The Baltimore Ravens have been in a gradual re-tooling process the last two seasons, since winning the Super Bowl in 2012 and then saying goodbye to franchise legends Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, along with other key contributors on defense. They missed the playoffs in 2013 and were in danger of doing so last year. But a strong finish and a good showing in the postseason have marked them, at least to me, as the team to beat for the AFC title in 2015.
I know we’re supposed to begin every conversation about football with the quarterback, but I’m still clinging to this notion that line play matters, and that’s where the conversation about the Ravens has to begin.
This offensive line is going to be the best in football. Marshal Yanda is one of the league’s top guards, and Kelechi Osemeli grades out very well by the film reviewers of ProFootbalFocus.com. Earl Monroe is solid at left tackle.
If we jump over to the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, we see a high-quality nose tackle in Brandon Williams, along with tackle Timmy Jernigan, both players who command a high degree of respect at PFF. The Ravens play a 3-4 scheme that doesn’t always allow its lineman to stand out, but these are the players who have to tie up blockers and free linebackers to make plays.
Now about those linebackers. This is another position group that is the best of its kind in the NFL. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil attack from the outside and combined for 29 sacks. Daryl Smith and C.J. Moseley are tough on the inside. You aren’t going to run the ball on the Ravens and you aren’t going to get time to throw. And if you want to try and throw short passes the receivers are going to get crushed—strong safety Will Hill is another player that deserves mention here.
Thus, we come around to the quarterback position. Joe Flacco had one of the great postseasons of all time during the 2012 run, and used his leverage to get a contract that would be more appropriate to someone with the stature of Brady, Manning or Rodgers. Flacco isn’t that and his inability to drag a rebuilding team to the playoffs in 2013 proved it. But if you have the right kind of supporting cast, the way the team did in his first NFL years from 2008-12 and has again now, he’s plenty good enough.
Flacco’s 62 percent completion rate tracks with the league norm, and his 27/12 TD-INT ratio is good enough. What really separates him is the ability to make plays down the field. Flacco generates 7.2 yards-per-attempt, compared to a league average of 6.4. That’s a huge difference over the course of a season.
Baltimore’s offensive line is going to ensure the team runs the football. Justin Forsett made the Pro Bowl last year and if he can’t replicate that performance, a team with this kind of line will find someone else who can. Flacco is going to get protection and he’s got the ferociously competitive Steve Smith as his top target. Smith’s fiery persona fits in well with the identity this franchise his cultivated, starting with Lewis.
The other AFC contenders have flaws I don’t like. New England has defensive personnel to replace. Indianapolis isn’t tough enough in the trenches and Andrew Luck needs to cut back on the turnovers. I’m much higher on Denver than most people and am really looking forward to the Ravens-Broncos game on Sunday, the first late Sunday afternoon national TV battle of the year. But the ability of Baltimore up front gives them the edge, at least over the long haul.
I don’t necessarily pick the Ravens to win the Super Bowl—I think Green Bay is going to win it all and I’ve got Seattle as the second-best team. And it’s quite possible Baltimore doesn’t get the #1 seed—I suspect New England, in an overrated AFC East, can again churn that out. But we’ve seen that the Ravens don’t fear going to Foxboro in January, or anywhere else for that matter.
Under the leadership of head coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore has won road playoff games in New England (twice), Denver and Pittsburgh, in addition to Kansas City and Miami. That inspires a high degree of confidence the Ravens can make it through the AFC from any spot on the bracket. I think they’ll be in Santa Clara on February 7.
The Baltimore Ravens promised to be one of the more interesting teams in the NFL in 2013. After their dramatic Super Bowl run of 2012, the Ravens said goodbye to eighteen players, including the team’s heart and soul, in linebacker Ray Lewis. The captain retired and other key veterans like Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin went elsewhere, as the team had to pour significant salary cap dollars into retaining quarterback Joe Flacco, who was going into free agency.
Talent evaluators still felt that the ’13 Ravens would be a better team–Lewis and Reed were clearly at the end of the line, their main value being leadership rather than talent at this stage of their careers. The question was going to be whether talent could trump intangibles.
