Archive for the ‘Ravens Game Recaps’ Category

Patriots 23 Ravens 20 (The MOST AGONIZING LOSS IN TEAM HISTORY Game)

January 23, 2012

Not like that.

Not. Like. That.

That’s the mantra I just kept repeating to myself over and over, for a good 30 minutes after the clock struck zero on the AFC Championship game, and on the Baltimore Ravens 2011-12 season.

It can’t end like that. A 45-10 beating like the Patriots handed the Denver Broncos a week earlier would have been infinitely easier to swallow.

Instead, to drive nearly 80 yards in the game’s final two minutes, only to have the potential game-winning touchdown pass dropped in the end zone and then the game-tying field goal flutter wide left from only 32 yards out?

This game will go down in infamy in Baltimore. Hell, I had Steelers fans on twitter after the game telling me they wouldn’t wish that kind of loss upon their worst enemy.

Sympathy from Steelers fans.

You know it’s bad.

If Lee Evans could have held onto that ball, we’d all be worshiping at the altar of Joe Flacco this morning. Sure, I’ve heard that the Patriots’ DB made a great play to strip the ball from Evans’ grip, and that’s true. Another case of “the other guy tries too.” But for Evans, the forgotten man on the Ravens’ WR corps all season, who had come to Baltimore after never playing a postseason game in his NFL career, this was the catch of his life.

It should have taken New England’s entire 53-man roster, plus every coach, trainer, ball boy, and front office member to pry that ball from #83’s fingers.

Pull it in. Fall down. That’s the ball game. The Ravens are headed to Indy.

Instead, the Ravens for some reason eschewed trying to simply pick up a yard on 3rd-and-1, which would have given them several more shots at the end zone. An incomplete pass later, the field goal team was – for some unknown reason – rushing onto the field to attempt to send the contest to overtime.

Meanwhile, the Ravens’ third and final timeout sits unused. Still.

After the game, John Harbaugh said that using the timeout never occurred to him.

Good to know.

Flacco, for his part, played the game of his life. Under intense pressure to perform (some of that pressure of his own doing), he did just that. The Ravens’ quarterback was 22/36 for 306 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Granted, he missed some throws. He should have had Torrey Smith for a long touchdown in the first quarter, but instead of planting his feet and launching it, threw on the run, and Smith had to come back to the ball.

Later, after the Ravens had recovered a Danny Woodhead kickoff return fumble, Flacco had Vonta Leach in the flat for a likely touchdown. Instead, he threw to the end zone for Kris Wilson, the pass fell incomplete, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal to take a 20-16 lead.

As we saw, those four points would loom large.

The Ravens’ defense played well, intercepting Tom Brady twice and holding him without a touchdown throw. However, New England was able to run the ball effectively, picking up 96 yards on the ground. They got a yard when they needed it most, scoring on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter to regain a lead they would not again relinquish.

And just like that, it was over.

In Baltimore, we’ll always remember. “Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff” will forever bring back terrible memories of a day when our season was again, ended prematurely. When again, we seemed to have the better team only to watch them fail in the game’s final moments.

We can talk more about it later.

Right now, the pain is just too fresh.

Not like that.

Ravens 20 Texans 13 (The HOUSTON PRESENTED US WITH A FEW PROBLEMS OF OUR OWN Game)

January 16, 2012

It’s kind of funny, sitting here a day later. If the Ravens had been able to score from about 0.25 yards out on two tries yesterday, my score prediction of 27-13 would have likely been right on. For the record, I’ve been picking scores on this site for five full seasons now (plus eight playoff games), and that would have been the first time I ever hit the nail on the head.

Watching it unfold yesterday though, was pretty damn agonizing. Even if they’d managed to put the Texans away earlier, and win by two touchdowns, it wasn’t nearly the kind of dominating performance that many of us had hoped for or expected. Give Houston a ton of credit – that is a team that will be a force in the AFC for years to come, especially if Matt Schaub can stay healthy and even if they don’t end up re-signing Mario Williams. (Giant Cowboy) hats off to them.

Back to the goalline stand that very well could have decided the game the other way in the end…

It looked like Houston was about to pull to within 17-16 with six minutes to go in the third quarter. Instead,  kicker Neil Rackers hit the crossbar from 50 yards out (thank you breezy day!), and the Ravens took over from their own 40 yard line. The heretofore invisible man, Lee Evans, made the first postseason catch of his career, and it looked to be a huge one, setting the Ravens up at the Houston 9-yard line with a chance to go up by at least a full single touchdown and hopefully more. Ray Rice ran to the five, and then fumbled to the two (aside – what’s up with Rice, a dude who fumbles about as regularly as Joe Flacco shaves his upper lip lately, being unable to get through a divisional playoff game without putting the ball on the turf? He did it in Indy in 09, in Pittsburgh last year, and now in B’More yesterday. He got lucky in that the ball rolled right to Ben Grubbs, but it’s a bit unsettling that he gets slippery fingers in the biggest games) and the Ravens were set up with 3rd-and-goal from there.

A great stand by the Texans’ defense prevented the Ravens from getting in, and as they had eschewed the field goal try, the score would remain 17-13.

We can debate the decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal ad nauseum – personally, I would have been more comfortable going up 20-13 at the time, putting a full touchdown’s distance between the teams on the scoreboard. While I can fully understand John Harbaugh’s challenging his team to go get half a yard and win the damn playoff game NOW, my thinking also takes into account the Ravens’ shoddy resume when it comes to short-yardage blocking, not only yesterday, but all season long.

At this point, Ravens fans are more comfortable when the team faces a 3rd-and-4 or 5 than a third and very short. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but anybody who has watched all 17 games so far this year can tell you that the Ravens can’t be counted on to push the pile for a yard or two when they need to most. Not only did this bugaboo pop up in the goalline stand yesterday, but it came about again at the end of the game. After a booth review had moved Ray Rice’s 2nd-and-1 run back half a yard with 1:44 remaining, and it became impossible for the team to just kneel and run out the clock, they again failed to pick up less than a yard when it could have won them the game, as Vonta Leach got stuffed in the backfield for a loss. That inability gave the Texans a sliver of hope that they shouldn’t have had, and while the Ravens were able to hold on in the end, it may have cost them as Ed Reed appeared to be injured on the game’s final play. If the offense can pick up a damn yard, Reed is sitting comfortably on the bench celebrating at that point, instead of flying through the air to bail his team out once again.

Of course, the seeds were planted for that entire sequence on the Ravens’ previous possession.

After a wonderful drive (really their first -and only – of the day) that moved the ball from their own 29 to inside the Texans’ 30, and took over four minutes off the clock, the Ravens were in position to not only potentially kick that field goal that they had decided against earlier to go up 20-13, but to continue to bleed the clock and at least force Houston to burn precious time outs. Gary Kubiak tipped his hand that he was going to do exactly that, stopping the clock after a 5-yard Rice run put the ball at the Texans’ 26 with 3:04 to go.

