After last January’s heart-wrenching defeat in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium to the New England Patriots, Ray Lewis stood in front of his teammates in the Ravens’ locker room and vowed to them that they would be back in this exact same spot again.
Nearly one year later, they stood together in celebration, in that same locker room as a team with one mission. One by one clutching the Lamar Hunt trophy, presented to the winner of the AFC Championship Game, they could say that they were, on this January night the best in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens defeated the New England Patriots, 28-13 to win the AFC Championship and advance to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Just as they were in their 2000 season run, the Ravens were a #4 seed, hungry for the opportunity and determined to prove all detractors wrong.
For the third time since last January’s defeat, Joe Flacco outplayed future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady as the Ravens took advantage of three New England turnovers, paving the way to victory. The Ravens (13-6) gained only 130 yards total in the first half, but quickly got things going in the 2nd half as Flacco led the offense to scoring drives of 72 and 63 yards respectively.
The hot teams going into the playoffs usually make the most noise and this year is no different. The Ravens were hot at the right time and will now face Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in the Big Easy, February 3rd.
This was Joe Flacco’s game to make big plays and win and he silenced a lot of his critics. Flacco survived dropped passes by Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta early, then bounced back from some missed opportunities down field to have an outstanding performance when it mattered most.
He has truly stepped into his own and it showed in the 2nd half of the game. After throwing for just 81 yards in the first half, Flacco went 15-for-24 for 159 yards and three touchdowns in the 2nd half.
Perhaps the Ravens best drive of the game was the one they needed the most. Flacco led them on a 10 play, 87 yard scoring drive midway through the 3rd quarter where he completed six of nine passes and three of those going for first downs, eventually leading to a Dennis Pitta 5-yard score. Jim Caldwell started to mix things up, calling for throws on first down which gave the offense some life that they didn’t have in the 1st half.
Flacco’s other two touchdowns went to Anquan Boldin in the 4th quarter to seal the victory. It didn’t matter that wind was a factor, Flacco has a strong enough arm to cut through it and that showed delivering crisp throws to his targets. The Patriots tried to take away his ability to throw to the outside but he overcame that. He was excellent over the middle where he threw some of his best passes of the game. He tossed the ball perfectly to Boldin for the first touchdown these two hooked up on, allowing Boldin to use his strength to muscle the ball away from two defenders.
The 2nd touchdown to Boldin was beautiful. Flacco saw the mismatch with Patriots corner back Marquice Cole giving chase and tossed a back shoulder throw into the endzone where only Boldin could go and get it.
Flacco has now thrown eight touchdowns to zero interceptions in the playoffs. He’s been that good. The Ravens have a Super Bowl quarterback in Joe Flacco.
Running Backs: B
The running game was slowed by the Patriots defense, but was still effective enough within the game plan to help the offense out. Ray Rice got involved in the passing game to help the cause, catching a screen pass on 2nd-and-10 at midfield, cutting back across the field and getting 15 yards to keep the driving going midway through the 3rd quarter. Rice finished with 48 yards rushing and a two-yard touchdown where Rice bounced the run out to the left with an amazing cut and evaded two tacklers on his way to the end zone.
Bernard Pierce is the great change-of-pace back we’ve seen for weeks now, finishing with 52 yards rushing on nine carries but he made the most of the carries he received. Pierce did a nice job catching the football too when the Ravens needed it. Flacco found him in the flat as Pierce shook Kyle Arrington’s tackle to pick up a first down with about 12 minutes to play in the 2nd quarter.
Pierce had two nice runs late in the 3rd quarter that showcased his downhill running style and the dynamic he brings to the table when on the field. On a 3rd-and-2 from the Patriots 36, Pierce ran a draw that he bounced outside to the right, breaking an arm tackle two yards behind the line of scrimmage by Rob Ninkovich, then powered through another tackle using his acceleration to gain 11 yards on the play.
The next carry was another draw, but on this run carried two Patriot defenders with him, picking up a healthy six yards on 1st down.
The unit didn’t put up big numbers, but solid enough because it was the Joe Flacco show.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
In the 1st half, Ravens receivers were not getting much separation from the defenders. Patriots corner Aqib Talib was effective early keeping Torrey Smith in check but once he left the game with a thigh injury, Jim Caldwell and Joe Flacco took advantage of the opportunity.
Anquan Boldin was a man among boys in this game. He out-muscled two defenders for his first touchdown and then beat a safety in the slot for his 2nd touchdown. Boldin added 60 yards on five catches.
Torrey Smith really got going in the 2nd half with some great catches, but his longest went for 25 yards in the 2nd quarter as Flacco threw to him on a play-action pass. Smith went high into the air to get it at its highest point where no defender could get to. He ran some really solid routes in this game. The in-cuts were ran to perfection.
Both Smith and Dennis Pitta worked the middle of the field extremely well for Flacco. Flacco did a nice job of scanning the field and knowing Pitta was the safety valve in the middle as the Patriots tried to close off the Ravens to the outside. Pitta had five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came one play after Pitta was leveled by Jerod Mayo but somehow hung onto the football.
Offensive Line: A
The line was outstanding blocking Joe Flacco in the game. The line change has really catapulted this team to where they currently are. Flacco was sacked twice but both of those sacks were coverage sacks.
Neutralizing Vince Wilfork was important and the Ravens used tandems to keep him at bay. Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele worked well together as did Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher. Matt Birk played well when the Patriots went to four-down lineman looks because he could help to bunch to either guard’s side.
