BALTIMORE — For NFL teams, a third preseason game tends to feel the most like a regular season game of any of the four. Starters play a bit longer, crowds are a little more energized, and the quality of football is usually a bit greater than in other exhibition contests.
If Saturday night’s 24-10 win over the New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium represents something close to what the Baltimore Ravens will do in the regular season, all preseason excitement surrounding the team was completely justified.
The Ravens put on a passing clinic in the first half, with Joe Flacco completing 20 of 32 attempts for 220 yards and two TD’s. He was also intercepted once on a ball deflected by Anquan Boldin. Flacco finished the game 21/34 for 229 yards, adding 16 rushing yards on four carries.
Most importantly, Boldin made four of those catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. He ran a familiar route in the middle of the field for a 22-yard catch on 3rd and 11 to extend the Ravens’ second drive of the night, which would ultimately lead to their first points in the form of a Billy Cundiff field goal. His touchdown grab was also in the middle of the field, on a 4th and 3 play from the New York 9-yard line.
Not only that, but Boldin’s presence helped open things up for Todd Heap, who made 6 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. Heap’s touchdown grab also came on a play in the middle of the field.
Boldin knew exactly why fans were excited about the chemistry they saw between him and Flacco. “We’re just starting to get comfortable with one another” said the receiver. “For us, we considered the half a real game, and we tried to pick it up a little bit and get in sync because this is truly the first dress rehearsal that we’ll get before the regular season.”
Heap added similarly significant thoughts on how well the offense is clicking. “The thing that goes along with that is the confidence that Joe (Flacco) has in the guys on the field and how we’ve been able to develop that this whole offseason and through Training Camp.” He added, “You can see when he’s releasing the ball-he’s confident that it’s going to get caught.”
Performances like this are exactly why Ravens fans were so excited to hear that the team had acquired the former Pro Bowl receiver in a trade from the Arizona Cardinals this offseason. Visions of such performances were dancing in the collective heads of a fanbase. Those visions were finally evident live on a football field.
If I’m being fair, I’ll be forced to point out that the Giants were 30th in the NFL in scoring defense last season and were playing without defensive starters Terrell Thomas and Chris Canty. I’d also point out that John Harbaugh and company probably wouldn’t have gone for it on fourth down when they scored their first touchdown had this been a regular season game (although offensive coordinator Cam Cameron DID say “we have confidence with this group on fourth-and-short, and we’ll continue to be aggressive with those”).
And if I REALLY wanted to nitpick, I could suggest that the team’s failure to score points on their final two drives of the first half (a Derrick Mason penalty knocked them out of field goal range once; Corey Webster’s INT of a tipped Flacco pass ended the other) is another concern. Failing to score in opposing territory has a tendency to turn what should be a blowout into a game that is closer than necessary in the second half.
But Saturday night was much too exciting to dwell on those types of things.
By finally putting together an offensive explosion against the Giants, the Ravens offered validity for fans and experts alike who believe they had made the types of additions that could help them win the AFC North and contend for a Super Bowl berth.
The first-team offense managed just one scoring drive of 10 plays or more collectively in their preseason wins over the Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins. Against the Giants, the first-team offense put together three scoring drives of 10 or more plays.
And they did it despite the fact that their leading rusher was Flacco-who had just 16 yards. Presumably those numbers will improve in the regular season as Ray Rice (five carries), Willis McGahee (zero) and Le’Ron McClain (three) get the ball more.
The excitement surrounding the offense this offseason was even greater considering the team did not have to sacrifice their defense in the process. The first-team defense allowed just three points in the half, after Webster’s interception return gave them the ball at the Baltimore 32-yard line, which led quickly to a Lawrence Tynes field goal. A late Rhett Bomar to Victor Cruz touchdown pass represented the first touchdown ANY Ravens defensive unit had allowed all preseason.
In other words, the offense finally looked like it could match the defense in Charm City. If you attended the game, it might be worth holding on to your ticket stub. If you recorded the game at home, it might be something worth holding on to for awhile.
It’s no guarantee that the corner has been turned and that the Ravens will permanently be a team whose defense and offense perform on similarly exceptional levels. The bad news for the team is that they’ll have to try to repeat this type of performance without receiver Donte’ Stallworth, who broke his left foot in the win and isn’t expected back until around Week 8 according to Harbaugh.
But they look like a team that can not only survive without the reserve receiver, they look like a team that can potentially excel.
A trip to East Rutherford to face Rex Ryan and the impressive New York Jets in a game that will be NOTHING like an exhibition looms in two weeks, but the test suddenly doesn’t appear quite so imposing.
Instead, Ravens fans will have every reason to believe that their offense is capable of dictating pace and generating points, even against one of the premiere defenses in the entire league.
Suddenly, the Ravens look like they might be just as good as we imagined they could be.