So far, the answer is no. Baltimore is 5-6 as they get set to host hated AFC North rival Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. But there’s enough good going on with this team, and after their sudden turnaround in December of last season, the Ravens remain as interesting a team as there is. Let’s take a look at what they need to do down the stretch.
The team as a whole might miss the leadership of Lewis & Reed, but that’s not being reflected in the defensive performance. The Ravens continue to play solid defense, ranking seventh in the NFL in points allowed. They’re a little susceptible to the big play, but that’s a byproduct of a defensive outlook that forces a lot of incompletions (6th in completion percentage allowed), has a great pass rush and shuts down the run.
Taken in that context, a ranking of 19th in yards allowed per pass is a pretty reasonable price to pay. Baltimore is having success turning outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil loose. If the only way to beat a team is to throw the ball downfield, that’s a difficult thing to pull off in December conditions with a hard pass rush bearing down on you.
It’s the offense that’s been a complete train wreck. The line has been terrible. Marked by instability on the left side, the Ravens can’t protect Flacco, nor can they clear any space for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Without time to throw, Flacco can’t use his accuracy on the deep ball and his receiving threats in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith.
There’s no statistical category where this offense is anything less than poor. In a purely football sense, Flacco can’t be blamed–when there’s no time to throw and no running game, you can’t get anything done. But Flacco was rather vocal last offseason about maximizing his contract, even if it meant the organization would be hamstrung under the salary cap. If he comes in for some heat now that he’s not carrying the team singlehandedly, he’s asked for it.
But Flacco was inconsistent through much of last season, before turning in a brilliant run in the postseason. The same opportunity is still ahead. Baltimore is one of six teams that are tied for the AFC’s final playoff spot at 5-6. After Thursday night, they’ve got another home game with Minnesota, so getting to 7-6 is very reasonable.
December 16 is when the stretch drive gets tough. Baltimore makes a Monday Night visit to Detroit and they close the season with a road game in AFC North-leading Cincinnati. In between will be a hyped game with New England, the rematch of the last two AFC Championship Games and currently scheduled in the prime-time Sunday night slot.
The Baltimore Ravens remain interesting. I’m sure though, that head coach John Harbaugh would like to replace “interesting” with “unequivocally successful.” The decisive moment for answering all his team’s preseason question marks is rapidly arriving.
This isn’t a question our NFL analysis would normally ask of a team that just won the Super Bowl, but it applies to the Baltimore Ravens—can they get better? Not just a little bit better, but this team will need to make substantial improvement if they hope to make another serious run at the brass ring.
When you look at the Baltimore season, you see a lot of mediocrity. They slumped badly at the end of the year, nearly kicked away the division and had to shake up the offensive coaching staff in mid-December to get themselves back on track.
Joe Flacco’s quarterback play was mediocre, ranking around the middle of the league in both completion percentage and yards-per pass. The pass protection was subpar. The defense did not generate much of a pass rush.
But everything came together at the right time. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs got healthy in December. The change in the coaching staff had immediate good effects. Lewis’ retirement announcement gave the Ravens the intangible lift. And Flacco stepped up and had an extraordinary run in the postseason.
The team needed one break—that would be Denver’s Rahim Moore inexplicably letting Jacoby Jones get behind him in the waning moments of their second-round playoff game, but once Baltimore got that break, they didn’t look back.
It adds up to making Baltimore one of the most interesting teams in the NFL for 2013. You can make an argument that the playoff run was a magic ride, and the team will now slide back to being average, especially with Lewis retired and veteran free safety Ed Reed also gone.
But you can also argue that the offensive staff changes unleashed Flacco, and they are here to stay. You can argue that the Ravens played most of 2012 without lockdown corner Lardarius Webb, whom they now have back. You can point out that they made some good acquisitions, like Chris Canty on defense, and that backup running back Bernard Pierce also started to emerge in the postseason.
Either argument is reasonable and Las Vegas seems to shift to the pessimistic side, posting Baltimore’s Over/Under win prop at 8.5. I don’t know that I see the Ravens as Super Bowl-caliber again, but I’m a little more optimistic than that. I would be very surprised if they don’t have at least a winning season and that puts them Over.
