After the Ravens handled the Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field on Saturday, winning 30-17, it started to feel—in the immortal words of Yogi Berra—like déjà vu all over again.
This year they needed help getting into the playoffs, and then they went to Pittsburgh, a place they’ve never won in the postseason before, and looked like a completely different team, like they found another gear, maybe two.
Now these Ravens look like they can play with anybody. We won’t go so far as to make any guarantees, but suffice it to say the dominant pass rush and quarterback Joe Flacco’s game management had shades of that championship run.
Skeptics will note Baltimore beat a Steelers team that was without its star rusher, Le’Veon Bell, who had one of the best seasons in the league this year. But that hardly matters. Wideout Antonio Brown still racked up more than 100 yards, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger managed to eclipse the 300-yard mark and distribute the ball to his receivers and tight ends.
What made their offense ineffective was the way the Ravens’ pass rush consistently got pressure on Big Ben, sacking him five times and intercepting him twice-—including the now-immortal play where linebacker Terrell Suggs caught a batted ball between his thighs.
And let us not forget that the Ravens were not without their own critical injuries: They lost starting left tackle Eugene Monroe and had to use two rookies—tackle James Hurst and guard John Urschel—on the offensive line. And on defense they still had to put a patchwork secondary on the field.
No matter. On Saturday night, a victory was almost never in doubt. The offense managed the game brilliantly and the defense came up with big plays when it needed to.
Speaking of the offense, we need to take a second to unpack the postseason brilliance of Flacco: most playoff wins since he joined the league (10), double that of each of the three QBs behind him, Drew Brees, Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers. He has two more road playoff wins than any other quarterback in NFL history.
On Saturday, he was terrific, avoiding pressure to find the open target, protecting the ball, and managing the offense with a steady hand. And we’re not talking game manager as in Trent Dilfer circa Super Bowl XXXV. Flacco made all the throws he needed to; he was stellar. So no matter what happens next week and beyond, I don’t want to hear any more bitching about Flacco in the years to come if he throws in a clunker during the regular season. Dude is one of the best quarterbacks in all of football when it counts. Shut your face.
To be honest, I had forgotten about that myself prior to the Pittsburgh game. The team looked flat in a loss against the Houston Texans and during the first half of the must-win season finale against the Cleveland Browns. Whatever rendering of the Baltimore Ravens that was is in the rearview. The group heading up to New England to face the Patriots this Saturday resembles the team that was in the thick of the AFC North division race all year.
Even with this sturdy first-round win against the Steelers, the Ravens will almost certainly head to Gillette Stadium as underdogs. This is Bill Belichick. This is a stingier defense than the one the Ravens just faced. This is Tom Brady and a team that’s won 10 of its last 12 and all of its home games except for a meaningless end-of-the-year match-up with the Buffalo Bills, when the Pats rested many of their starters.
But the Ravens have gone to Foxborough and beaten Brady and the Patriots before, and fresh off a rejuvenating victory, there’s nothing that says they can’t go up there and do it again.
It’s important to note, though, that no matter what happens on Saturday, the Ravens have a lot of work to do—and not just in the playoffs. A column this week on boston.com—give a grain of salt for the homer source—referred to the Ravens as “the most deplorable organization in American professional sports” and “the most hated team in the NFL.” Those sound like fighting words to us—we’re guessing the racist-nicknamed team from Washington or the Jerry Jones-owned Cowboys finish ahead of us on those lists—and we hope overblown bullshit like this motivates the team to victory this weekend. After all, it’s not exactly like the Patriots are without lawbreakers. Star tight end Aaron Hernandez was indicted for three murders and current cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was convicted of felony assault on a police officer. Also, the Patriots were actually caught cheating at football. So not sure how well the Pats stack up in the “deplorable” department.
But the fact remains that the Ravens organization has considerable work to do in the offseason, from both a policy and a public relations standpoint. From the slew of criminal problems before the season started to the many debacles during the course of the Ray Rice domestic-violence saga to the more recent announcement that the team’s head of security allegedly groped a female security worker, the entire organization needs to do a bit of soul-searching, particularly about the way its members treat women. This conversation needs to happen regardless of what the future holds.