Enter Cam Cameron.

Two incomplete passes – and two free stoppages of the clock later – Billy Cundiff connected from 44 yards to cap off the scoring for the day. However, there were still nearly three minutes remaining, and the Texans still had two timeouts, instead of the none they likely would have had the Ravens simply ran the ball on second and third down.

All of this added up to make the game’s final minutes much more stressful than they really needed to be. Thanks for that, Cam.

Speaking of Rice, he was genuinely overshadowed by his counterpart, Arian Foster. While Rice managed a paltry 60 yards on 21 carries and 20 yards on 4 receptions, Foster became the first opponent to ever rush for over 100 yards against the Ravens in a playoff game, and he nearly did it in the first half. The Texans’ running back finished the day with 132 yards on 27 carries, and added 22 yards on five receptions. The Ravens’ defensive line and linebackers, despite being rested, were pushed around by Houston’s offensive line all day. Not only in the running game, but in the passing game as well, as rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was not sacked a single time all afternoon.

Terrell Suggs did not Ball So Hard yesterday. In fact, aside from a stop of Foster on third down following the goal line stand that forced the Texans to punt from their end zone, he was relatively silent.

Yates, for his part, took what the Ravens gave him, but was also the beneficiary of some uncharacteristic slippery fingers from Ed Reed. Reed – though he got the key interception when the team needed him most, late in the fourth quarter – dropped two in the first half that likely would have helped put the game away much, much earlier. Ray Lewis also had a potential pick bounce off his shoulder. So while the Ravens were able to pick Yates off three times (two by Lardarius Webb), they very easily could have had five or six picks.

Joe Flacco, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly the luxurious pocket that Yates enjoyed. He was sacked five times, and was under constant duress. When he did have time to throw in the first half, he was betrayed by his receivers, as Anquan Boldin, Ed Dickson, and Torrey Smith all dropped catchable balls that, again, probably would have helped put the game away much earlier. Webb seemed to be the only guy in purple who could catch in the first half.

The Ravens were gifted some great field position by turnovers early, and took advantage. Their two touchdown “drives” of the day were 2 and 34 yards, respectively. After putting up 17 points in the first quarter, they took a nap until the fourth, and allowed Houston to hang around.

Going that long without scoring won’t fly next week in New England. After a 14/27, 176 yard day, the Flacco bashers are sure to be out in full force again this week, blatantly disregarding the aforementioned offensive line and receiving woes.

Whatever. Just like last week, my advice for Ravens fans is to stress out on Sunday – Saturday if you really can’t wait. Spend the time until then enjoying this, and soaking in the Festivus atmosphere. There are only three other teams still alive at this point. The Ravens are in their second AFC Championship game in four seasons.

Festivus Maximus is one win away.

Ravens 24 Bengals 16 (The RAY RICE RUNS AWAY WITH THE AFC NORTH Game)

January 2, 2012

The Ravens did what they needed to do in winning in Cincinnati for the first time since 2006 on Sunday to bring home the AFC North title and earn a playoff bye. It was the Ravens’ first AFC North crown since 2006, and the win secured their first ever 6-0 division mark. While it was another team effort, with big contributions in the form of turnovers from the defense and key kicks by special teams, Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, and the Ravens’ offensive line were the true heroes that brought home the huge victory for Baltimore.

Rice started the festivities off with a bang, taking his second carry (the Ravens’ fourth offensive snap) 70-yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. It was reminiscent of his big run in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game in New England, as he simply exploded through the line and then proceeded to run away from the pursuing defenders.

After a Bengals’ 3-and-out, a 39-yard pass on 3rd-and-1 from Joe Flacco to tight end Dennis Pitta, during which Pitta picked up about 20 yards after contact, dragging several Bengals with him set up a 42-yard Billy Cundiff field goal that staked the good guys to a 10-0 first quarter lead. Cundiff was kicking for the first time since Week 15 in San Diego, and many Ravens fans thought the team should have again went with Shayne Graham, who spent the majority of his career in Cincy. Cundiff, though, braved the 20-35 mile per hour winds and came through on that, his only 3-point attempt of the afternoon.

Marvin Lewis’s squad would close the gap to 10-3, before a key sequence that had a huge impact on the outcome of this contest.

Facing 3rd-and-1 from their own 38 yard line, the Bengals ran running back Cedric Benson up the middle. Benson was hit by Cory Redding and appeared to be stopped for little to no gain. However, the officials marked the ball well past the 39-yard line, giving the Bengals an apparent fresh set of downs.

John Harbaugh wisely challenged the play, and the spot of the ball was surprisingly (not because it was incorrect, but just because it isn’t common to see a spot moved that far) re-spotted well short of the sticks, forcing Cincy to punt.

The punt was a beauty by Harris, and appeared to be downed at about the 1-foot-line of the Ravens, which would have put them in a horrible position. However, the Bengals player that downed the punt slid into the end zone in the process of downing it, resulting in a touchback instead. Given this much-improved field position, the Ravens had some room to go to work in building on their lead.

Aided by not one, not two, but THREE Bengals penalties (at least two of which were questionable, at best) that gave them first downs, the Ravens would ultimately capitalize on a gorgeous Flacco-to-Pitta 9-yard touchdown with only 11 seconds left in the first half.

It was a situation where the Ravens had about five breaks go their way in a span of just over six minutes. The key thing was, though, unlike so many times in the past, they were able to fully take advantage of these breaks in building a 17-3 halftime lead.

In the second half, Cam Cameron and the Ravens’ offense attempted to take the air out of the ball and simply sit on the two-touchdown lead, running on seven of their first 11 plays following the break. However, a 25-yard score by Cincy running back Bernard Scott – on which Ed Reed unforgivably attempted to tackle the ball instead of the runner when he could have stopped Scott for a short gain – put the pressure back on the Ravens’ O to put some points on the board. After managing only a field goal over the final 30 minutes in Week 16 against Cleveland, it was looking like more of the same and another potential second-half collapse.

The Bengals pulled to within 17-16 and appeared to be driving for their first potential lead of the day, moving from their own 20 to the Ravens’ 43 on five plays with just over seven minutes remaining.

It was then that the Ravens’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Terrell Suggs – quiet on the day to that point – came up with the kind of huge play that Baltimore defenders have been making for the last decade-plus. Tight end Jermaine Gresham took a screen pass from Andy Dalton and cut back inside. Suggs, who had started the play on the other side of the field from Gresham, came all the way across the formation to tackle the huge tight end from behind and jar the ball loose. It was Suggs’ NFL-leading seventh forced fumble of the season, and finally – FINALLY – the Ravens were able to capitalize by falling on it. Bernard Pollard recovered it for B’More, and the Bengals’ comeback was – temporarily, at least – held off.

The Baltimore offense would still have to come up with a play though, and avoid giving the ball back to a Cincy offense that had clearly (just like during the game at M&T Bank Stadium earlier this year) found their rhythm in the second half and was gashing a tired Ravens’ defense.

