Depending on who you talk to this week, the Ravens are a very good football team only 60 minutes of strong play away from going to the Super Bowl or an inconsistent group unable to get out of its own way as it prepares to take on the almighty New England Patriots in Foxborough.
Those sharing the latter thought continue to doubt quarterback Joe Flacco, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and the team in general. Even safety Ed Reed spouted off about Flacco and the offense’s uneven performance against the second-ranked Houston defense in the divisional round, which was not only a purposeless act for his team but is sure to add fuel to the critics’ fire this week.
Baltimore faces the immense challenge of traveling to Gillette Stadium to best a Patriots team that hasn’t lost since before Veterans Day. New England has been held below 30 points only once in its last eight games while the Ravens’ offensive attack has only reached the 30-point plateau one time over its last nine contests.
Yes, the Ravens are the underdogs this Sunday. From fans and media to even within the locker room, the pressure to play their best game of the season — to give themselves their optimum chance to win — is coming from a variety of sources.
And that’s just fine in their minds.
“We like being the underdog,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “We’re used to it. I think we handle it better. Psychologically, I don’t really know why, but I think we do. Should we be? I don’t know. Obviously, it’s their place, they are the No. 1 seed, they have earned it, they are one of the top offenses in the league. They deserve to be the top team, but I like being [the underdog].”
Though their 33-14 win over the Patriots in the playoffs two years ago doesn’t mean much in terms of breaking down the play on the field this Sunday, it does provide a psychological boost as the Ravens once again prepare to head on the road for the playoffs.
There is no team in the NFL better equipped to win a road playoff game than the Ravens, who have won four in seven postseason games away from M&T Bank Stadium over the last four years. Meanwhile, the Patriots have reaped the benefits of home playoff games but were knocked out of the postseason in their home stadium in each of the last two seasons.
The Ravens’ veterans and young players alike know what to expect on the road in January.
“It helps, just by the fact that we’ve done it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Most of our team has been there before, and then those young guys can relate to the older guys, and the older guys can share some wisdom. But it’s not going to impact necessarily this game, except to the extent that our guys have been there before and it’s certainly not going to be anything new for them. And that’s a good thing.”
While naysayers point to two disappointing losses in Pittsburgh and a blowout defeat to Indianapolis when mentioning the Ravens’ postseason track record under Harbaugh, his teams have also shown the ability to win games in which few gave them a chance. In Harbaugh’s first season, the Ravens knocked off the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and followed it up the next season with a surprising blowout of the Patriots.
The Ravens play better with a chip on their shoulder when they know few believe they can get the job done. There’s no question the veterans in the locker room will point out that the Patriots didn’t defeat a team with a winning record all season despite being crowned the clear favorite on Sunday.
And while the media has swooned over the Patriots’ explosive offense, the Ravens will remind everyone their defense finished in the top four in every significant statistical category this season.
A win on Sunday will likely require the Ravens’ best performance of the season, but their 6-1 record against teams that finished with a winning record in 2011 provides plenty of evidence that they’re more than capable of getting the job done.
Baltimore will need to sustain drives, score touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone, and play a turnover-free game — or close to it — to win a contest in the neighborhood of 31-27. It’s not the easiest task on paper, especially against an offense that scored 513 points in the regular season and a much-maligned New England defense that finished a respectable 15th in points allowed.
But every time you think you’ve sentenced the Ravens’ to failure due to their flaws and write them off, they do something to surprise you, much as they did two years ago in Foxborough when they sent the Patriots home early after barely qualifying for the playoffs the week before.
It’s rarely easy on the eyes, but just ask Green Bay or New Orleans if style points really matter in January.
“I always say there is a right way to do things, there is a wrong way to do things, and there is just the Ravens’ way of doing things,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said following Sunday’s win over the Texans. “It wasn’t pretty, but we’re not really a pretty team.”
And the Ravens are comfortable in that position, with everyone counting them out.