Alex and I have been e-mailing each other all week in order to sort out our thoughts on the upcoming Ravens-Patriots game. The result: 3,000+ words of pure football gold (or so we hope). Enjoy!
The Ravens are now closer to a championship than 28 of the other 31 NFL teams. Think about this–it’s the equivalent of the Wizards making the Eastern Conference Finals, the Orioles making the American League Championship Series, or the Terps making the Final Four. I can’t even imagine those teams making the playoffs/NCAA Tournament, let alone be a championship contender.
Of course, no one seems particularly happy or confident in Baltimore. The Ravens haven’t played particularly well, like able-to-beat-the-New England-Patriots-well, since at least early December or possibly Thanksgiving, depending on your view of those 24-10 victories over Indianapolis and Cleveland. This either means they haven’t played well in a while and it’s a huge problem, or that the Ravens are good enough to not play well for months on end and only lose one game in the process. We’ll know the answer in the narrative on Monday morning.
It’s always interesting to me that the NFL playoffs are designed to pack such an asymmetrical amount of meaning into the final games of the season. The disparity in the Ravens performance compared to all the other Baltimore/Washington area franchises (and for that matter most other sports franchises period) in recent years will be little consolation to our fans if we fail to win a Super Bowl this year. It’s all pretty irrational when you think about it, the amount of games played during the season which are rendered totally meaningless by the single-elimination playoff system.
I’ve been a bit shocked by the lack of confidence in Raven’s fans leading up to this game. I can’t remember a playoff game in which so many fans seemed convinced that we would not only lose but get absolutely destroyed. Perhaps it’s a product of the collective “growing up” of our peer group (since my generalizations about “Ravens fans” are based exclusively on my Facebook news feed) and an increased sense of pessimism or cynicism that comes with being an adult.
It does feel like the Ravens were gifted into the title game. It’s been months since Baltimore either thoroughly demolished a terrible team or beat a legitimately good one. The Patriots’ absolute demolition of Tebowmania at least gives their fans confidence through the former. This view is partially due to a scheduling quirk–the Ravens did what they needed to, beating Pittsburgh twice and having the fortune to play San Francisco at home in a short week with a healthy quarterback, to avoid being the team to fly out to 8-8 Denver. They’ve reaped the rewards of some very good football. It just so happens they played it about ten games ago.
What’s been most on my mind though, is this: As a franchise, the Ravens did everything backward. They won a Super Bowl before experiencing any disappointment. This stands in stark contrast to the other major championship of my fandom. Even as an 11-year-old, Maryland’s national title in 2002 served to erase memories of 10-points-in-54-seconds and a 22-point lead in a national semifinal, both against Duke, for heaven’s sake. Fans with real historical perspective, of course, saw the title as vindication for Gary’s ’90s teams that never got past the Sweet 16, Lenny, Lefty, the ’74 team, and the closing of Cole. It has to rank as one of the most emotional championships of all time.
The knowledge that this team already won a championship carried through most of the 2000s. It eased the horrific Colts loss in 2006–enough key cogs were still there, and Brian Billick was still coaching. But we’ve started to see the exodus of some very, very important Ravens–Ring of Honor Ravens–who never even reached a Super Bowl in Baltimore. Todd Heap’s gone. Derrick Mason, warts and all. And it’s not stopping anytime soon.
This conviction that the Ravens are definitely going to lose this week seems to me to be unwarranted. I recognize that the Patriots are a better team than the Ravens (they rank 4th in Football Outsiders regular season DVOA while the Ravens were 7th for this year). I also recognize that they have been playing better than the Ravens as of late (in the week 19 weighted DVOA rankings, which gives preference to more recent games and includes the playoffs, the Patriots are 2nd to the Ravens’ 9th.) Despite this, I don’t see the difference between the two teams as insurmountable. This Patriots team is very good, but not as dominant as either their ’07 or ’10 incarnations. While they’ve blown out more than a few teams, they haven’t played many of the Ravens’ caliber. Their only games against teams with winning records were consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and the Giants.
