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Monday, January 14, 2013

Raving about the Ravens

Ray Lewis after the double-overtime thriller against the Denver Broncos on Saturday

It’s not too often that I’m overcome with a hunch so overbearing that I feel the need to write about it, but now is that time. After a wild weekend of playoff football, if I were a betting man, I would be putting my money on the bruisers from Baltimore to be raising the Lombardi Trophy on February 3rd.

The Patriots flashed their classic playoff brawn. The 49ers looked to be untouchable. The Falcons scathed past a ruthless Russell Wilson and his Seahawks squad, perhaps saving Matt Ryan from being considered as much of a choke artist as Tony Romo (if it’s even possible for anyone to reach that level). But the Ravens—they looked tough.

Once considered a choke artist in his own right, Joe Flacco played a near flawless game in a double-overtime thriller over the Denver Broncos. He was poised, patient and gutsy en route to throwing for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns at a noisy, frigid Sports Authority Field.  With 31 seconds left in regulation, Flacco’s game-tying 70-yard heave to Jacoby Jones will go down as one of the more memorable playoff moments in recent history.

This is the best the Ravens’ offense has looked in years. Ray Rice carried the ball 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown. Torrey Smith dazzled, with 2 touchdowns to his credit. While accumulating 98 receiving yards on a meager three catches, he made shutdown corner Champ Bailey look foolish.

Smith consistently burned Bailey, even at times he wasn’t targeted or thrown a catchable ball. Anquan Boldin caught 6 balls for 71 yards and was a staple in the short passing game. Jacoby Jones had the shocking touchdown at the end of regulation.

Any team that can overcome two ridiculous special team lapses that allowed Trindon Holliday two touchdowns and dismantle a Peyton Manning-led offense on an 11-game win streak deserves a lot of credit.

An emotional Ray Lewis led a hard-nosed defensive effort with 17 tackles. Manning never truly looked comfortable, throwing two interceptions and getting sacked three times, two of which were at the hands of Terrell Suggs. Ed Reed and a less-than-healthy Haloti Ngata were very quiet, but corner Corey Graham stole the show with 2 interceptions, one ultimately leading to the game-winning Justin Tucker field goal in the second overtime.

Something about a barn-burner upset at Mile High a week after holding Andrew Luck without a touchdown makes me faithful in an impending Baltimore Ravens upset over the methodical New England Patriots. When Ray Lewis is on the field, this is a smarter and more confident Ravens defense—and it has shown in the past two weeks.

Flacco finally has the pieces around him this year to play hero. Rice is the workhorse inducing defensive coordinators with nightmares. The receiving trio of Smith, Boldin and James has been a consistent force, along with tight end Dennis Pitta. If Smith was a problem for Champ Bailey, he can be for overconfident Patriots corner Aqib Talib. The special teams catastrophe will certainly be addressed in this week’s practices and film sessions.

Even though they may be without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are the more talented football team. So were the Broncos, though. Adept coach John Harbaugh’s squad has caught fire at the right time, led by an eager Ray Lewis and a dauntless Joe Flacco.

Don’t count them out just yet.

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