Who else but Ray Rice to answer the call?

Three plays after the fumble, the Ravens faced a 3rd-and-1, and were in danger of suffering a quick 3-and-out to give Dalton and co. another shot. The NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage had other ideas though, as he took the handoff, quickly picked up enough for the first down, and then juked the Bengals’ safety out of his jock en route to a 51-yard touchdown, his second 50+ yard score of the evening.

The Bengals again drove deep into Ravens’ territory, but were forced to kick a field goal to close to within 24-16, thanks in part to a key sack by – you guessed it – Suggs.

With over two minutes to play and holding two timeouts, Marvin Lewis elected to kick the ball deep rather than try an onside kick. A false start on first down by Marshal Yanda appeared to doom the Ravens from the get-go, but Rice would again come to the rescue. Not only did he pick up 16 yards on 1st-and-15, but he showed great awareness and football IQ in not “Marion Barber-ing” it by running out of bounds. Rice stayed in bounds, forcing the Bengals to start burning timeouts. Although the Ravens were unable to pick up the second first down that would have sealed the game, the run and smart play by #27 had a huge hand in the fact that Dalton would ultimately take over from his own 20-yard line with only 1:05 to work with and no timeouts.

Cincy again made it interesting at the end, as it took two failed Hail Mary attempts to avoid a potential game-tying two-point conversion try.

Bengals fans will bellyache that Lardarius Webb should have been called for pass interference on the first of those two throws, but that wasn’t going to happen. Short of a blatant tackle, NFL referees hardly ever call PI on Hail Marys, and the fact is that A.J. Green was pushing and shoving just as much as Webb was.

The Bengals may have lost, but their lot in life remained unchanged – they still qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card, which is the best they could have hoped for entering the day.

Had the Ravens lost, they would be traveling to Denver for a Wild Card match up this weekend. Instead, they held on to give themselves a much needed two-week break until their next game, which will be played in Baltimore. The Ravens, of course, are undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium this year.

Baltimore managed to go 6-0 against what is unquestionable the strongest division in football, being the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. There is no chance that the Ravens will see the Bengals again unless both teams make it to the AFC Championship game. They could, however, see their arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time in two weeks if they win in Denver (they will) and if Cincy wins in Houston (could happen).

For now, though, the Ravens and their fans should sit back and enjoy the end result of one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history.

Stay tuned to the Nest this week, as we look back on this up-and-down – but ultimately extremely successful – 2011 regular season campaign.

Ravens 20 Browns 14 (The 8-0 AT HOME! BUT EVERYONE GOT HURT….Game)

December 26, 2011

The Ravens were able to cap off their first ever undefeated regular season at M&T Bank Stadium with a 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve, but it could have come at an extremely high price as the team continues to fight for playoff position. The team comes out of their final contest of calendar year 2011 with the longest list of injuries they’ve had following any game all season. Let’s take a look at B’More’s walking wounded:

Cary Williams: Williams ran into teammate Pernell McPhee on a Seneca Wallace scramble in the first half, and left the game with a concussion. His status for Sunday in Cincinnati is still very much up-in-the-air.

Danell Ellerbe: The Ravens’ second concussion victim of the day, Ellerbe fell flat on his back while defending a short Cleveland pass. His head appeared to snap back and hit the turf; he wouldn’t see the field again Saturday. Like Williams, he will have to show significant improvement and pass the concussion tests to play next week.

Marshal Yanda: Yanda suffered a rib bruise in the first half, and was replaced by Andre Gurode. The Ravens running game was much less effective with the former Dallas center in there than with Yanda. Coach John Harbaugh said on Monday that Yanda is also dealing with a significant thigh bruise. Yanda is perhaps the toughest guy on the team (once famously letting himself get shocked with a cattle prod for entertainment purposes), so I’d have to think that if he can play, he will. However, he’ll probably be questionable at best.

David Reed: Reed, returning just his second kick since the debacle in Seattle, appeared about a step from breaking free for a touchdown after Josh Cribbs got the Browns on the board. Instead, his knee didn’t cooperate when he tried to cut, blew out, and he was placed on injured reserve Monday.

Cory Redding: Redding didn’t play Saturday, which came as a bit of a surprise. He was sorely missed, as Browns’ running back Peyton Hillis gashed Baltimore for his first 100-yard performance of the season. Redding tried to suit up, but didn’t feel up to it during warm-ups. He’ll likely be a game-time decision again in Cincy.

Throw in Anquan Boldin, who is already certainly out this week, and the Ravens find themselves in quite a precarious position. On one hand, they are absolutely in control of their own destiny; a win will give them the AFC North title, a first round playoff bye, and at worst a #2 seed. On the other, they are banged up, and a loss (coupled with a Pittsburgh win at Cleveland) will relegate them to the #5 seed, and they’ll be going on the road for the postseason starting the very next week.

Saturday’s game looked like it was going to be a perfect Christmas present for Ravens’ fans: a thorough beat-down of the inferior Browns from the opening whistle. They led 17-0 at the half, and 20-0 with 20 minutes left to play. However, the Browns would score 14 unanswered points, and the game ended up as much more of a nail-biter than it had any business being.

It was the Ravens’ special teams that opened the door for Cleveland, allowing Cribbs an 84-yard punt return touchdown late in the third. It was the third touchdown allowed by Baltimore’s special teams this year (2 punt, 1 kickoff), tying franchise highs set in 1998 and 2002. They had appeared to get their act together in recent weeks – the last score they allowed was way back in Week 8 against Arizona – so hopefully this isn’t a key problem coming back to life to rear its head at the worst possible time. Cribbs tormented the Ravens early in his career, but they had done a good job of containing him over the past few seasons.

The special teams opened the door, after which the inconsistent offensive and defensive units were both more than happy to do their best doorstop impressions.

On the ensuing drive, Joe Flacco displayed the kind of up-and-down play that has driven B’More fans crazy all season.

On 2nd-and-10 from the Cleveland 31, he scrambled for a 33-yard gain to the Browns’ 36-yard line. A field goal on that possession would have made it 23-7, a much more comfortable lead than 20-7. Instead, on 3rd-and-7 from the Cleveland 33, Joe woefully underthrew Lee Evans in the end zone, and was intercepted. Evans could have fought a little harder for the ball while it was in the air, but if Joe puts the ball in the back of the end zone, Evans is the only one with a chance at it.

It was at least Flacco’s second underthrow of the day, perhaps even his third. And when he did manage to put the ball on his receivers’ hands, they betrayed him. Tight end Ed Dickson, who caught a touchdown pass on the team’s opening drive, had two key drops, one on a third down. Torrey Smith misjudged a throw on the sideline on the play preceding the Cribbs touchdown, which would have – if caught – extended the Ravens’ drive.

And for all Flacco and the offense’s troubles, they weren’t the ones that allowed Cleveland to go 80 yards on the possession following the interception. That would be the defense, who also let the Browns to convert 3/3 third down tries on that drive.

