Cautionary tale of a foe with pedigree
Nine Super Bowls ago, the Ravens demolished the New York Giants by a 34-7 score that in no way accounts for Baltimore’s embarrassing defensive dominance.
The Giants were held to 159 total yards. They crossed midfield twice. The only New York score came on a 97-yard Ron Dixon kickoff return, after which Jermaine Lewis one-upped him with an 84-yard TD return.
Offense? Almost irrelevant. The Ravens won with journeyman Trent Dilfer running an offense that produced 13 first downs and a modest 244 yards.
The Ravens created an everlasting image for themselves. They stood for something then, and they still stand for something now.
Though the Ravens have often been as offensively challenged as they were that evening in Tampa, over the years they have consistently turned out some of the great defensive units in the NFL. Nine years later, with 34-year-old linebacker Ray Lewis the only starter remaining from that Super Bowl unit, the Ravens still retain that aura of ferocity and physicality. The difference now is that they really do present many problems for their foes on offense.
Are they great? No, they’re not great. They’re 9-7. But they’re still dangerous, and they are proof that schedules are crucial to determining W’s and L’s. Six of those seven losses have come to playoff teams, and the seventh was to the defending champion Steelers. And they are just one year removed from playing in the AFC Championship game. The way Bill Belichick sees it, he’s preparing to play a top-tier NFL team.
He also knows the 27-21 victory his team had over the Ravens in Week 4 was sprinkled in pixie dust. There but for some dubious roughing-the-passer calls, some equally dubious pass interferences, and a sure first-and-goal at the 5 drop by Mark Clayton goes a big fat “L’’ for his team.
“They’re good in all three phases of the game,’’ he maintains. “We had problems with them in everything: offensively, defensively, special teams, running game, passing game. It was a very competitive game.
“I know they’re tough. I know they’re physical. They’re well-coached.’’
Though the Ravens have been almost completely turned over since that memorable performance nine years ago, they have been nicely reconstructed by Ozzie Newsome into a blend of experience and youth. This is a very seasoned team spiced up by the addition of two outstanding offensive rookies in 2008. They hit a substantial jackpot by drafting quarterback Joe Flacco out of Delaware, and they added an explosive offensive force in all-purpose running back Ray Rice from Rutgers, about whom it could properly be said that he is a Kevin Faulk with younger legs.
Flacco is a big, tough kid who can throw the ball deep and has had no apparent problem mastering the nuances of reading defenses. He was tough to deal with last year, and he is even more dangerous now that he has a weapon like Rice, a hard runner who is very skilled at catching the ball out of the backfield. And that’s not all.
“He’s very dangerous after the catch,’’ Belichick points out. “A quarterback has confidence in a back like that to get him off the hook when there’s pressure, or somebody’s not open. It’s easy to throw the ball to a guy like Rice, let him run with it and see what he can do.’’
The Baltimore defense remains stingy against the run, but it has proven to be vulnerable against the pass, which means this game might come down to which team can get the other QB off the field with at least an occasional incompletion, let alone an interception. Assuming both the great safety Ed Reed (whom Belichick would adopt if it didn’t seem like a conflict of interest) and linebacker Terrell Suggs play - injuries have been a problem for them - the Ravens will put forth a sound, intelligent defense against Tom Brady & Co.
“They all know their roles,’’ says Patriots center Dan Koppen. “They’re very experienced and they play well together.’’
The word “experience’’ might very well come into play. The Patriots’ offensive unit has been there before, many times over, the only conspicuous exceptions being rookie right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman, who will be asked to impersonate Wes Welker for real this time. But the defense and special teams are a very different matter.
This will be the first playoff game for the likes of linebacker Jerod Mayo, linebacker Gary Guyton, linebacker Rob Ninkovich, defensive lineman Myron Pryor, safety Pat Chung, safety Brandon McGowan, cornerback Darius Butler, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, cornerback/special teamer Kyle Arrington, and cornerback Leigh Bodden. Not all these gentlemen will be activated, but there will be a disproportionate amount of defensive and special teams players getting their first taste of playoff action.
To which 40-year-old Junior Seau says, yeah, well, whatever.
“Experience is nice,’’ he says. “You wouldn’t turn it down. Definitely not. But whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a rookie, you have to go out and participate in this win by execution. It’s all in execution, and going out there and being the football player you have to be.’’
Half-stepping won’t get it done. Blowing assignments won’t get it done. Being anything less than 100 percent committed won’t get it done. They are playing the Baltimore Ravens, a team that still feels a connection to Super Bowl XXXV.