The Patriots may not be as good as the 2007 and 2010 versions, but offensively, they’re still pretty dominant: Football Outsiders ranks ’07 and ’10, respectively, as the two best offenses of the last 20 years. This team is sixth.
The record vs. playoff teams argument that Ravens fans keep making is pretty misleading, I think (beyond the fact I’m not sure it means very much in such a matchup-dominated sport). Yes, the Ravens won in Pittsburgh and the Patriots lost there, but the Ravens get credit for four wins against playoff teams Cincinnati and Houston (once without Andre Johnson, and once without Matt Schaub), while the Pats get nothing for their wins against San Diego and Philadelphia, two teams better than the Bengals and beaten-up Texans squads.
The 2011 Patriots may be the sixth best offense in the last 20 years but they’re only the third best this year according to DVOA. I’m not sure if that points to how remarkable this season was for the top passing offenses or to some flaw in the DVOA statistic in being unable to properly adjust for differences in era (I should know more about how these advanced stats are calculated before I start tossing them around recklessly). Either way, those two offenses ranked ahead of the Patriots both lost last week to teams that are no better than the Ravens. All that may be saying is that if the Ravens force 5 turnovers they too may have a chance to win on a last second drive, but as we get closer to the game I’m getting less and less confident so I need any shred of hope I can cling to.
All of the Patriots success is predicated on their dominant passing game and their special teams. Controlling field position and passing the ball well is certainly a winning combination in today’s NFL, but it’s not an invincible one. The Patriots are still a deeply flawed team. Their lack of a running game (Aaron Hernandez is probably the best back on their roster) should allow the Ravens to devote ample resources to containing the three-headed monster of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez (I’m not going to pretend that they can be “stopped”). Considering that the Ravens were the NFL’s best ranked pass defense in terms of DVOA this season, Ed Reed and company should stand a much better chance than most.
The star of the Texans game, beyond sheer luck, was Ed Reed. For the first time in too long a time, you noticed Ed Reed. He came close to hauling in fantastic interceptions twice (Dan Dierdorf seemed to think he was dropping seven-yard crossing patterns, though; my hatred for announcers who aren’t Jeff Van Gundy remains strong), and then he made what should’ve been the game-clinching play, and the actual game-clinching play. It was vintage Reed–and I hate that I’m forced to include “vintage” at all. I view Reed’s retirement as fairly imminent, more than Ray Lewis’. Reed’s injuries are more severe, and I think he’s more comfortable not being around football. Lewis has had his moment, dancing around the field in Tampa 11 years ago. Reed still hasn’t, and if he doesn’t get it now, I’m not sure he ever will.
I’d like to think this generation of Ravens–and really, I’m not likely to follow as closely or care about as much any succeeding generation, as I eventually dip into the “real world” and have “responsibilities” and “bills”–can finally take that next step. Their legacy to this point is clear–if you’re not a Hall of Fame quarterback, we’ll beat you. If not, we simply won’t. They haven’t choked away playoff games; they’ve lost to Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and in a few days probably Tom Brady. It’ll be a respectable run, but these Ravens will be forever defined by that failure, not their ability to beat Chad Pennington, Kerry Collins, Matt Cassel, and T.J. Yates. And it’ll be too bad, because I’ve really enjoyed the ride.
This season has given me a much greater appreciation for how good Ed Reed is. In the past I’ve tended to assume that Reed was overrated because of his high number of interceptions and frequently big returns. I think this assumption probably skewed my perception of the games, and as a result I would frequently notice plays in which he blew his coverage while missing all the great things that he does on the field. Reading Chris Brown’s piece on Grantland earlier this year changed my perception a bit and watching Ravens games I now feel more aware of the great plays that Reed makes even when the ball isn’t thrown his way. Both Bill Belichick and the stats (being the leader of the top pass defense in DVOA) seem to support the theory that despite his low interception totals Reed actually had a much better season than Raven’s fans realize.
