Ravens no longer playing with “house money”

Joe Flacco

Last week I posted a column titled “Ravens playing with house money.” I wrote it because the Ravens needed help to get in to the playoffs, and it came in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs disposing of the San Diego Chargers. Of course they helped themselves by defeated the sliding Cleveland Browns, but still I felt that the Ravens could play fast and loose because in some ways, they weren’t supposed to be there.

But that’s not for me to analyze, discuss, or criticize. In fact, I can argue that with all of the distractions (Rice), injuries (19 of them), and late season suspension (Ngata), the Ravens did in fact deserve to be there by overcoming all odds. I certainly do not and would not make any apologies for them getting to the dance, not with an NFC team that finished 7-8-1 not only making the playoffs, but hosting a home game to boot!

Up to 87% of “internet experts” had predicted a loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers this past Saturday night.  Fortunately for the Ravens, they didn’t get the memo.  Then again, maybe they did, and simply chose to ignore it. Tough, resilient, and resourceful, they are a mirror image of their coach, John Harbaugh. He is positive, but demanding, and has done one heck of a job in his 7 years here in Baltimore.

The Ravens went up to Pittsburgh and punched the bully right in the mouth, right in his back yard, right in front of his fans. They sacked the cyborg of a QB known as Ben Roethlisberger. They delivered a defensive performance for the ages, and just enough offense to stay ahead of their hated rival.

There were big plays everywhere. Antonio Brown getting pushed out of bounds before he came down with the ball in the end zone. Terrell Suggs’ interception, where he squeezed the ball between his legs before it hit the ground. And then there was – to me – the biggest play of the game. In the third quarter, long time Ravens nemesis James Harrison badly beat rookie free agent left tackle James Hurst, and looked to be in position to strip sack and unsuspecting Joe Flacco, as he had done numerous times in the past. Kelechi Osemele peeled off of his block and in the nick of time knocked Harrison to the turf, averting potential disaster. On that third down play, Flacco threw an 11 yard TD to Torrey Smith.

The Ravens defensive line was simply dominating! They sacked Ben Roethlisberger 5 times! Suggs, Dumervil, Ngata, Williams, McPhee and Upshaw were absolutely tremendous! Ngata stood out in particular, and after a 4 week absence, he looked very much like a man with fresh legs and played with a chip on his shoulder! With a minute left in the game, he was still crashing the pocket and making a difference!

The defensive backs played well, and the story there is Rashaan Melvin. Wow, talk about a difference maker! It looked to be like the Steelers were targeting Lardarius Webb (who has been playing much better as of late, as he seems to have gotten a bit healthier). That’s really saying something, that they chose to go after the veteran, versus the practice squad free agent. Melvin is a tall corner, as he stands 6’2″.  He has rarely been out of position, and has been a terrific addition to the Ravens’ defense! Will Hill also stood out, particularly with a crushing hit late in the 4th quarter!

Justin Tucker pitched in with a 52 yard field goal.  That’s equivalent to a 60+ harder at any other stadium in the NFL, as Heinz Field’s conditions are always less than ideal for kickers. Sam Koch had a punt blocked late in the game, as he was attempting to directionally kick the ball away from Antonio Brown. Jacoby Jones and Michael Campanaro were not factors in the return game, but the Ravens’ special teams did a nice job in containing the Steelers’ return game.

The offensive line held up relatively well.  Yanda, Urschel and Osemele were particularly outstanding! In fact, Yanda absolutely erased Pittsburgh’s outstanding rush end Jason Worilds. I don’t recall hearing his name once during the telecast! James Hurst did have his hands full trying to contain James Harrison, and center James Zuttah was pushed back in to the backfield several times.

Joe Flacco was outstanding! He was cool, calm, poised and collected. His passes were spot on, and he did a great job in not turning the ball over.  As he approaches 30 years of age, he is turning into quite a quarterback. If he gets more consistent, he has a shot to be mentioned with the all time greats! All he does is win, particularly in the playoffs.  January Joe has 10 playoff wins in his career, most of them on the road!

The New England Patriots are the next challenge for the Ravens, and I believe they will be more than up to the task of handling it! The Patriots’ pain point is their offensive line. The Ravens’ strength is their defensive line. That’s what “The Hoodie” has to deal with this Saturday at 4:30 p.m.  If the Patriots can’t run the ball – and I don’t they can – they’re going to be in serious trouble, just like the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in. If they can’t run the ball, Tom Brady will be running for his life.  But what about the Gronk, you ask? Great question, but Brady will simply not have time to find him. Terrell Suggs always gets up for the Patriots, and for some reason, this has always been a difficult matchup for Belichik’s team.

Make no mistake about it, the Ravens will hit Brady – early and often. They will get him off of his spot, they will rattle him and make him uncomfortable! I believe that Joe Flacco will outplay him! The Ravens are hot, and will get hotter as they get deeper in to the playoffs. After they dispose of the Patriots, only the Indianapolis Colts or the Denver Broncos will be standing in the way of their 2nd Super Bowl appearance in the last 3 years! The know the road, the sacrifice, the way to get there. They’ve seen this movie before, and know what it takes for it in order to have a happy ending!

This team can stop the ball, it can run the ball, and as long as it doesn’t turn over the football, they have a legitimate shot of going all the way! Plus they have “January” Joe Flacco! He is the best quarterback in the league! That’s what John Harbaugh said Saturday night, and I  – for one – believe him! Besides, after the games that I watched yesterday, I didn’t see a team that the Ravens couldn’t beat! Believe me when I tell you that they are no longer playing with house money! They are the real deal! They belong, and they have arrived! They’ve made it to the final 4 in the AFC Super Bowl tournament, and are just 2 games away from going to Arizona on February 1st, as the Conference Champion!

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