Monthly Archives: January 2013

Jacoby Jones
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones celebrates as he crosses the goal line for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter of an AFC divisional playoff NFL football game

If this was just a semi-final game, what will the AFC championship game be like? The Baltimore Ravens improbable double-overtime win at the heavily-favored Denver Broncos has everyone talking this morning.

Was it Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, with 30 seconds left in regulation to tie the game? Was it Denver’s Trindon Holliday returning a punt AND a kickoff for touchdowns? Was it Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ dominating play (17 tackles over the nearly 77-minute game)? Was it Denver’s remarkable quarterback Peyton Manning’s bad throw, intended for Brandon Stokley, that Baltimore intercepted to set up the winning field goal?

Yes…that and more. I have seen a lot of Ravens games since they came into the league in 1996 including the 2001 Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants. I have seen them lose more than their share of games on last-second miscues (see: 2012 AFC Championship – Billy Cundiff). I have never seen a game like this.

Justin Tucker
Baltimore Ravens rookie placekicker, Justin Tucker, hits the game-winning field goal in the second overtime period.

When the best game that almost every Ravens’ player had ever been a part of was finally over, Flacco threw his hands in the air, kicker Justin Tucker emphatically pumped his fist and Lewis dropped to his knees, reduced to tears.</p

Tucker’s 47-yard field goal 1 minute and 42 seconds into the second overtime ended a thrilling and exhausting divisional round playoff game and sent the Ravens into the AFC championship game for the second straight year. The 38-35 victory over the Denver earns the Ravens a date with the winner of Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans. The AFC championship game will kickoff next Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the home of Sunday’s winner.

“When all the emotions calm down, it will probably be one of the greatest victories in Ravens history,” said Lewis whose retirement tour moves on at least one more week.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith who had two touchdown catches outplaying Broncos star cornerback Champ Bailey. “You play some games on Madden and you can’t even do that.”

“I always feel good about going out onto the field,” said Tucker a rookie free agent who beat out Cundiff in training camp to win the kicking job. “Not a lot of people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun.”

Denver entered the game with an 11-game winning streak, just three weeks removed from a 34-17 trouncing of the Ravens in Baltimore. But this time, in sub-zero wind chills, in Denver, the Ravens had their team healthy…and looked at times like they were playing with nothing to lose. That’s what being a 9-1/2 point underdog will do to you.

The face of the Baltimore franchise, Lewis, gets at least another week of working out, not that he’s unhappy about that. “I’ve never been a part of a game so crazy in my life,” he said.

Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning
Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis shakes hands Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) after the Ravens won 38-35 in overtime of an AFC divisional playoff game.

And Manning summed it up like this: “I wouldn’t say I was shocked. That’s not the right word. I’m disappointed.” As is all of Denver and their legions of fans. This was the most heartbreaking loss by the Broncos since losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a second-round playoff game at old Mile High Stadium after the 1996 season.

Bailey had a tough game. “I’m not surprised we lost,” Bailey said. “That’s a good football team. What I’m surprised about is how we made it a little easier for them.

“We preached all week: Don’t give up the deep ball, don’t turn the ball over. That’s the way they’ve been winning games. That’s the way they won tonight.”

“It is my fault,” Broncos safety Rahim Moore said. “I just misjudged it,” Moore said. “I let it go over my head, first of all, and I didn’t do what I do best, which is watch the flight of the ball.” The pass sailed over Moore’s head, right into Jones’ arms. Touchdown: 35-35. Moore was on the verge of tears after the game. “The loss, it was my fault,” Moore said. “I got a little too happy. It was pathetic. My fault. Next time I’ll make that play.”

“That’s the way Flacco throws. He throws them up like that,” Bailey said. “They are hard to judge. I know that’s a play Rahim will make 99 times out of 100, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

“If they wouldn’t have scored on us on the last play, we’d be in here rejoicing,” Moore said. “So if people don’t like me after that, I’m sorry. That is my fault, and I’m going to take full responsibility for it.”

The offensive line of Baltimore played one of its best games of the year – tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher combined to allow one total sack. Flacco completed 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. “Maybe people will stop underestimating Joe finally,” McKinnie said. “This could be the turning point in his career. People need to stop underestimating Joe and give him a little more respect.”