Were it not for some woeful Cleveland clock mismanagement at the end of the first half, and a boneheaded play by rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor following the two-minute warning, we could have very well had another Cincinnati situation on our hands, with the defense buckling in the second half and holding on for dear life in the waning moments.

It was far from a perfect performance on Saturday, but the end result is the same as if Baltimore had won the game 27-0 (like, say, Pittsburgh was able to do at home against the hapless rams, even without their quarterback): win in Cincy and get a week off and at least one home playoff game. They’ll certainly have to play a much more disciplined and consistent brand of football, but let’s also remember that the Bengals are but 1-6 against winning teams in 2011.

All eyes will be on the injury reports at Ravens’ practice this week – though Harbs is infamously vague on the status of his players, let’s all hope to see Yanda, Redding, Williams, and Ellerbe on the practice field.

Chargers 34 Ravens 14 (The RAY RETURNS BUT DEFENSE DISAPPEARS Game)

December 19, 2011

The Ravens put together another horrific performance on the road in San Diego on Sunday Night Football, bringing their record away from M&T Bank Stadium in 2011 to a very mediocre 3-4. Unlike previous losses in Jacksonville and Seattle though, the Ravens were never really in this one, as the Chargers’ high-powered offense scored at will in blowing Baltimore out of the gym by early in the second half.

San Diego became the first team to score on their first five possessions of a game against the Ravens since the team came into existence in 1996.

The Chargers’ first five drives went as such:

  • 74 yards, touchdown
  • 80 yards, touchdown
  • 80 yards, touchdown
  • 62 yards, field goal
  • 42 yards, touchdown

The sixth drive?

Following  Joe Flacco’s second interception, the Chargers went 8 yards before Nick Novak clanged his 37-yard field goal try off the right upright. If it wasn’t for that miss, San Diego would have scored on their first SEVEN possessions, with their only non-scoring drive coming late in the fourth quarter when all they were trying to do was run out the clock.

You’re not going to win many games when the other team DOESN’T PUNT A SINGLE TIME.

But the Ravens couldn’t get off the field on third down, allowing San Diego to convert 6/9 opportunities, including two 3rd-and-8 situations on their first two touchdown drives. Despite entering the game with a league-leading 45 sacks, the Ravens finished with zero of Philip Rivers on the night, and only a single quarterback hurry. Cory Redding appeared to sack Rivers to set up a 3rd-and-17 with the game tied at 7-7 early in the second quarter, but the play was nullified on an unnecessary roughness penalty on Terrell Suggs. Suggs straight up bitch-slapped Chargers tight end Randy McMichael on the play, obviously frustrated at San Diego’s tactics of having the big veteran shadow him all over the field. Honestly, I thought what Suggs did was a legal move, but I was obviously wrong. The flag extended the San Diego drive, and six plays later they took a 10-7 lead that they would never look back from.

The Ravens would never get to Rivers again all night (Suggs did have a vicious hit on him late in the game, but the ball was already gone).

Chuck Pagano just had no answer, as Norv Turner and Rivers carved his defense up to the tune of 415 total yards. The blitzes that had been so successful in previous weeks just weren’t getting home, as the Chargers’ offensive line did a spectacular job of protecting their quarterback, and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams were absolutely embarrassed by San Diego’s big wide receivers. Vincent Jackson (3 rec, 84 yards) took Williams to the woodshed, while Malcolm Floyd (5, 96) had his way with the rookie Smith. The safeties and linebackers were no help in coverage either, as Rivers was basically playing 7-on-7, sitting back and completing 17/23 passes (74%) for 270 yards – a gaudy 11+ yards per attempt.

The return of Ray Lewis from his turf toe injury was supposed to spark this defense, as the veteran returned to the field rested for the home stretch. Instead of looking fresh, though, Ray’s performance was much more accurately described by Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun, who called it “rusty.”

Speaking of turf toe, Ravens fans were encouraged to see Lardarius Webb listed as active for the game. Unfortunately, Webb was not at nearly 100%, and was only on the field as the nickel cornerback for most of the game. While a healthy Webb may have made a little difference, the ample time Rivers had in the pocket would have allowed him to find an open man regardless of whether Lardarius was playing at his usual high level or not, though.

On the offensive side of the ball, things weren’t much better. While the Ravens were unable to get to Rivers no matter how many rushers they brought, San Diego routinely got in Joe Flacco’s face with just a four-man pass rush. This was very reminiscent of the Tennessee game, as the Ravens’ offensive line and backs again and again failed to block four men with five or six. When all was said and done, Flacco had been sacked a season-high five times. Former Raven Antwan Barnes made Ozzie Newsome look like a fool for giving up on him, racking up four sacks on the night.

While Flacco wasn’t given nearly the luxurious pocket to throw from that his counterpart Rivers was, he did nothing to help himself either. Two of his passes on the game’s opening drive could have been intercepted, and both could have been touchdowns. The second definitely SHOULD have been, as Lee Evans was alone in the secondary – Flacco, though, was late with the ball. After a wonderful drive capped off by a gorgeous touchdown pass to Ed Dickson to answer the Chargers’ opening score, the Ravens found themselves down again, this time 10-7. Facing 3rd-and-3 near midfield, Cam Cameron called a perfect pick play to free Ray Rice for what would have been an easy first down. Joe though, as he is wont to do from time to time, forgot that Rice isn’t 6’2.” The incomplete pass forced a Ravens’ punt, and because the defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed (see above), the Chargers quickly took a 17-7 lead.

San Diego received the opening kickoff of the second half and…SURPRISE…scored a touchdown, making it a 24-7 laugher. At that point, the Ravens were forced to throw, and with Ray Rice and Vonta Leach pretty much neutralized, Flacco threw two interceptions that effectively sealed the game. On the first, he seemingly didn’t see Takeo Spikes at all (though he later said that he did), while the second was just a freaky play by defensive lineman Shaun Phillips to steal an attempted check-down out of the air.

The Ravens never led in the game, though they absolutely should have had a 3-0 lead on that opening drive. Billy Cundiff, however, continued his ridiculous road struggles, missing what should have been an easy 36-yarder. Cundiff has become a liability while kicking anywhere but M&T Bank Stadium, and should the Ravens be forced to go on the road for the playoffs, they should seriously consider replacing him with Shayne Graham.

And, speaking of going on the road for the playoffs….ugh.

Despite the loss, the Ravens had already locked up their playoff spot before the game even started, thanks to losses by the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans earlier in the day. However, their envious position of controlling their own destiny for the #1 overall seed is now completely out the window – they don’t even control their own destiny for the AFC North title and the home playoff game that comes with that any more.

Unless, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers were to lose in San Francisco tonight. If that happens, the Ravens can still win the division by going 2-0 over the last two weeks, and they should also be able to lock down the #2 seed over the Houston Texans for a much-needed bye week.