Since John Harbaugh took the reins of the Baltimore Ravens four years ago, his teams have won 43 regular season games and picked up five playoff wins. They captured their first AFC North title a year ago. But the one thing they don’t have is a Super Bowl trip. The last two years have seen playoff losses in Pittsburgh and New England that took ripping the hearts out of a fan base and raised it to an art form. The debate now is whether the Ravens’ window of opportunity has closed. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look as we begin the final countdown to the regular season opener…
OFFENSE: Age is a factor at a lot of spots on this team and we have to begin with the offensive line. Matt Birk was a quality center last year, but he’s 36. Bobbie Williams at left guard is 35 and Bryant McKinnie at left tackle is the spring chicken of that side of the line at 32. More important, neither Williams nor McKinnie is a standout player, though both have been functionable. On the other side Marshall Yanda is a standout at right guard. Tackle Michael Oher—shifted away from the blind side in spite of his being the focal point of the movie by that same name—ha s talent and run-blocking sills, but scouts criticize his lack of ability to recover in pass protection if he loses the initial hit.
Joe Flacco might have answered all the questions that linger about his big-game capacity if only Lee Evans had hung on to a game-winning pass in the end zone at the end of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Instead, Evans dropped the ball, Billy Cundiff shanked the ensuing field goal and while Flacco got praise for outplaying Tom Brady, don’t expect anyone to remember if the Ravens’ quarterback can’t get to a Super Bowl soon.
The offense is built around Ray Rice, who racked up over 1,300 yards in rushing and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. And while the receiving corps is not great, the combo of possession receiver Anquan Boldin and downfield threat Torrey Smith have given Flacco two good targets. The team could use someone to step up as a third receiver, but no obvious candidate exists, nor has Baltimore been able to adequately replace Todd Heap at tight end.
DEFENSE: The Baltimore defense won’t be what it used to be this season. The linebackers are at the heart of the 3-4 scheme and the Ravens are very weak on the outside and one of the inside spots. The one strength is, of course, Ray Lewis—who happens to be 37 years old. Then you go to the defensive backfield and while free safety Ed Reed is still 33 years old and as good as there is when healthy, his health is far from a given. The best player on the defense these days is Haloti Ngata, the defensive end. But the system played doesn’t really free Ngata up and he only had five sacks last year. So where will the big plays come from?
Baltimore’s going to hope Lardarius Webb, their emerging corner can take care of top receivers one-on-one. This is going to be necessary, because Cary Williams is a weak link on the other corner and Reed will need to shade that side of the field to help. Bernard Pollard is a rock solid at strong safety—not a great player, but very good and no real weaknesses in his game.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION:10— I think the Ravens have hit the end of the line and have no hesitation on going Under,even if they’ve won at least 11 games in three of Harbaugh’s four years.
We’ve had five days to digest the results of Championship Sunday—or if you’re a fan in Baltimore and San Francisco, to regurgitate them back up. And a question remains—was the Ravens’ 23-20 loss in New England the most gut-wrenching conference championship game loss in the Super Bowl era of NFL playoff history?
I can already hear the shouts in San Francisco, who say it wasn’t even the most gut-wrenching loss of January 22, 2012, much less the 46-year history of the Super Bowl era. But I think Baltimore fans get the nod in the agony department for these reasons—
*They blew the game not once, but twice, and both in a span of three plays
*Either play—Lee Evans’ missed opportunity in the end zone to win it, or Billy Cundiff’s shanked 32-yard field goal to tie it would have stood up individually in a Worst Loss Ever discussion. Collectively, they’re a killer 1-2 punch at the heart of the Baltimore psyche.
*The missed field goal literally ended the game, save for a kneel-down. Even when Kyle Williams fumbled the punt away, there was still at least a glimmer for Niner fans to lean on—maybe a sack, maybe a missed field goal, anything. With Baltimore, it was just over. It also can’t be overlooked that while San Francisco handed a chance to win to New York, the Niners never actually had an opportunity to win the game themselves. Baltimore did.
*Historical context matters. For San Francisco this is the just the start of what they hope will be successful run under Jim Harbaugh and they expect to be back. For Baltimore, the phrase “the window is closing” was heard all year long. They’ve been in the playoffs four straight years and a legitimate contender each time. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed showing obvious signs of wear and tear, there’s less certainty about the future, especially for these core players.
