It truly was an ‘I was there’ moment. Sat in my university flat in shock that the Ravens were going to the Super Bowl after rolling over most people’s choice for the best team in the entire league, the New England Patriots. Yes the Baltimore Ravens are going back to the Super Bowl for the first time since I was a small lad living in Baltimore, when the Ravens had a record breaking defence with Ray Lewis (in his prime, no less), Tony Siragusa, Chris McAlister and O.J. Brigance.
Back then the Ravens were the most hated team in America. Their leader Ray Lewis (yes he was even leading them back then) was public enemy number one after being involved in an incident which left two men stabbed to death. Having pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour, he got on with his life but fans of every team the Ravens went up against made their feelings about him known. In actual fact, the hatred they showed for Lewis simply motivated him more and helped him lead arguably the best defence of all time.
I’ll be the first to admit it. The Ravens are not the most popular team in the UK. In fact, sometimes it seems even the US media avoid them at all costs. I have a theory as to why I have only seen two Ravens jerseys since I moved back to Britain. The Ravens didn’t exist when football first arrived in the UK in the 1980s, hence why you see a lot more support for teams like New England, Green Bay and the New York Giants, rather than Baltimore, Carolina and Jacksonville. Back then the team from Baltimore was known as the Colts, before they were stolen in the dead of night, but that’s a long story for a rained off F1 practice session. As a result, the Ravens are not so well known to casual fans. But, they are growing on people, and I’m sure there will be a few more Britons' wearing purple after next Sunday’s game.
Joe Flacco is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the league. It has taken back to back wins against two of the best ever quarterbacks for the league to realise this. I admit that up until beating the Steelers for the second time in 2011, I was unsure that he could lead a team to the Super Bowl without the help of a dominant defence. He has done that in the last 18 months. Although the defence has stepped up in the 2012 playoffs, there is no doubt who has led them past the Colts, Broncos and Patriots.
The truth is he can go missing in the regular season, and it gets put under the magnifying glass, but he also has also shown brilliance, which is often overlooked. Look back at a game-winning final drive against the Steelers in 2011, a game which effectively sealed the division as they swept the black and gold, then starting the 2012 season with a 128.4 QB rating in a 44-13 demolition of division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals as well as leading the Ravens to a 31-30 win against the Patriots in week 3, passing for 381 yards in the process.
Although Flacco can be an average Joe during the regular season, he has been formidable in the playoffs. An 8-4 record, wins in each of his first five seasons, more road wins than any other QB in playoff history and frankly I don’t think he has had a bad game in the playoff scenario. He may not post the big numbers, but he does what is needed. To think, the Ravens making the playoffs became a joke late in the season, and one man has lead them to the biggest game of the season, Joe Flacco.
Over the course of the season, it has become more and more apparent that this is a win now Ravens season. The roster contains 14 players over 30 and 10 players with over 10 years’ experience in the league. That makes them a dad’s army of the NFL, especially when you compare them to a team like the Indianapolis Colts. But with that age comes experience. The Ravens know how to win and how to make the post season.
Suddenly Ray Rice was getting the ball more, either on the ground or in the air, balancing the offense and limiting the effectiveness of the opposition pass rush. With a more balanced attack, everything suddenly clicked. A two headed rush attack (Bernard Pearce has chipped in more in the playoffs), Torrey Smith creating a vertical deep threat and Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin getting the gritty yards short over the middle. This offense was suddenly dangerous, as it did the simple things well, which is tough to stop.
The biggest secret to Ravens playoff success was the shift in the offensive line. Jah Reid was injured in the run up to the wildcard game against the Colts and the Ravens never looked back. They inserted Bryant McKinnie at Left Tackle, moved Michael Oher (who interestingly has a great film about his early life called the Blind Side) and Kelechi Osemele to Left Guard. Since then, the group has kept Joe Flacco remarkably clean, being sacked five times in their three playoff games.
The effective offence reduced the pressure on the defence to perform. In the past the Ravens were reliant on their defence to win games, now they are good on both sides of the ball. This was more important this season with horrific luck with injuries. Throughout the season, all four key pieces (Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed) have sat out games with various ailments during the season. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs didn't play together on the field until the playoff victory over the Colts. This was particularly obvious as the Ravens lost three straight games, although the injuries were forgotten at the time. The Ravens' battle with the treatment table was only realised when they shocked the Denver Broncos in Mile High and proved to the rest of the league that they can still provide.
While key pieces of the team were forced out with injuries, unknown players stepped up to the plate and made a name for themselves, none more so than Corey Graham. The Cornerback was brought in as a free agent from the Chicago Bears to help out with special teams. But, when star corner Lardarius Webb tore his ACL, little known Graham was promoted to starter and made the most of it. He had an inception in each Pittsburgh game and then picked off Peyton Manning twice in the Divisional round of the playoffs. He is just one of many examples of the ‘next man up’ philosophy in Baltimore. If a player goes down, OK, someone has to take his place.
Sea of emotions
Baltimore has dealt with an incredible amount of adversity this season: on and off the field. The injuries on the field were well documented, once analysts realised how strong this team actually was. But off the field, the Ravens troubles have been far worse. The original owner of the Ravens, the man responsible for bringing the NFL back to Baltimore, Art Modell passed away on the eve of the season, creating a very emotional atmosphere in the locker room. The Ravens’ troubles didn’t end there. The night before the Ravens hosted the Patriots in week 3, Wide Receiver Torrey Smith’s younger brother, Tevin Smith, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He played in the memory of his brother and put in a game-winning performance with two touchdowns. It is exactly this ‘phoenix from the ashes’ mentality that has made the 2012 Baltimore Ravens who they are, guiding them to Super Bowl XLVII.
As a pessimistic fan, I would be wary that the Ravens will struggle to contain 49ers Colin Kaepernick with an ageing defence. He is too fast and agile for them to keep him in the pocket. However, there is debate as to whether the stage will be too high for the inexperienced quarterback. The Super Bowl will be only his tenth start; it'll be Joe Flacco's thirteenth in the playoffs alone. More food for purple optimism is the wide receivers; Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones complement each other well and are likely to trouble the San Francisco secondary in what will be a crucial matchup.
The simple fact is the Ravens have beaten two of the best Quarterbacks in their own back yard in consecutive weeks with relative ease (if you take into account that 14 of Denver’s 35 points came from special teams). But Colin Kaepernick poses a very different problem, and how the Ravens contain him from running, by scheme or by physicality, will likely determine the outcome of Super Bowl XLVII.