Flacco hit Smith for touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards, the latter one tying the game at 21 heading into the halftime. The two teams combined for 28 points in the game’s first 11 minutes, a torrid pace that started with Holliday’s 90-yard punt return touchdown and included Corey Graham’s 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, trying to tie the game, Flacco drove them down to the Broncos’ 31. However, back-to-back drops — the first by Jacoby Jones on third down and the second by Dennis Pitta on fourth down — turned the ball over on downs. The Ravens did force the Broncos to punt, but they still had their ball on their own 23 with no timeouts and just over a minute to play.

With 30 seconds left and 70 yards to traverse in order to have the opportunity to tie the game and send it into overtime, the Denver faithful, who had been celebrating ever since the Broncos went ahead midway through the fourth quarter, were as unprepared for what was to come as the Denver secondary.

Enter Jacoby Jones.

“I told myself that Joe might throw me the ball so I better haul but off the line,” Jones said.

After it was over, running back Ray Rice declared the Ravens “the team of destiny.”

“Just think about it,” he said. “You give up two special teams touchdowns and the way Peyton played, odds says we’re going to lose, but I think we’re the only group of people that believed that we could get it done, and we did it.”

The Ravens rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries, 131 of them gained on 30 carries by Pro Bowl running back Rice.

“Our offense goes through Joe,” said Rice, who scored one touchdown. “So when Joe plays at a high level like that, it makes everything a lot smoother. The way Joe was throwing the ball set up the running game in the second half. We were able to churn up yards in the running game because of the way Joe was on point.”

Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco out-played Denver’s Peyton Manning

“Joe made spectacular throws,” rookie offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. “We all know he has it in him.”

Flacco hasn’t turned the ball over since the first Broncos game.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has now been to the AFC championship game in three of his five seasons and while he abhors comparisons, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding trip than this.

“That was one of the best football games you’re ever going to see,” Harbaugh said. “That football game did the game of football proud. I’m just proud and grateful to have an opportunity to be part of this game. Our guys did not crack.” Perspectives on any player are going to evolve and that’s part of the process for any young quarterback. You look at one of the greatest to ever play the game that was on the other side today [Manning] and if you look back, the perspective on him as evolved over the years. Joe’s going to be like that, like any other quarterback. I’m proud of him.”

As a result, the Ravens boarded a plane on Saturday evening for a long trip home, knowing that they still have more football left to play.

Will more respect accompany the achievement for Flacco? “Joe has been taking heat for years and years,” Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach said. “He led our team. He showed everybody watching that game that he is an elite quarterback. He went out and proved it.”

“It was amazing. All the crazy stuff that went on — a punt return, a kick return — nobody flinched, man,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “Everybody stayed the path and that was good for us. We’re excited not to be packing our locker room up and going home.”

As for the Broncos, who entered the playoffs as the number one seed, a disappointing end to a spectacular season. Manning was better than anyone would have thought. Each week, this team seemed to get better and more intuitive. If you had said to me would the Ravens beat the Broncos if a) the Ravens were playing on a short week; b) the Ravens had to travel cross-country to play at altitude in Denver; c) the Ravens special teams would give up both a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns, the answer would have been absolutely not. But that’s why they play the games. Not one person I spoke to was taking the Ravens to outright win the game. Many were taking the 9-1/2 points, but no sane person said they would win.

Now, Denver licks its wounds, Baltimore prepares for New England or Houston next Sunday evening. Personally, I hope it’s New England, and I hope Baltimore finds a way to upset the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl. I thought Denver would have had a good shot at it…but now, let’s go Ravens!

 

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NFL Playoffs: AFC Shootout – Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos

In an AFC Divisional showdown, the Denver Broncos, winners of 11 games in a row, host the Baltimore Ravens Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) in what should be the final game in Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis’ career. I said should be…based on a lot of facts and figures.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis
Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis performs his pregame ritual before an AFC wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, on Sunday, January 6, 2013. Lewis announced his retirement early this week.

Before I get into the analysis of Saturday’s game, allow me one quick word about Lewis and one about the nickname for Baltimore’s team. Out of the University of Miami, he was the first player ever drafted by Baltimore…just before the team had a name. Ozzie Newsome, picked Lewis, and 17 years later, he certainly made the right decision.