So without minimizing the pain of San Francisco fans—the mere fact your team even gets in this discussion means you warrant the empathy of sports fans everywhere—I think Baltimore’s was worse, and we’ll use the above criteria as the measuring stick for this run through other notable championship game losses…
1967 NFL: Green Bay 21 Dallas 17—This was the famed Ice Bowl, where Green Bay’s Bart Starr sneaks it over from the one-yard line to win the game. In favor of this game, it was the second straight year the Cowboys lost the championship on the goal-line (their 34-27 loss in 1966 didn’t qualify because they were still too young, a la the 2011 Niners).
We can’t minimize the defeat on the grounds that Dallas would win the Super Bowl in 1971 and go on to a long run of success that would make them America’s Team. We had no way of knowing that then, and for all we know now, the Ravens might have great years ahead of them. But Green Bay driving into field goal range to potentially tie the game can’t come as a huge shock, and after that, the one-yard plunge doesn’t measure up to the plays that Baltimore lost on.
1974 NFC: Minnesota 14 LA Rams 10—Los Angeles drove it to the one-yard line. A disputed illegal motion play was called on Ram guard Tom Mack and set them back to the six. Now having to throw, the Rams threw an interception in the end zone. With the benefit of history this one’s ugly—LA lost three NFC Championship games in five years and to have an arguable call go against you is a killer. But this was the first of the losses, so it doesn’t rise up to Baltimore pain.
1975 AFC: Pittsburgh 16 Oakland 10: The Raiders went through a lot of frustration under John Madden and we don’t have the benefit of seeing their Super Bowl win one year leader. This one ended with a long pass from Kenny Stable to Cliff Branch into Pittsburgh territory, with Branch being wrapped up as the gun went off. The Raiders just didn’t get as close to winning as Baltimore did last Sunday.
1981 NFC: San Francisco 28 Dallas 27: It was Dwight Clark’s year of The Catch. Joe Montana drives San Francisco 89 yards, starting with 4:54 on the clock and beats the Cowboys on a ball he was trying to throw away that Clark skies for and pulls in by his fingertips. Forgotten is that after the ensuing kickoff, Cowboy receiver Drew Pearson caught a pass at midfield and nearly broke away for the winning score. At the very least, there was time for a couple more plays to get in field goal range, but Dallas fumbled it away the next play. This one meets a lot of criteria, but by this point the Cowboys already had a couple Super Bowl rings in their back pocket, so that minimized the agony a bit.
1986 AFC: Denver 23 Cleveland 20—We’ve got an argument here. Denver drives 98 yards, converts two fourth downs and ties the game at the end of regulation—on the road no less, and then wins it in overtime. If we knew then what we know now—that Cleveland would still be looking for its first Super Bowl and Marty Schottenheimer’s splendid career would be haunted by the lack of one, we could rate this higher. But we didn’t know that then. Cleveland was a lot like San Francisco this year.
1987 AFC: Denver 38 Cleveland 33—This one was featured last week as part of the 1987 Championship Sunday package that, until last Sunday, I would have rated as the best one ever. Trailing 38-31, Cleveland’s Earnest Byner is going in for the score to tie and is stripped at the last minute, in the same way Lee Evans was on Sunday in Foxboro. Taken by itself, this game would lose points because Cleveland was only going to tie, and not win. But on top of the cumulative weight of the previous year, we have ourselves a contender. Ironically, the organizational infrastructure of Cleveland was the one that relocated in 1995 to Baltimore.
1987 NFC: Washington 17 Minnesota 10: A great game, whose ending is recapped in the ’87 feature, but the Vikes were only going to tie and not win.
1990 NFC: NY Giants 15 San Francisco 13: If you want to talk about the greatest conference championship game ever played, this one’s got a case. And San Francisco losing a bid for a third straight Super Bowl title is certainly gut-wrenching. But still….when you’ve won the last two, losing this game can’t be the worst ever.