Ultimately the Ravens are not a team that gets blown out or participates in “shootouts”. I have confidence in their ability to hold the Patriots under 30 points. That leaves it up to the offense to win this game. And while the Ravens may not posses one of the league’s premier scoring attacks it is an above average one. Let’s not forget that this offense contains the NFL leader in yards from scrimmage as well as a pretty good set of receivers and tight ends. While I wouldn’t pick the Ravens as a favorite this week, I also would not be at all surprised if Joe Flacco delivers against the dreadful Pats secondary and sheds that title of “Game Manager”.
That Sunday night game in San Diego aside (the matchup issues with the Chargers’ big receivers are worrisome, to say the least, as the Ravens prepare for New England’s tight-end monster), the Ravens do generally limit high-powered passing attacks. The many losses to Peyton Manning haven’t been the defense’s fault (some recent scores: 20-3, 17-15, 15-6), and Baltimore’s 2-0 against Drew Brees’ Saints. And most importantly, the Ravens performed pretty damn well against the two Patriots’ offenses that rank so highly: 27 points in 2007, and 23 in 2010.
I certainly don’t expect the Ravens to get blown out, mainly because before the Chargers game, this team hasn’t gotten blown out since 2008. And unlike the previous three playoff runs, there’s no evidence the Ravens can’t beat great teams on the road.
Still, by every statistical measure this year, the Patriots were a little better. I’m still going to spend every Patriots possession praying Ed Reed pops out of nowhere, grabs a Brady pass, and starts setting up his blockers. 1 to 11, the Ravens might have more talent on offense than the Patriots do (I think the Ravens maligned receivers are better than the Patriots running backs; whether they’re used more effectively is another question entirely). I know I just said there’s no evidence the Ravens can’t beat great teams on the road, but it still feels like we’re asking them to do something we’re not quite sure they can pull off.
The Ravens have spent … a decade, really, trying to develop an offense that wouldn’t hold the team back. Ray Rice and Vonta Leach are Pro Bowl-caliber players; Ricky Williams is as competent a No. 2 as a team with such a gifted No. 1 could ask for. Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Lee Evans, plus the White Tight End (and Ed Dickson) are as capable receivers as the Ravens have trotted out there since the days of Vinny Testaverde throwing bombs to Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. Joe Flacco, circa 2011, is probably the best quarterback in Ravens history. I can’t really judge the offensive line, but it doesn’t seem miles worse than most teams the Ravens play. And I haven’t heard Michael Oher’s name in a few months, which is definitely a good thing. In short, I’m not sure you could ask for terribly more talent on offense when the defense is ranked No. 1 in DVOA.
But this week Reed said the defense is still the “big brother,” and I don’t think anyone disagrees with him. So if the Ravens lose, and it’s not 45-42 or something, are we right back at square one? Or can we just fall back on small sample size, content with the fact only the Ravens have reached the postseason each of the last four years?
A lot of the coverage of this game is focused on the “last chance” for the Ravens veteran team to win a Super Bowl. I understand the reasoning behind these statements. The aging stars on defense and the feeling that our offense is hitting it’s slightly-better-than-average peak don’t exactly instill confidence when considering the future. Despite that, I’m not sure I want to count this team out for the coming years just yet. Maybe I’m vastly undervaluing the impact of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but I think we have enough good players left to continue fielding elite defenses for a few years. I also think that this offense will continue to improve. I know Flacco hasn’t made that leap forward into the Roethlisberger/Romo second tier of quarterbacks we were all hoping for, but it is only his 4th season in the league. It took Drew Brees and Tom Brady similar lengths of time to establish themselves as elites. Not that I expect Joe Flacco to transform into an elite, but it’s also too early to write him off as a perennial “Game Manager.” Add in a talented young group of WRs and TEs (Smith, Dickson, Pitta) and a few more productive years from Ray Rice if he stays healthy and the future looks, if not bright, at least well-lighted.