Do we really think that Pittsburgh, coming off 11 days rest, is going to lose tonight, though? We’ll cheer like hell for it, but with the rapist reportedly playing on his high ankle sprain, we’re all prepared for the worst. The Steelers’ last two games are against St. Louis (at home) and in Cleveland, so this is pretty much it – they win tonight, the AFC North (and likely the AFC’s #1 overall seed) is theirs. Despite sweeping them (and even if they go 6-0 in the division), the Ravens are again looking at a trip to Heinz Field in January.

And they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Go 49ers.

Play Like a Raven – Week 14

December 13, 2011

PlayLikeaRaven

After being on hiatus all season, I thought it was time for the return of the “Play Like a Raven” feature. One Raven in particular has so embodied everything that it means to Play Like a Raven here in 2011 that he pretty much deserves his own award (much like 2009 and 2010’s “Play Like a Raven” features became “Play Like a Ray Rice”). For now though, let’s take it one step at a time.

Played Like a Raven – Terrell Suggs

Sizzle was an absolute monster again Sunday, recording three sacks of Colts’ quarterback Dan Orlovsky and forcing Danny to fumble on every single one. The fact that his fellow lineman were unable to fall on even one of those fumbles hardly diminish Suggs’ contribution. It was the third time this season – and the second time in the last three games – that Sizzle has enjoyed a triple-sack lunch. Number 3 on Sunday gave him 13 for the season, a new career high. His previous high of 12 came in his rookie year of 2003; the truly impressive thing to note is that back then Suggs was pretty much only asked to rush the passer, while in 2011 he is also one of the best run-defending 3-4 outside linebacker/defensive ends in the NFL.

Just look at the tackle/sack numbers:

2003: 12 sacks, 27 tackles

2011: 13 sacks, 58 tackles

His six caused fumbles for the year also match his career high, again from 2003.

Sizzle’s 13 sacks lead the AFC and put him at #4 overall in the NFL. The three guys ahead of him on the list (Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Dallas’s Demarcus Ware, and Philadelphia’s Jason Babin) all trail Suggs in pretty much every other statistic, including forced fumbles, passes defended, interceptions, and total tackles.

Suggs needs just two sacks over the final three games to tie the Ravens’ franchise record of 15, set by Peter Boulware in 2001.

Although he’s going up against a guy who is very familiar with him – former Raven Jared Gaither – on Sunday, the bet here is that he continues his typical prime-time dominance and at least ties the record in San Diego.

Sizzle is making an extremely strong case to join Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as Ravens who have won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. If he can continue his incredible season over the final three games, it will not only help him solidify that bid, but should go a long way in helping the Ravens lock up the AFC North title and – hopefully – the conference’s #1 overall Playoff seed.

Did Not Play Like a Raven – Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie

While Suggs was busy getting after the Colts’ quarterback on the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens’ offensive tackles were busy getting their butts kicked by the Indy pass rushers on the other side.

I’ll let the guys from Pro Football Focus break it down:

For a team with genuine Super Bowl aspirations I have one major bone of contention with the Ravens; offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie (-0.8) and Michael Oher (-2.8), especially considering Joe Flacco’s struggles under pressure. Oher hit form mid season between Weeks 8 and 10 but was back to his usual sub-par standard on Sunday, giving up three total pressures. McKinnie has struggled all year with just one game where has graded out higher than +0.9 and Sunday was no different as he failed to make an impact in the run game while giving up a sack and a pressure in pass protection. Baltimore have managed some big wins this season but as we head towards the playoffs they need to get better play from their tackles to allow Flacco time to find all the weapons at his disposal.

We’ll give McKinnie and Oher a little bit of slack here, as nobody can deny the prowess of Messrs. Freeney and Mathis. However, it hasn’t been a one-week thing. As PFF points out, Oher has only had one really good stretch all season (weeks 8-10), and McKinnie has never been much in a Ravens uniform. After the opening play of the season – the big Ray Rice run that went right to Bryant’s side – we all envisioned big things from the mountain of a man holding down the left side. Since, though, he has been decent in pass protection and flat out poor in run blocking, especially when asked to seal off the back side pursuit.

With as strong as the Ravens’ interior linemen – center Matt Birk and guards Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs – have played all season, it’s a shame that these two former first round draft picks can’t perform better on the edges.

Fortunately, the Ravens’ next two opponents rank near the bottom of the NFL in sacks. Neither San Diego (#29 – 22 sacks) nor Cleveland (#24 – 25) have been able to get after quarterbacks well. As we saw in Week 13 though, when Oher allowed Browns’ defensive end Jabaal Sheard to get to Flacco and force a fumble, it only takes one lapse to potentially change a game.

At this point it’s probably not realistic to expect McKinnie to suddenly start to play like his old self. Oher, though, should be able to pick it up again as he did during the middle of the year. The teams that B’More is likely to see in the playoffs – Denver, Pittsburgh, Houston – can all get after the passer with startling regularity. There is no room for poor tackle play, especially from a guy as young and talented as Oher.

Step it up, Michael (on the bright side, he has at least been mostly penalty-free lately).

Ravens 24 Colts 10 (The MANNING OR NO MANNING, WE FINALLY BEAT THE COLTS Game)

December 12, 2011

Much to the delight of the contingent of Ravens fans who can’t get the Miami game in 2007 out of their minds, the Ravens came out on Sunday and did exactly what they should have done in dominating a winless Colts team for four quarters. Sure, they didn’t come out and hang 40 on the scoreboard like many would have liked, but a late (as in, last play of the game late) touchdown by Indy made the score look a lot closer than the game actually was.

After winning the opening toss and deferring, the Ravens forced Indy into a 3-and-out, took the ensuing drive following a Pat McAfree punt 60 yards for a touchdown, and the game was effectively over from that point. Baltimore led 10-0 after a quarter, and 17-0 just a few minutes into the second. Only a long kick return (more on that later) to set up an Adam Vinatieri field goal got the Colts on the board, as they were smacked around like the winless squad they are all afternoon.

The Ravens held Dan Orlovsky and the horsehoes to just 2/14 on third down conversions while allowing only 167 total net yards for the game. Seventy-six of those yards came on the game’s final possession, after Chuck Pagano had removed several of his starters. Orlovsky picked on rookie cornerback Chykie Brown in that last drive, otherwise the Ravens could have very realistically held Indy to under 100 total yards for the day.

Terrell Suggs continued his Defensive Player of the Year-worthy season with three more sacks, each one coming with a forced fumble on Orlovsky. It would be nice if one of Suggs’ mates could fall on one of these damn fumbles some time soon, but hey – they didn’t really need the turnovers yesterday; hopefully the ball will start bouncing our way in more crucial situations. The Ball So Hard University Dean now has 13 sacks, a career high and good for best in the AFC.

On offense, Ray Rice went over 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career, piling up 103 yards on 26 carries and adding a touchdown. Rice fumbled for the first time since the Jacksonville game, but again, let’s just be thankful he’s getting it out of his system in a blowout game, and not in a nail-biter down the stretch.

