When I wrote a few months ago that the Ravens had the look of a championship team, I certainly had my doubts about them actually being able to live up to the legacies of the Packers and Giants as the league’s previous 2 champions by catching lightning in a bottle at just the right time. That however is exactly what has happened so far, and now for the 3rd time in 5 years the Ravens find themselves within one game of the Super Bowl.
The funny thing about the week leading up to the game in Denver was that on paper at least, it seemed to be the most daunting task the Ravens had faced in the playoffs since the Flacco, Harbaugh et al era began. It sounded strange to say that, while still holding out hope that they could win, because obviously they’ve been ousted from the playoffs in each of the last 4 years by teams that didn’t look nearly as frightening as the Broncos seemed to be.
The one saving grace in that expectation was that the previous most daunting playoff match-up in Ravens playoff history was probably their game against the Tennessee Titans in their run to Super Bowl 35, and of course we all remember how that one ended.
If we were looking for the defining moments and match-ups in Saturday’s game that helped to propel the Ravens to victory we could likely spend at least as long as they spent playing the game…perhaps even longer doing it. Here however are my 7 key elements to Saturday’s win against the Broncos and the questions that arise as a result, relative to the AFC title game and the New England Patriots.
#1 – The Offensive Line
The newly retooled offensive line has come to play so far in the playoffs and on Saturday they were more than impressive in stymieing the likes of Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and company. Bryant McKinnie was great at left tackle, Michael Oher was comfortable and dominant restored to his natural right tackle spot, Kelechi Osemele seems much better suited (at least for now) at the left guard where he was able to work in concert with Matt Birk, and almost everything the Ravens do on the ground begins with Marshal Yanda who seems healthy once again.
The Ravens Offensive line was so effective at stopping a previously dominant Denver pass rush that the Broncos secondary as a result was exposed. The additional time that the Ravens offense had to let routes develop downfield showed weaknesses in the Denver secondary that arguably no one, even the Broncos, knew that they had. Say what you want about Rahim Moore as the goat in Saturday’s game, but at least part of the issue with is big missed play has to be attributed to the fact that he was forced into a role that he hadn’t had to play all year because the Denver corners weren’t able to maintain man coverage vs. the Ravens.
The Question: Having dealt effectively with 2 pretty good edge rushing defenses, how do the Ravens, and particularly Matt Birk deal with New England’s interior rush and the disruptive capabilities of Vince Wilfork who was dominant in last year’s AFC title game?
#2 – Variety of Weapons
I’ve made arguments throughout the Flacco era in Baltimore that he hasn’t been sufficiently armed with the types of weapons that seemingly every other high level quarterback has at his disposal. That still may be the case, but since Jim Caldwell has taken over the offensive reigns the Ravens have used the middle of the field much more effectively. Torrey Smith has shown tremendous upside in his downfield blocking of late and Anquan Boldin has been a deep threat at times. Ed Dickson has returned to the lineup providing some much needed blocking assurance, and Jacoby Jones has been reincorporated into the offense. Add Bernard Pierce and his complimentary running style to Ray Rice’s and suddenly, despite the lack of any superstars in the receiving corps, Baltimore has a variety of weapons that all have to be accounted for equally. As a result, their ability of spread defenses out, and accept what the defense is allowing has enabled Joe Flacco, behind that newly retooled offensive line, to sit back and pick the opposition apart.
The Question(s): Which Flacco target will be the key against New England’s suspect pass defense?
If Bernard Pierce is unable to go, how much faith can the Ravens have in Anthony Allen to spell Ray Rice?