1994 AFC: San Diego 17 Pittsburgh 13: Neil O’Donnell’s last pass into the end zone is batted down on 4th-and-3 and leads to the offseason slogan of “Three More Yards” that would carry the Steelers the whole next season. Bill Cowher’s operation in Pittsburgh was still in its infancy though, so there weren’t enough gut-wrenching playoff defeats on the books to make this one the straw that broke the camel’s back.
1995 AFC: Pittsburgh 20 Indianapolis 16: Ironically Jim Harbaugh was on the losing end here, this time as quarterback. Indy controlled the game throughout, but a tough call on a catch that looked out-of-bounds, set the Steelers up for the go-ahead score late. Finally on the last play Harbaugh’s Hail Mary to the end zone looked caught, but was bobbled and the Steelers survived. Indy’s got themselves a good case—ironically another instance of the teams with the best cases having some kind of tie to the city of Baltimore, past or future—but there weren’t enough playoff appearances prior.
1998 NFC: Atlanta 30 Minnesota 27 (OT): It’s impossible to overstate how good this Minnesota team was. They were 15-1 and just leveling people in their wake. A franchise that had never won a Super Bowl, and not even been to one since ’76, was primed to cap off a run of playoff appearances that began in 1992 and finally take the next step. Leading 27-20, Pro Bowl kicker Gary Andersen, as lights out a kicker as there was, missed a field goal that would have clinched it, and the Falcons win in overtime. Folks, I think we have a new leader.
1999 NFC: St. Louis 11 Tampa Bay 6: Just losing a game with a score this ugly has to make poor Tampa and Tony Dungy a candidate. They kept high-powered Kurt Warner under control the whole game on the road and only a tough call late, where a catch was ruled incomplete on a late drive, kept Tampa out. If we’d known then that Tampa would lose the next two years in the playoffs and Dungy would be fired we would give this game more weight. Of course if we’d known that Tampa would win the Super Bowl with Jon Gruden in 2002 and Dungy would win with Peyton in 2006, we’d feel much better. Either way, not in the class of ’98 Minnesota, ’87 Cleveland or ’11 Baltimore.
2006 AFC: Indy 38 New England 34: The Patriots blew a 21-3 lead here, but given that they won three Super Bowls from 2001-04, I can’t elevate this one any more than I already have just by putting it on the list.
2007 NFC: NY Giants 23 Green Bay 20 (OT): It was Brett Favre’s final game as a Packer, and there was a general feeling at the time that this would be the case, so that only magnified the drama. And I’ve got a friend who attended this game personally and the bitter cold and biting wind made the game a miserable experience to attend and see a loss. But the bottom line is this—the Giants outhit the Packers in both trenches all game long and what’s amazing to me today is not that Green Bay lost, but how in the hell they got to overtime to begin with.
2008 NFC: Arizona 32 Philadelphia 25: I think this one’s going to be underrated in NFL history. The Eagles had a 25-24 lead in the fourth quarter, after rallying from 24-6 down. The Eagles had a history of conference championship game losses, losing in this round each year from 2001-03, and while they got past the hurdle in 2004 they still didn’t win the Super Bowl. Arizona’s fourth quarter drive to win it didn’t come at the bitter end, so the game doesn’t have the last-second or overtime quality you want in a worse loss, but this is the darkhorse candidate.
2009 NFC: New Orleans 31 Minnesota 28 (OT): Minnesota’s back again. So is Favre. The Vikes are driving for the winning score. Favre rolls right. All he has to do is take the ten yards in front of him step out of bounds and kick the field goal. Instead he throws a pass back across his body into the middle of the field where it’s picked off. The Saints win in overtime. Both player and team lose their last chance at a Super Bowl on an utterly hideous play that mars an otherwise brilliant season from Favre and gutty game. Because the Vikes were on the road and a 4-point underdog, I can’t put this game up with their 1998 loss. And because the only blew it once, they still trail this year’s Ravens who blew it twice. But this is a High-Level Agony game.
There’s the roundup. I’m submitting 1998 Minnesota as the worst conference championship game loss ever and leave you with a quote from a relative who lives in Minnesota and is a lifelong Vikings fan, who said when he died he wanted six Viking players to be his pallbearers—“That way they can let me down one last time.” Today, Baltimore fans are empathizing.