidence that his improved play is in part due to a similar improvement in the offensive line play. But play calling certainly factors in, as does the attention to detail that Flacco has given to some of the finer nuances of quarterbacking. Sliding in the pocket and cadence are a couple that come to mind.
But it’s Flacco’s hot hand that paves the way to this swelling sense of confidence in the Ravens. Over the course of his last 3 meaningful games (excluding his punching of the clock at Paul Brown Stadium) Flacco has thrown for 922 yards, 7 TD’s, 0 INT’s and a QB Rating of 117.7. At this point there’s no reason to believe he can’t be this season’s Eli Manning and perhaps when it’s said and done Flacco will do what Trent Dilfer did 12 years ago – hoist “The Lombardi.”
Ravens 27, Patriots 23