Marshal Yanda pulls to his left a lot because he’s an extremely athletic and hard-nosed lineman. He did that quite often on runs to the left and middle. They did a nice job of putting the Patriots lineman on their heels.
Defensive Line: B-
The Ravens combated the Patriots no-huddle offense with a steady rotation of players and they matched the tempo well. Ma’ake Kemoeatu recorded five tackles and Haloti Ngata had four. One of Ngata’s tackles was helping to chase Wes Welker down on a short pass in the 4th quarter with Cary Williams.
The line prevented Tom Brady from putting up the big plays with their ability to get pressure near him. They didn’t record a sack on Brady but they made him move around in the pocket not allowing to get his feet set and throw the football in his specific timing routes.
Art Jones won’t have many numbers show up in the stat book, but he may have played the best out of all the defensive lineman. He was a constant near Tom Brady and recovered a fumble on the huge hit from Bernard Pollard to Stevan Ridley in the 4th quarter. Pernell McPhee had two passes defended, one that was batted into the air and picked off by Dannell Ellerbe. McPhee did a nice job of timing Brady’s throws to get his hands up to bat away the football.
The defensive line completely wore down the Patriots offensive line and it showed late in the 4th quarter.
Ray Lewis finished the game with 14 tackles but the Patriots used right guard Dan Connolly and at times center Ryan Wendell as spies to locate and block him one on one. Ray played a lot of coverage down field where most of his tackles came from. Regardless, Ray’s play since his return from injury has been astounding.
His fresh legs have helped alongside Dannell Ellerbe who had a real solid game. Ellerbe played well and showed good closing speed as he patrolled the middle of the field, something the Patriots tried to take advantage of. Ellerbe finished with five tackles and a pass defended.
Terrell Suggs played a total game in this one, but got stronger in the 2nd half. He finished with seven total tackles and gave Patriots left tackle Nate Solder problems all afternoon long. Paul Kruger had trouble with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer most of the day, he couldn’t really get around him and got pushed back.
The Patriots used a lot of short screens and quick slants to try and beat the Ravens but didn’t allow anything over the top. The secondary played solid overall against Tom Brady.
Corey Graham finished with 11 total tackles and Cary Williams had six tackles in addition to the final interception of the game with 1:06 left in the 4th quarter. Graham and Chykie Brown had a mix up in communication that allowed Wes Welker to score a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 10-7 lead in the 2nd quarter. Graham signaled to Brown to watch for the crossing route and to stay home, instead, he went with his man leaving Welker open for the score.
Brown had a bit of a tough game, missing at least two tackles that I could count and only recorded one tackle in the game.
Bernard Pollard made his presence felt in this one, walloping running back Stevan Ridley and causing him to fumble early in the 4th quarter as he finished with nine tackles and a pass defended.
Special Teams: B+
Special teams played much better than last week but still gave up a little too much to Wes Welker on punt returns than they would have liked. It ultimately didn’t hurt the Ravens even with the Patriots having good field position. The Ravens played to their assignments in the kick return game and the Patriots never got that going.
On the opposite side, the Patriots kept Jacoby Jones relatively quiet in this game as they bottled his running lane quickly. He also didn’t look extremely decisive at times with where he wanted to run with the football.
Sam Koch had seven punts, averaging 44.7 yards per punt with just one landing inside the 20 but that was because the Ravens were backed up near their own end zone for most of the first half.
Outstanding job by Jim Caldwell to make some small changes that had a big impact on the play in the 2nd half. The Ravens weren’t throwing the ball on 1st down much in the 1st half of play, and they were conservative, but they mixed up the play calling starting in the 3rd quarter to get the Pats defense off-balance. They used some more shotgun formations to take advantage of Flacco’s strong arm. In the redzone, the Ravens were outstanding. Four possessions, four touchdowns.
Dean Pees drew up a solid game plan. The defense didn’t record a sack on Brady, but they were able to move the pocket and get Brady out of his comfort zone. Defensively, the Ravens weren’t phased by the gimmick-type things the Patriots did on offense. They gave up a lot of yards, but did not allow the Patriots to beat them with the big play. They stayed with their assignments and were focused. An outstanding job of being coached up on all sides.
The Baltimore Ravens will travel to New Orleans to play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Let that sink in for just a moment. The Ravens are amazing in their playoff history. According to our good friends at Russell Street Report, the Ravens are now (13-7) all-time in playoff games and their .650 winning percentage is now the highest among any NFL team, edging out the New York Giants (.645).
This team looked to be in a dire situation in mid-December. They had just lost badly at home to Denver, fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron days before that game and were transitioning in a new offensive line. It would have been easy for this team to pack it up and just quit but they never did and that’s what has them 60 minutes away from winning their 2nd Super Bowl title. They dominated the Patriots in the 2nd half and deserve to be playing for the Super Bowl.
Hard to find someone now with anything bad to say about Joe Flacco. The guy went out and beat Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and then Tom Brady in the playoffs and is the signal caller in the Ravens second appearance in the Super Bowl on February 3rd.
Anquan Boldin may have said it best as he told CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz, “Its not often you get this opportunity twice. We left this stadium last year with a bad taste in our mouths. We relish this chance.”
They relished the opportunity and now the Harbaugh brothers take their respective teams to Super Bowl XLVII. What a game it will be.
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.