Joe Flacco was calmly efficient in throwing the ball against a poor and depleted Colts’ secondary, going 23/31 for 227 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. It was just the second time in the last ten games that Joe has thrown two or more touchdowns, which is something for idiot analysts and fantasy football nuts to pick apart on ESPN or NFL Network, but we Ravens fans know it’s not really important. The team is 8-2 in those games, so it’s all good.

Joe’s second touchdown pass, to Dennis Pitta, was one of the best plays he’s made all season. Pitta was initially covered on the play, a 3rd-and-goal from the seven yard line. Flacco looked like he was going to try to run for the end zone (and likely be stopped) but instead dragged the play out to his right, nearly reaching the sideline before firing back across his body to Pitta standing alone in the end zone. It’s the kind of play that commentators will chastise him for (and they did) as being dangerous, the cliche “recipe for disaster,” but at the same time it’s the exactly type of thing that big dummy in Pittsburgh has tormented the Ravens with for years. As Kevin Van Valkenburg of the Baltimore Sun says, it’s probably the kind of thing Flacco will have to do a little more of should the Ravens want to get their crack at Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in February.

Flacco’s interception came on a 21-yard throw into the Indy end zone, where it looked like Anquan Boldin could have done a LOT more to help his quarterback, but instead seemed more worried about avoiding a potential big hit from the safety, who eventually picked the pass off. Q just watched as the ball sailed a couple feet over his head, and continues – for whatever reason – to not be nearly the same receiver inside the end zone as he is outside of it. Throwing to him in the end zone seems to end in frustration far more often than not, as evidenced by his paltry three scores on the season.

Joe was almost betrayed on his first touchdown of the day as well, as Torrey Smith bobbled an easily catchable ball before eventually corralling it against his body. It was Smith’s sixth touchdown of his rookie campaign, tying a Ravens record formerly held solely by Jamal Lewis for his performance in 2000.

The Ravens had an up-and-down day on special teams.

First, the good: Lardarius Webb had another good day returning punts, following up his great week in Cleveland by averaging 19 yards on three tries. The new wrinkle of putting Haruki Nakamura back there by Webb as an extra late blocker has paid immediate dividends, and Webb looks close to breaking another one sooner rather than later.

Ed Reed also returned a punt, and again did some goofy “oh, I’m not gonna run it, OH YES I AM!” move that he was lucky to not get blown up on. I’d beg Ed to stop the madness, but at this point we all know it’s not going anywhere. Ed always has a plan, but he’s usually the only one who knows what it is.

On the other hand, it was obvious that Billy Cundiff, despite playing, was still being bothered by that left calf injury that threatened to sideline him for the game. His kickoffs were about 15 yards shorter than usual, and the line drives that he usually boots through the end zone were instead falling to earth at about the goal line. The low trajectory gave the coverage team no time to get down the field, and they allowed a long return that set up the Colts’ only non-junk time points of the day. Sam Koch tried his luck in the third quarter, and was also unable to record a touchback. Hopefully Cundiff heals up this week and is ready to go in San Diego.

The Ravens kept pace in the AFC, joining the Patriots, Steelers, and Texans as 10-win teams, and will need to continue piling up the W’s if they want to stay atop the division and conference. They are now 4-0 without Ray Lewis, who will be aiming to return to action against the Chargers in Week 15, and 3-0 with Joe sporting the Joe Manchu mustache. They put to rest a decade’s worth of frustrations against Indy, beating them for the first time since 2001, but the task gets a lot more difficult next week against the resurgent Bolts in Southern California.

Ravens 24 Browns 10 (The RAY RICE RUNNING THROUGH THE RAIN Game)

December 5, 2011

Rice ran through a crapstorm in Cleveland

Finally – for the first time since way back in Week 3 – the Ravens were able to dominate an inferior opponent on the road, running roughshod over the Cleveland Browns for a 24-10 victory that wasn’t as close as the two touchdown final spread might indicate.

Ray Rice had a career day sloshing through the muddy muck at Cleveland Stadium, piling up 204 yards on 29 carries, including a 67-yard scamper that set up a 1-yard Ricky Williams touchdown near the end of the third quarter after the Browns had closed to within 10-3. Williams added 76 yards on 16 carries as the Ravens stuck with the run to pound Cleveland into submission. The 55 rushing attempts set a franchise record, while the 290 total ground yards were good for third in team history. The Ravens’ offensive line simply manhandled the Browns all day, giving Rice and Williams the kinds of holes to run through they likely haven’t seen since high school, much less since coming into the NFL.

Joe Flacco had a very “game manager” type day, going 10/23 for 158 yards. His numbers could have been better had his receivers not continually betrayed him, from Lee Evans and Torrey Smith both dropping potential touchdown passes to Anquan Boldin having several throws clang off his hands. The inclement weather in Cleveland certainly could have played a role (Browns receivers were dropping passes left and right as well), but it was unsettling to watch the Ravens’ veteran wideouts be so inconsistent. We’ve heard about how fresh Lee Evans’ legs are going into the stretch run, but it doesn’t matter how good his legs feel if his hands can’t do what they’re supposed to.

The Ravens’ defensive effort, while not as dominant as 10 days prior against San Francisco, was still quite impressive. After a few strong early runs, Browns’ running back Peyton Hillis was shut down and finished his day with just 45 yards on 12 carries. Rookie Pernell McPhee added two more sacks to his impressive rookie resume, and Terrell Suggs picked up his 10th quarterback drop of the season. Haloti Ngata batted down two Colt McCoy passes, and rookie Jimmy Smith picked up his second career interception (and first that he didn’t subsequently fumble).

While McCoy ended the day with just the single interception, that number could have easily been three or four, as it seemed like Ravens’ defenders were getting their hands on just about every pass he threw.

Lardarius Webb was one of the defenders who nearly had a pick. Though he was unable to pick up an interception, Webb made his mark on the game, finally breaking a punt return for a touchdown. It was Webb’s first trip to the end zone on special teams since having a touchdown called back in the divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh. The 68-yard return gave the Ravens a 24-3 lead with seven minutes to play, and undoubtedly elicited the familiar “the hay’s in the barn” call from Ravens’ radio man Gerry (with a G!) Sandusky.

There were two big hiccups by the defense, though, that led to all 10 of the Browns’ points. In the third quarter, Hillis was left completely uncovered on a 52-yard reception that set up a 21-yard Phil Dawson field goal. Still, after holding in the red zone, the defense had a chance to hold their opponent without a touchdown for the second consecutive game. Instead, another blown coverage resulted in a 22-yard touchdown by tight end Evan Moore on a 4th-and-10 play that ended up being the Browns’ final offensive snap of the evening.

Those mistakes are correctable, and Chuck Pagano will have to look at the tape and figure out why his secondary is still having what they like to call “communication issues.” That kind of thing is understandable at the start of the season, but going into the final quarter – and then the playoffs – everyone needs to be on the same page on the back end.

