Last week’s win over Indianapolis in Ray Lewis’ final game in Baltimore was the Ravens’ Super Bowl in the minds of many so-called experts who said they had no chance of beating the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos in Saturday’s divisional round.
Playing in the high altitude and extreme cold of Denver on a short week against a group that hadn’t lost a game since early October was too much to overcome. Baltimore was viewed as a 10-point underdog by the oddsmakers.
The flawed Ravens with the inconsistent offense that couldn’t get out of its own way on the road all season and an aging, underwhelming defense would be beaten down by Peyton Manning, the man who had defeated them nine straight times. The memory of a 34-17 defeat at the hands of the Broncos in Baltimore last month was enough evidence to punch Denver’s ticket to the AFC Championship before even playing the game.
That’s what many media minds told you throughout the week. And while I admittedly predicted the Broncos to prevail on Saturday, I emphatically rejected the foolish notion that the Ravens didn’t have a chance to pull off the upset.
Most Ravens fans would even tell you they didn’t think their team would win, even if they presented a strong front as any loyal fan would throughout the week.
But when Justin Tucker’s 47-yard field goal sailed through the uprights at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in the second overtime to send the Ravens to their second consecutive AFC Championship appearance, coach John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, Lewis, and the Ravens showed us once again why they play the games and why this franchise has been so successful over the last five seasons.
Yes, the Denver Broncos were the better team all season, but Baltimore was the superior group for four hours on Saturday night.
And that’s all that mattered.
The individual heroics from Flacco, who passed for three touchdowns and 331 yards to outplay Manning like he did in a losing effort against Tom Brady in last year’s conference championship game, will receive the headlines as even Lewis bestowed his long-held title of “The General” on the fifth-year quarterback prior to the game. But Saturday’s win was a lesson in resiliency as the Ravens endured a 15-round heavyweight fight — complete with haymakers thrown back and forth — to survive and advance.
By no means was it a perfect performance as the Ravens’ normally-superb special teams allowed two return touchdowns to Denver’s Trindon Holliday. If told before the game the Ravens would commit such gaffes, most would have bet their mortgage that the Broncos would be the ones preparing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl next Sunday.
The Ravens came to play on both sides of the football. Offensively, they moved the ball just enough on the ground to keep Denver’s front seven honest. The offensive line stymied vaunted pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil as Flacco was only sacked once and hit just three times after the Broncos had battered him all day in that brutal Week 15 matchup. Torrey Smith’s schooling of future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey for two long first-half touchdowns served as the worst performance in the latter’s brilliant career.
After giving up the ball on downs with 3:12 remaining and wondering if they would have another chance to tie, Flacco connected on a deep bomb to Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation. It was a play that will not only go down as one of the greatest in franchise history but will also be remembered in NFL playoff lore.
On the defensive side, the Ravens finally began to harass Manning in the second half as they held the Broncos to just seven more points after Holliday’s kickoff return for a touchdown. Cornerback Corey Graham — signed mostly for his special-teams duty before injuries forced him into action midway through the season — grabbed two interceptions of Manning, including one in overtime to set the Ravens up in Denver territory for Tucker’s eventual game-winning kick. As has been the case for much of the season, the Baltimore defense would bend but not break for much of the game, but it would also make big plays when it needed to.
All the individual heroics aside, the moments leading up to and immediately following Tucker’s game-winner were what truly epitomize the 2012 Ravens, a team in the truest sense.
First, it was Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda pushing Ray Rice and potential tacklers past the first-down marker on a second-and-10 run to move the chains and leave the Ravens within striking distance of Tucker’s impressive range at the 34-yard line. It was the kind of play that won’t show up on the stat sheet but was as big as any to close the first overtime period.
There was veteran safety Ed Reed chatting with Tucker on the sideline, patting him on the shoulder in a lighthearted manner even though the biggest kick of the rookie’s life was only seconds away. Those moments are typically treated much like a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter, with no one wanting to say a word to the kicker, but Tucker’s acceptance in the Ravens locker room as “one of the guys” made that sight unsurprising to those who follow the team closely.
As the kicker lined up to attempt the final field goal, Harbaugh kneeled next to Ray Rice, putting his arm around the Pro Bowl running back.
And in the seconds following the successful field goal, there was the lasting image of the aged gladiator Lewis hunched over on the field in tears — knowing he would have at least one more day in the arena and one more chance to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl — before Rice and other teammates flocked to him. I suppose a final win at home for the 37-year-old wasn’t the Super Bowl for this team after all.
These were images of a team, a family that’s stuck together through trials and tribulations in a rocky but still successful season.
The Ravens reminded everyone — the Broncos, the media, and fans alike — that they’re battle-tested, a major reason why they will now play in their third AFC Championship game in five years. Players spoke with quiet confidence all week despite few giving them much of a chance to win. You never got the sense that the emotions of Lewis’ final home game were going to be too much to move past in order to be ready to play another game on Saturday despite outsiders expressing those concerns.
Make no mistake, this year’s Ravens are hardly Harbaugh’s most talented team, evident by the underwhelming statistics and the number of injuries that impacted them throughout the season. The defense that once dominated no longer strikes fear in the hearts of the opposition. But this nucleus of individuals, from Flacco and Harbaugh to veteran mainstays such as Lewis and Terrell Suggs, should never be counted out in the way they were by many this week.
Call it resiliency, consider it heart, or even chalk it up to destiny if you’d like. The Ravens call it a family.
It’s a valuable lesson to remember as Baltimore prepares to face either the Houston Texans or the New England Patriots next Sunday. In either case, the Ravens will once again be on the road as the underdog and that suits them just fine.
Just don’t count them out.
They’ve been on this ride too many times before.