FACTOID THAT YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW: In a fan-based vote, the name Ravens won out over the NFL-preferred name Rhinos (seriously) and a local name, Bombers (because Baltimore was where many bombers were built for WWII). There were also two others, but they escape me now.

broncos logo 1280x800ravens logoNow, my analysis: These two teams played in Week 15 in Baltimore (11-6, first in the AFC North), with Denver (13-3, first in the AFC West), winning handily, 34-17. The Broncos led 34-3 before the Ravens scored two meaningless touchdowns to make it look like a competitive game. It wasn’t. But remember, Lewis, the face-of-the-franchise, was not playing that day, recovering from his injured triceps. Bernard Pollard, a quality Ravens safety, was also inactive three weeks ago. So why would I think playing in Denver will result in any other decision. Unfortunately, as a Ravens fan, I don’t. Denver has been the hottest team in the league, winning 11 in a row and improving weekly under the guidance of Peyton Manning.

One problem with their schedule has been the fact that is was weak. They lost three games – the toughest games they played (at Atlanta, home against Houston, and at New England). If there were an NCAA-type committee looking at their schedule, it would look like cupcake city. That’s NOT their fault…but playing Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego twice, the depleted New Orleans Saints, catching the Carolina Panthers when they were really struggling…you get my drift. Yes, they beat a decent Cincinnati team, but, still…

The Broncos are not gloating about anything. “I think it’s going to be a lot harder than when we faced them the first time,” Broncos and former Ravens receiver Brandon Stokley said Sunday night. “They had a lot of injuries, especially defensively. I think a lot of those guys are back now. When they’ve got all their guys, they’ve got a great defense, especially in the red zone. And that’s what hurt Indy.”

Denver is second in the league in scoring (to New England) with 30.1 points per game. The problem for Baltimore, as I see it is the fact that they just gave up 419 yards to Indianapolis, with a rookie (albeit a great one) quarterback running a “conventional” offense. In fact, it was the sixth time this season the formerly-great Ravens D has allowed 400-plus yards. The difference now, is that the Ravens offense can score in many ways.

Denver, to me, has an advantage offensively vs. Baltimore’s defense…Manning and the Broncos run a no-huddle offense…although they only gained 350 yards against Baltimore last time out.

So here you have it…the Ray Lewis-provided inspiration going up against the Peyton Manning-led offense. Denver has lost just one game at home this season, in Week 3 against Houston, before Manning hit his stride. What a challenge lays ahead for the purple-clad visitors.

“I’m really looking forward to [next week’s game]” said Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the Ravens with five catches for a team-playoff record 145 yards, including a game-sealing, fourth-quarter, 18-yard touchdown grab. “I was hoping we would get them. So, they’ll see us next week.”

sp-p-ravens-colts-fox

And what’s going to be different this time? “We’ll make it different,” Boldin said, before exiting the postgame stage last Sunday.

Last Sunday the Ravens provided the home-crowd with a promising look at a defense that bent, but did not break, against rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Facing Manning on Saturday will prove to be a bit different.

“In the playoffs, you play great teams,” said the Ravens’ John Harbaugh (pictured below), after securing a playoff victory for the record fifth year in a row, his first five as an NFL head coach. “I like the fact that our team has been here before. We’ve made this six-day turnaround road trip three other times. This will be our fourth time in five years playing a [playoff] road game on a short week. So we know how to do that.

Harbaugh_John

“We’ve got a lot of respect for [the Broncos]. Denver came in here and played really well against us and beat us pretty good,” the coach continued. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to go play them again.

“You can’t play a 60-minute football game on emotion,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to go play football. You’ve got to go play well. To me, you just don’t do that emotionally. Emotion wears out really fast. So, we’ll carry that forward. We’ll still be emotional and enthusiastic, but the fact that we played well, that’s what’s important.

The Ravens’ pass rush was their best weapon against Luck, sending multiple-look blitzes at the rookie. Manning has seen them all. And the Broncos’ offensive line will NOT confuse anyone with Indy’s. They have allowed just 21 sacks this season, second-fewest in the league.

