BALTIMORE — Much like we saw three months ago when the Ravens crushed the Cincinnati Bengals to kick off the 2012 season, Joe Flacco and the offense looked every bit the part of an elite group in a 33-14 thrashing of the New York Giants on Sunday.
The Baltimore quarterback threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce each ran for over 100 yards. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin combined for 12 catches, 181 yards, and one touchdown. And the offensive line not only gashed the Giants’ front seven to the tune of a season-high 224 rushing yards, but the unit didn’t allow a sack as New York registered only two quarterback hits over 60 minutes of play.
But the story of the day was Flacco, who bounced back from one of the lowest moments of his career — an interception returned 98 yards by Chris Harris to create a 17-0 halftime deficit in an embarrassing loss to Denver last week — to play one of his best games of the season when the Ravens needed it most. Faced with the prospects of going to Cincinnati next week for an AFC North championship game if his team didn’t win, Flacco was brilliant in making his reads, throwing with pinpoint accuracy over the middle of the field, and even completing passes on the run.
On Sunday, Flacco reminded us why the Ravens think so highly of him and are committed to him for the long haul — even if the terms of a contract have yet to be ironed out. However, that faith had been tested more than ever after last week’s performance and the Ravens’ first three-game losing streak in over three years.
“Like I said last week, we’re going to see what kind of team we are,” Flacco said. “We believe we’re this kind of team, and we’re really going to see if we are. I think that we showed ourselves and we showed people today that we are that kind of team. We’re here to stay.”
But that’s just the problem. I don’t know if Flacco and this offense are here to stay.
We spoke of Flacco finally taking a quantum leap after last year’s AFC Championship and that 44-13 thrashing of the Bengals to open the season on Sept. 10. But what followed was an up-and-down season in which the fifth-year quarterback has been mostly good at home and mostly bad on the road.
The sight of Flacco lying face down on the M&T Bank Stadium turf seconds before halftime last Sunday told you just how badly the quarterback needed this performance. His teammates hadn’t lost faith in him, but nearly everyone else was wondering if he had what it took to climb out of the gaping hole of a three-game slide in December.
He answered the bell by completing 25 of 36 passes for a 114.2 passer rating to put the Giants’ postseason hopes on life support.
“People won’t be talking about Joe’s technique and how he’s not dropping or throwing the ball properly,” linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. “I guess they’ll be saying, “Oh, man, Joe’s amazing’ this time. We had a talk about our critics and how [you] don’t play better for your critiques. Play better for each other.”
Those thoughts about their critics were offered by owner Steve Bisciotti as he met with his team last week to offer inspirational words, and the Ravens certainly took them to heart as they turned in arguably their most complete victory of the season against an opponent that was supposed to be feeling more urgency than them.
The key to the offensive success was third-down efficiency as the Ravens were 10-for-14 in that department prior to the fourth quarter and finished 11-for-18. It was a dramatic change from last Sunday when the group went a woeful 1-for-12 on third down against the Denver defense.
Those conversions allowed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to give 24 carries to Rice. Moving the chains on third down gave the offense the chance to possess the ball for 39:21 and keep a banged-up defense as fresh as it could be. All of those stats and touches and run-to-pass comparisons seem to work out when you’re able to convert on third down and sustain drives.
It’s a clear but difficult objective.
“It’s about execution. It’s a simple word, but it’s a very tough task to do,” Rice said. “To come in week in and week out and execute at a high level, that’s tough. But that’s what we get paid to do. The pressure was on us.”
And the pressure was on Flacco most heavily as he’s moved to the top of the accountability pecking order with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron now history. It was just as ugly last week as it was exquisite on Sunday as the quarterback carved up a New York secondary that had little chance with the Ravens’ offensive line keeping the Giants’ vaunted pass rushers in check.
Will we see more of that offensive production as the Ravens go to Cincinnati with an opportunity to jockey for the No. 3 seed while resting banged-up players who could use a week off before the playoffs begin? Or will Flacco revert to the quarterback who’s struggled mightily outside Baltimore to renew those doubts entering the playoffs?
The signal-caller said it best when asked if Sunday’s performance could be a springboard to bigger and better things in the postseason.
“I’m not a big believer in any of that,” Flacco said. “I think each week is an individual game and a different opponent, and you have to go out there and you have to go through the week and prepare and go out there on Sunday and play well, just like you did the previous week. I’m not necessarily a big believer in any one game propelling you throughout the other ones.”
How he performs in the postseason will still define Flacco’s 2012 campaign.
Sunday was a step in the right direction, but it’s tough to feel convinced until we see more of it, at least with some improved level of consistency.
Regardless of what lies ahead for the quarterback’s performance, Sunday was the type of outing that creates optimism that the Ravens can still be dangerous in the AFC where every team aside from the Denver Broncos has shown concerning flaws in recent weeks. You never really know until you get to January as the Giants of last year and the Packers of two seasons ago showed.
“We say that the NFL is a week-to-week business,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It really is. One week to the next does not guarantee one thing. [The Giants] scored over 50 points two games ago. This is a really good football team. I thought our guys played exceptionally well. Getting a little bit of momentum helps.”
It certainly does, but momentum is only as good as your next opponent.
And we’ll learn quickly if Flacco and the Ravens can build on this victory a little better than they did after that first blowout victory over Cincinnati to begin the season. It will be all the more critical with the “second” season looming.