Other gripes for the day include:

  • Red zone woes. The Ravens scored just two touchdowns on four trips (not including the final drive, which ended on kneel-downs), and failed to get into the end zone after being awarded a 1st-and-goal from the 3 following a pass interference penalty.
  • Billy Cundiff’s struggles. The Ravens’ kicker continues to be wildly inconsistent away from M&T Bank Stadium. His first extra point try clanged off the right upright before going through, and then he missed on 34 and 41-yard tries on consecutive drives in the second quarter. He finally hit from 21, but it wasn’t a day Cundiff will look back upon fondly. He is now 26/34 on the season after going 26/29 in 2010. All eight of his misses, though, have come on the road (2 @ St. Louis, 1 @ Jax, 2 @ Sea, 1 @ Pit, 2 @ Cle). He is now 10/18 (55%) everywhere but M&T, where he is a perfect 16/16. Just one more reason that securing a top seed for the postseason is tantamount for this team.

It was a strong, businesslike performance, the kind this team needed to show they can put together down the stretch. With Cincinnati giving the Ravens absolutely no help in getting stomped by Pittsburgh, the Ravens’ two head-to-head victories over the Steelers remain the only thing standing between a potential home playoff game or two and another wild card berth. With the hapless 0-11 Indianapolis Colts coming to town next week, the Ravens should have no problem continuing to hold Pittsburgh at bay.

Ravens 16 49ers 6 (The MERCILESS BEATING OF ALEX SMITH Game)

November 26, 2011

The Baltimore Ravens slogan, or team motto, if you will, for 2011 is “Relentless.”

Which is exactly how San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith would likely describe the Baltimore defense were you to ask him about it this morning. The Ravens tied a franchise record with nine sacks, harassing Smith as well as bottling up running back Frank Gore all night long while allowing the NFC West leaders only 170 total yards of offense. That they did all this without Ray Lewis in the lineup for the second consecutive game only makes the performance that much more impressive.

Terrell Suggs came alive after a couple quiet games to lead the Ravens with three sacks. Cory Redding and Haloti Ngata were also in the 49ers backfield all night, registering 2.5 and 2.0 sacks, respectively. While rookie Pernell McPhee didn’t manage any sacks of his own, his presence alone helped create opportunities for others, as he again played a superb game.

It was an old fashioned slobberknocker, as the Ravens offense managed only 253 total yards of their own. The difference, though, was that our quarterback is Joe Flacco, while theirs is Alex Smith. Flacco was a calm and efficient 15/23 for 161 yards and one touchdown, but most importantly, he (nor any other Raven) turned the ball over against the NFL’s leading takeaway unit.

Joe, sporting an awesome/hideous Fu manchu mustache, shone brightest on the Ravens’ first drive of the second half. After San Francisco had managed to tie the game at 6 on a 52-yard David Akers field goal, Flacco led the Ravens on a 16 play, 7:34 touchdown drive. On the series, Joe hit seven different receivers, and was 4/4 on third down passing, each time converting to move the chains, or, in the case of the fourth completion, to get his team into the end zone. His eight-yard strike to tight end Dennis Pitta to cap off the drive was one of his best throws of the season. Flacco has now put up consecutive games with a 100+ passer rating for the first time in 2011, and it’s no coincidence that these last two games have featured Ray Rice as the focal point of the offense.

Rice only managed 59 yards on 21 carries, but that was enough to keep the San Francisco defense, who entered the game allowing only 78 yards per game on the ground, honest. Ricky Williams added 29 yards on seven strong carries to give the Ravens 92 total rushing yards. Rice was disappointed that he was unable to break the 49ers streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown this season, but that was as much Cam Cameron’s fault as it was Ray’s.

While Cam is to be commended for his overall game plan, two plays again stick out in all Ravens fans’ minds as asinine examples of Cam trying to outsmart everybody, to the detriment of his team.

With the game tied at 3 in the second quarter, the offense had moved the ball from their own 35 (50 yards of it coming on the strength of a pass interference penalty, which is becoming one of the team’s best weapons; a welcome change from the Frank Walker years when it seemed like we were the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of all those calls) all the way down to the 49ers’ 1-yard line. Facing second down and 1, we were all hoping to see #27 go straight ahead at least two, if not three, more times. Especially with the way the right side of the line was able to blow the Cincinnati Bengals (an extremely stout defense in their own right) off the ball down there last week, it was the obvious course of action.

Cam, though, got cute. He called for Rice to instead run outside to the right, and the speedy San Francisco defense made the Ravens pay, stopping Rice for a loss of four. On the next play, 3rd-and-goal from the 5, Cam went into his shell and called a ridiculous quarterback draw. Fu manFlacco was stopped for no gain, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal.

Later on, with the team clinging to a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter, they had moved the ball from their own 28 into San Fran territory. Facing 3rd-and-1 from the 46, they used up a timeout.

Ok, no big deal. As long as you convert the try, that’s not a bad use of the clock stoppage.

Bang it right ahead, right?

Of course not. Not Cam. Cam ran Ricky Williams outside to the right, the 49ers stopped for no gain, and the Ravens were forced to punt.

For the night, the Ravens were a very efficient 7/15 (46%) on third downs. That’s no small feat against such a strong defense. However, after going just 2/6 on 3rd-and-2 or less against the Bengals, they were 0-for-2 this week, and failed to score with a 2nd-and-goal from the one. These might seem like nit-picky gripes, but while it’s great that Flacco is so efficient throwing on 3rd-and-long, this team needs to find ways to start converting on 3rd-and-shorts down the stretch.

Alright, enough Cam. Back to the D. You really can’t say enough about the Ravens defense in this game. From Lardarius Webb’s gorgeous interception of Smith on a deep ball down the right sideline that prevented the 49ers from scoring before the half, to the relentless pass rush, to Albert McClellan filling in more than adequately for Ray Lewis at a position he had never played before, to Ed Reed making a good break on a pass intended for Michael Crabtree (though Ed should have caught the ball) to set up Suggs’ third sack on the very next play, Chuck Pagano’s unit was incredible. While they likely benefited from San Francisco’s cross country trip and short week, the fact remains that they still had to step up and take advantage of the team in front of them. They did exactly that.

A quick note on the officiating: Horrible as always in the NFL. Yes, the chop block on Gore that erased Ted Ginn Jr.’s long touchdown was technically the right call, as noted by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, but was ticky-tack nonetheless. The Ravens certainly benefited from the call, but some erroneous flags flew in San Fran’s favor as well (such as the block in the back on Webb’s long punt return – if you block a guy in the back, won’t he land on his stomach, and not, you know, his back? Come on, man). They also missed a facemask on Flacco that would have given the Ravens a first down in SF territory. Again, as always, the refs suck at their jobs.