Manning has a stellar 2-0 record against Baltimore in the playoffs, and should be looking forward to matching up with the Ravens once again. The winner gets a date in the Jan. 20 AFC Championship Game. Saturday, it’s Lewis vs. Manning. The greatest linebacker and quarterback of their NFL generation. Squaring off one more time. With the same, old feeling.

Lewis, for one, is looking forward to playing against Manning one last time. “They are always classic,” Lewis said of his career matchups with Manning. “I will tell you that. It’s just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know him very well. I think just for me and him back colliding; [but] at the end of the day, it’s not about me and Peyton. It’s about their team against our team. I just like our team. I love our team right now, and I am really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week.”

Lewis has been called by teammates, coaches and even opponents one of the game’s most effective leaders. The impact of such an emotional leader cannot be overvalued, Broncos coach John Fox said Monday.

fox_john_pc

“There are people on teams that raise all boats, raise all levels,” Fox (above) said. “They can inspire. He does that.”

Lewis, 37, has lost some speed and sometimes struggles in space, but he recorded a team-best 13 tackles Sunday despite wearing a brace on his right arm.

“This is a game of passion, emotion and enthusiasm,” said Broncos linebacker Keith Brooking, a 15-year veteran. “A lot plays into that. If you’re a team that goes into a game with just that (emotion) and doesn’t run real deep in your preparation and attention to detail, that all fades quickly once toe meets leather.

“But when you’re a player of Ray Lewis’ magnitude, his leadership doesn’t start on game day. His leadership starts throughout the course of the week. That runs deep through their team. They’re a reflection of that.”

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis took a victory lap around Baltimore’s M&T Stadium last Sunday. He had just played his final game in his home stadium.

The Ravens want to atone for their loss to Denver three weeks ago, and relish the opportunity to do it at Mile High. “If you’ve ever been in a fight with somebody and they beat you, you want to fight again,” said Baltimore offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, throwing back the shoulders on his 6-foot-8, 354-pound frame to appear as intimidating as humanly possible.

Denver’s players certainly understand the psychology of the underdog team trying to make good on a past poor performance. “Definitely, (the Ravens) have a lot to prove, but we still have a lot to prove,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said Monday. “We know the playoffs are where you make your name. Our goal is to win a Super Bowl, and they’re standing in the way of our goal.”

Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard
Another linebacker who wears Number 52…Denver’s Wesley Woodyard

“Of course they’re going to be amped up this weekend,” Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “But it’s a playoff game, and everybody’s emotions are going to be running high.”

Asked Monday what he thought the Ravens’ approach would be Saturday against the Broncos’ defense, linebacker Wesley Woodyard said: “Same scheme, same mentality: Try to bully you, try to come in and run the ball right down your throat.”

In that 34-17 beat-down three weeks ago, you have to wonder if there are any emotional scars on the Ravens? “He (Manning) didn’t put his hands on me or nothing like that,” joked Ed Reed, the Baltimore defender with nine Pro Bowl seasons on his résumé and more than a few flecks of gray in his beard.

“We know what we got. (The Broncos) know what we got. We’re going down there with all our weapons and all our tools. And we’re coming to bang.”

Tale of the Tape:

Baltimore strengths: The Ravens’ offense is diverse, with the ability to pound the ball in the running game and throw the ball down the field in the passing game. Rookie Bernard Pierce (103 yards on 13 carries Sunday against the Colts) gained at least 1,300 yards and averaged more than 5 yards per carry in two of his three seasons at Temple. He gives the Ravens a speed-size option in the running game to go with Ray Rice. When veteran QB Joe Flacco gets support from the running game, he’s a tough out. Flacco has thrown for at least 282 yards in seven games this season, all wins.This, plus the Ravens have won playoff games on the road and in cold weather (at New England). It is expected to be 20 degrees in Denver on Saturday.

Baltimore’s weakness: The Ravens’ defense gave up 419 yards to the Colts on Sunday, including 152 rushing. It was the sixth time this season the Ravens allowed at least 400 total yards and the sixth time they allowed at least 160 rushing. Baltimore has struggled to control the line of scrimmage all season, especially when opponents are able to keep star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata away from the action. This, plus the Ravens are playing this game on a short-week (6 days). They will fly into Denver Thursday night to acclimate to the altitude.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning could be the league’s MVP and the Comeback Player of the Year.

