Geaux…the F home, that is.
The Ravens sent the defending Super Bowl Champs home losers yesterday, ending New Orleans’ six-game winning streak and starting a modest two-gamer of their own in the process.
It was old-school Baltimore Ravens football on the offensive side of the ball. Cam Cameron fought every instinct he has and tossed his pass-happy playbook out the window – for this week anyway – and came into the game with the mindset that the team was going to run the ball like it was 2008 all over again. They did exactly that, as the offensive line stepped up and created holes, Joe Flacco tied his career low for completions in a regular season game (10 – Week 14 2008 against Washington), and little Ray Rice exploded and ruled the day.
As the Ravens ran their first play on offense, the FOX announcer (not Billick, the other guy) stated that “the running game has been virtually non-existent” for B’More. It was to be quite existent on this day, however.
Rice put up 153 yards on the ground against the Saints, a season high. He also had 31 carries, another season high. Perhaps more importantly, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry, his highest since Week 10 at Atlanta. Rice had averaged under 4 yards per carry in four of the previous six games. Mighty Mouse also added five receptions for 80 yards and his first receiving touchdown of the year, on a beautifully thrown ball from Joe Flacco on 3rd-and-10 from the New Orleans 17-yard line.
Rice, who has frustrated fantasy football owners all season long, rewarded those who kept believing in him in their league playoffs, likely sending many a fantasy owner to their championship games with his career high 233 yards.
While the game plan may not have made the Ravens’ wide receivers very happy, Anquan Boldin (1 catch, 2 yards), Derrick Mason (1 catch, 42 yards), and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (1 catch, 15 yards) should be commended for outstanding downfield blocking that made many of Rice’s long gains on runs and screen passes possible.
Willis McGahee got in on the action too, with 53 yards on only seven carries. Le’Ron “Ankle Sprain” McClain opened up holes too, but also robbed Flacco out of what should have been his 3rd touchdown pass of the day with a hideous “windmill” catch attempt.
All told, this Ravens’ team that entered the game averaging just 104.9 yards on the ground per game pounded the Saints for nearly twice that. B’More racked up 208 rushing yards, and averaged 5.3 yards per rushing play. That efficiency translated into a 31:30-29:30 time of possession advantage for the game. Not extremely significant, but when playing an explosive offense like the New Orleans Saints – especially when they are making the kind of amazing circus catches they seemed to be all afternoon Sunday – every second that the defense isn’t on the field counts.
And damn, did those Saints make some catches. Drew Brees threw three touchdown passes on the day, and Jimmy Graham’s rather routine 1-yard catch in the third quarter was bookended by two amazing grabs. The first, also by Graham, gave the Saints a short-lived 7-0 lead. Brees’ final touchdown of the day came on a pass that was intended for Marques Colston, but was tipped and instead hauled down in the end zone by Lance Moore, who expertly tiptoed between the sideline and endline to tie the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter.
Despite leading 21-7 in the second, the Ravens again found themselves tied in the game’s final stanza.
Unlike so many prior instances this year though, both the offense and defense stepped up to secure a slightly less heart attack-inducing victory. Although the offense again failed to score a touchdown in the second half – the fifth straight game in which that has been the case – they put up three field goals, which ended up being more than enough. They immediately responded to New Orleans tying the game, as the Ravens’ first offensive play after the N.O. touchdown was Ray Rice’s season-long 50-yard run (accented by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on the Saints after the play).
Just as the offense was vintage, the defense too resembled a Ravens team of yore. After pulling our hair out watching 3-man rush after 3-man rush in Houston, Ravens fans were treated to a much more pressure-heavy defense against New Orleans. The Ravens sacked Drew Brees three times and harassed him all day, forcing the Saints into a season-worst 5/13 on third downs. Without rookie running back Chris Ivory, the Saints were unable to run the ball at all, managing just 27 yards on 14 carries (1.9 average).
It was good to see linebacker Dannell Ellerbe finally get back on the field. Ellerbe, active for just the second time since the bye week (another rumored member of the infamous John Harbaugh “doghouse”), had five tackles and a sack, and looked fresh and effective throughout. Fellow linebacker Tavares Gooden played perhaps his best game as a Raven. Although he didn’t make it to the stat sheet, Gooden was extremely effective as a blitzer, forcing Brees into several uncomfortable throws and scrambles. Greg Mattison may be on to something using Gooden, who has great speed for a LB but not ideal size, as a pass rusher more often.
It looked like the Saints might be poised to break Baltimore’s heart, taking over down by 6 from their own 4-yard line with 2:51 to play. Not only were the Texans’ two 90-plus yard drives still fresh in our minds, but the Saints had already marched 92 yards in under three minutes in the second quarter.
This time though, the defense produced a stop when it counted most.
The Saints would make it just 13 yards, to their own 17, when Haloti Ngata got a hand up and tipped Brees’ pass on 4th-and-8. Cory Redding pulled it in for his first career interception (Ray Lewis wasn’t close enough to knock it away from him again, a la the Tampa game) to all but seal the deal. A Billy Cundiff field goal with seven seconds left gave the Saints time for a desperation lateral-fest on the ensuing kickoff and nothing more.
Speaking of Cundiff, he managed just a single touchback on the afternoon, leaving him three short of tying Mitch Berger’s NFL record of 40 in a single season.
It was a great win for the Ravens, but I’m not as quick to call it a “signature” win or whatever other hyperbole many Ravens fans and analysts are using this week. The win is only extremely meaningful if they can build off it. With Pittsburgh losing to the New York Jets Sunday, the Ravens are still very much in the hunt for the AFC North title, providing the Steelers lose at least one of their last two. If the Ravens go to Cleveland and lay a clunker in Week 16 though, then the Saints win quickly loses much of its luster.
The Houston win could have been the start of something. Yesterday was a great way to build off that game. Moving forward, with only games against losing teams – though they are division rivals – left, the Ravens can have great momentum going into the postseason, regardless of whether they end up as a wild card or division winner.