The Ravens, by virtue of winning the first ever “HarBowl” become the AFC’s first 8-win team. Pittsburgh is obviously more than likely to join them on Sunday night, facing a terrible Kansas City team with no quarterback while the Steelers are well rested coming off their bye. New England will have their hands full with Philadelphia, but the Eagles are going to be without Dog Murderer Vick and Nnamdi, so Brady and Co. will also probably be at 8 wins come next week.

Regardless, the Ravens now have 10 days to rest and prepare to travel to Cleveland, where they desperately need to reverse their 2011 road woes.

Ravens 31 Bengals 24 (The HOLDING ON BY A THR….ER, DREAD GAME)

November 21, 2011

The Ravens used a 31-7 scoring run between the second quarter and the start of the fourth to overcome poor play to start and finish the game, hanging on in the final seconds to beat a very scrappy Cincinnati Bengals team by a final of 31-24. Unlike so many Ravens-Bengals games in the past that were dominated by defense or were just plain boring to watch, this one featured big play after big play, and extreme highs and lows for fans of both clubs. Let’s try to make some sense of it all…

The Ravens really need to start coming out of the tunnel a bit more ready to play. For the third time in the last four games, they found themselves trailing by a touchdown in the opening quarter. The Ravens’ first quarter offensively consisted of exactly one first down, 15 yards of offense, and a horrific fumble by Joe Flacco to close out the stanza. On defense, just like a week ago in Seattle, the Ravens started off strong, forcing a three-and-out on the opponent’s opening possession, only to come back on the very next series and allow a long touchdown drive. Last week it was a 6 play, 60 yard scoring series; this week the Bengals went 82 yards on just 7 plays to take a 7-0 lead midway through the first.

The great news was that this time Cam Cameron and the offense managed to not panic when trailing by a single score, and stuck with the game plan. The game plan that, much to the surprise of nobody after last week, included heavy doses of Ray Rice.

Rice, despite being bottled up at times, continued to test the Bengals’ #2 rush defense, and eventually it paid off. His 59-yard scamper to the Cincy 6 yard line on the opening drive of the second half set up Billy Cundiff’s only field goal of the day, which gave the Ravens a 17-7 lead. Ray had another 26-yard run called back on a Torrey Smith penalty, but still finished the day with 20 carries for 104 yards.

As Terrell Suggs says…FEED YOUR HORSE!

In addition to averaging over 5 yards per carry, Rice added 43 yards receiving on 5 catches, and could have had a lot more, if Flacco would ever get it through his unibrowed skull that Ray isn’t 6’2″.

The Ravens’ commitment to the ground game also resulted in great benefits to Flacco, who is at his best when using play action to supplement an effective running attack. With the Bengals forced to respect Rice, Joe put up his best passer rating since Week 1 against Pittsburgh, while also throwing his fewest passes and for his highest yards per attempt average of the season. His two touchdown throws were also the first time he’s had more than one in a game since Week 3 in St. Louis.

All of this was a far cry from his norm against the Bengals, who had given him problems galore over the past two seasons.

This time, though, Flacco had a weapon in his arsenal that he’s never had against Marvin Lewis’s defense before: a receiver with the ability to run straight through that damn Cover 2.

Torrey Smith continued his surprisingly successful rookie season, with six catches for 165 yards (both career highs) and a score. The former Maryland Terrapin probably would have had another 60 yards and an additional touchdown if he had short hair.

On 3rd-and-1 from their own 31 with 1:50 to go in the first half, Joe found Torrey on a quick slant. Torrey immediately had the first down, but what happened next was something we YAC-deprived Ravens fans are not used to seeing. Smith took off through the Bengals’ secondary, and was about to leave everyone in his dust when Adam “Pac-Man” Jones, in desperation, dove and grabbed a handful of Torrey’s dreadlocks. A flag was thrown, but erroneously – after discussion it was picked up, as hair is considered part of a player’s uniform.

After the game, Smith was asked if he had any plans to cut his hair, since it likely cost him (and his team, as Flacco would throw an awful interception two plays later) a touchdown.

“I honestly thought about it,” he said. “But my grandma likes it a little too much.”

Granny, for the good of the team, let little Torrey cut his locks, huh?

Taking a 31-14 lead with 14 minutes to play, it looked like we would finally be able to relax.

No such luck.

The Baltimore defense had just intercepted Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton for the third time of the day, and it looked as if the former TCU Horned Frog was ready to pack up his bags and scoot out of town. The Bengals, though, have had plenty of fourth quarter comebacks already in 2011, and Cincy wasn’t ready to say die.

Not by a long shot.

Dalton exacted a measure of revenge on Ravens’ rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who had registered INT #2, finding Andre Caldwell matched up 1-on-1 with Smith for a 49-yard touchdown that made it 31-21 with still nearly 11 minutes to play. After a Ravens’ 3-and-out, Dalton went back to work, this time appearing to find tight end Jermaine Gresham for a nine-yard touchdown to pull the Bengals within 3 points with over five minutes on the clock. However, replay review overturned the touchdown (right call, terrible rule), and Cincy was forced to settle for a field goal.

Bengals fans are up in arms today over the reversal, but it was the right call. The “Calvin Johnson Rule,” as it were is obviously a horrible piece of the NFL playbook, and it needs to go. This time it benefited the Ravens, but it could just as easily cost them down the road. Still, Cincy fans will get no sympathy here, as that drive should have ended with a punt seven plays earlier. Instead, a bad pass interference call on Lardarius Webb (who should be going to the Pro Bowl, by the way) extended the drive.

Because of the field goal, the Bengals (after the Ravens’ offense again failed to hold on to the ball and seal the game) were only driving for the tie, and not the win (assuming they weren’t planning on going for a two-point conversion, which they very well could have been), in the final two minutes. A gorgeous 43-yard bomb from Dalton to Jerome Simpson set them up with 1st-and-goal from the Ravens’ 7 yard line with 50 seconds to play, and the implosion seemed imminent.

The “vaunted” Ravens’ defense, playing without leader Ray Lewis, appeared just seconds away from blowing a 17 point fourth quarter lead, despite picking off three passes on the afternoon.

Fortunately, they saved their best for last. Despite failing to sack Dalton for the game’s first 59-plus minutes, they managed to get to him when it counted most, on the Bengals’ final two offensive snaps. On third-and-goal, Terrell Suggs finally showed up, forcing an intentional grounding flag that moved the ball back to the 17. On fourth-and-goal, Pernell McPhee appropriately (rookies were all over this game) ended things with the team’s first sack.

It was about as gut-wrenching as a victory can be, and while it is obviously very disappointing that the defense allowed such a comeback, and that the offense failed to seal the deal when given the chance, the fact remains that the Ravens came out on top in a crucial division game. This victory means the difference between entering the Week 12 Thanksgiving night showdown with San Francisco in first place in the AFC vs. third place in the AFC North.

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Ravens are back where they should be – in first place and in control of their own destiny moving forward. The Ravens had never been 7-3 in franchise history prior to last season (though they were 8-2 in 2006), and now they’ve done it two years running.

On to the Harbowl.

 


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