Denver’s strengths: Peyton Manning. And a better-than-you-think defense. How the Ravens handle the no-huddle offense should be the tale of the game. If Manning has his way, he will dink-and-dunk down the field. Limiting the Ravens offense playing time will just hurt the Ravens defense. Playing at 5,280 feet at 35 years of age (or older) could also play a huge role. This, plus they are playing on a week’s rest, at home, and are used to playing at the 5,280 foot altitude.

Denver’s weakness: Relatively untested team in the playoffs (under Manning). Yes, I remember last year when Tim Tebow shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers with one pass, but this is a different team. I think they are a better team, but playing an emotional veteran team like the Ravens could be their undoing. This, plus maybe, just maybe, Denver is looking past Baltimore (mistake). I cannot believe this would be the case, because, seriously, Baltimore COULD upset Denver and beat New England (presumed winner Sunday) to atone for last year’s loss.

Key to victory: With guard Chris Kuper and offensive tackle Ryan Clady dealing with injuries, protecting quarterback Peyton Manning will be the No. 1 issue the Broncos face. The Ravens blitzed Colts rookie Andrew Luck a lot Sunday, sacking him three times. If the Ravens are convinced Denver’s offensive line is banged up, they will send extra pass rushers after Manning. That’s their best hope of slowing Denver’s offense. In order to have any chance in this game, the Ravens MUST slow Manning down and get him out of the pocket with blitz packages.

Who wins: Denver beats the Ravens, in a closer game than three weeks ago. Call it Denver 23 Baltimore 13.

From our friends at the worldwide leader, ESPN, here are eight notes, nuggets and numbers you need to know heading into the matchup:

Final Four Repeat
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, all four remaining AFC teams reached the Divisional round last season, the first time ever the same teams were the “Final Four” in a conference in back-to-back seasons.

Ravens’ Recent Playoff Success
The Ravens have won a playoff game in each of the past five seasons, just the sixth team in NFL history to pull off that feat. In the process Joe Flacco became the first quarterback ever to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.

Flacco Likes the Road
Flacco is 4-4 on the road in eight playoff starts. Eli Manning (five) is the only starting quarterback with more road wins in the postseason.

QBR Leader
Flacco led all quarterbacks last weekend with a Total QBR of 89.5, nearly double his regular-season QBR of 46.8. That was by far the largest increase in Total QBR of the eight quarterbacks who started last weekend.

Rookie Running Wild
Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards last week, the second Ravens rookie with 100 rushing yards in a playoff game. Jamal Lewis did it twice in the 2000 playoffs, the year the Ravens won their only Super Bowl title.

Postseason Veteran
Peyton Manning is making his 12th postseason appearance, tied with Brett Favre for the most in NFL history by a starting quarterback.

Joe Flacco (left) and Peyton Manning look to lead their teams to the AFC Championship game next week.
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco (left) and Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning are respected leaders.

Manning and Broncos Going Streaking
Manning has won nine straight starts against the Ravens, including the playoffs. That’s the second-longest active winning streak by a quarterback over a particular opponent. Coincidentally, Flacco has won 10 straight against the Cleveland Browns, the only active streak longer than Manning’s over the Ravens.

The Broncos have won 11 straight games, the longest active win streak in the NFL and their longest since opening the 1998 season 13-0. They won the Super Bowl that season.

Home Field Advantage
The Broncos are 13-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, which is tied for the second-best home playoff record (minimum of five games).

Season Result Site
1996 Broncos W, 45-34, Denver
2000 *Ravens W, 21-3, Baltimore
2001 Ravens W, 20-13, Denver
2002 Ravens W, 34-23, Baltimore
2003 Ravens W, 26-6, Baltimore
2005 **Broncos W, 12-10, Denver
2006 Broncos W, 13-3, Denver
2009 Ravens W, 30-7, Baltimore
2010 Ravens W, 31-17, Baltimore
2012 **Broncos W, 34-17, Baltimore
*AFC wild-card playoff game
** Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis did not play because of injury.