The other thing baffling me about coverage for this game on ESPN is the insistence on referring to the Ravens as “no longer an elite defense” and “not as good as the 49ers defensively”. I don’t expect the guys on First Take to be well-versed in their Football Outsiders stats but even looking at the traditional stats the Ravens look rather elite and certainly comparable to the 49ers. Of course the 49ers have a great defense this year, especially against the run, but you would think that even Skip Bayless could figure out that in a league where three QBs threw for 5,000 yards this year that passing defense is more important than rushing defense. I refuse to believe that the Ravens would ever allow 32 points to a team in a game where we forced 5 turnovers (even if that team is the Saints).
I’m really glad you brought up the 49ers. We keep hearing that defense beat offense last week, but that’s not at all what happened. How often did the 49ers defense actually stop the Saints offense? The Saints just fumbled a lot. I suppose fumbles are partly the creation of hard hits and aggressive defense, but I’d be a lot more impressed with the 49ers defense if the Saints hadn’t compiled 472 total yards. Somehow the 49ers get credit for being a ball-control, defense-first team while the Ravens are maligned for it. If anything, the Ravens at least perfected the strategy last week–no turnovers, no penalties, converting turnovers into touchdowns and not field goals. Oh, and the Ravens did beat the 49ers, if anyone cares.
In moving this from Football Outsiders stats to pure psychoanalysis, I do think the “last chance” stuff is fair. I just wonder how many times you can climb the mountain, fall down, reload, and try again before something snaps. The offense came up short in the playoffs in 2009, so the Ravens went out and got Boldin and Houshmanzadeh and suddenly had three big-name receivers. Houshmanzadeh caught a go-ahead TD in Pittsburgh and all seemed well. But in the doom and gloom of Heinz Field, that failed, so the Ravens reloaded the offense again and got the No. 2 seed so they wouldn’t have to play at Heinz Field. So now what, assuming a loss? Fire Cam Cameron, bring in a new offensive mindset, and just go again? I know that’s basically how Pittsburgh and Indianapolis finally won Super Bowls, and as long as the Ravens keep finishing 12-4 we know they’re pretty good.
Your point about firing Cam Cameron may be important though. I don’t know all that much about football strategy and play calling but it’s pretty obvious that the Ravens run one of the more traditional offenses in football. Maybe the “last chance” talk is less about the age of the players and more about the dated style of play. I don’t know whether a new offensive coordinator could update the offense to be more impactful in the age of spread formations and the shotgun, but it may be a direction the team needs to move in.
Another thing about Cam Cameron is that he seems to call an even more conservative game (if that’s possible) once we get a big lead. I know this seems logical but I think he does it to a fault. Part of the reason we haven’t had an impressive win recently is because we jumped out to big early leads against the Colts, Browns, Bengals and Texans and then spent the rest of the game piling up three-and-outs. At risk of sounding like a Jack Morris defender making a “pitching to the score” argument I’m not sure our offensive performances in those games were exactly representative of what we’re capable of.
My Picks: The Ravens pull off the upset, 28-24. The Giants also win 23-19 to set up an XXXV rematch.
I’ve seen what’s happened to my beloved Washington Capitals over the last few seasons. In 2009, they blew a 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh and lost Game 7 at home 6-2. So they go out and beat Pittsburgh four times the next year, post one of the best offensive seasons of all time and win the President’s Trophy. But then the offense fails them in the postseason as they blow a 3-1 lead to eight-seeded Montreal. So they bulk up the defense for 2010-11, capture the No. 1 seed again, playing an entirely different style of hockey, and get swept in the second round. This season? They quit on the coach and he was fired.
I just don’t know how many times we can keep doing this.
The picks: The Ravens cover, but lose 27-24. The Giants win more handily than most are expecting, 31-16.