I didn’t really know how to feel about the Ravens’ 23-20 AFC championship game loss. I’m not angry, and I never really was: Billy Cundiff screwed up, and Lee Evans screwed up, but they don’t owe me anything. Cundiff and Evans (and let’s be clear here, all discussions of this game, for all of time, should include “and Evans”) are, really, just two people who made mistakes at work. But they didn’t commit medical malpractice–I can warrant being angry about “mistakes at work” if they somehow wronged me. Given that the Ravens covered, that doesn’t apply here.
I’m also not at all hopeful; I know some smart people have pointed out this team isn’t nearly as old as the presence of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed make it seem, but opportunities like this just don’t come around that often. Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, Ladarius Webb and all the Ravens’ other very talented young players could keep improving and never again reach the NFL’s final four. The Ravens are also unlikely to play many more divisional-round games against T.J. Yates.
The NFL, probably because it’s the culmination of extremely small sample sizes rife with massive injury risks and short careers, exists in a weird place between the NBA, where teams’ ultimate progressions are remarkably obvious, and the NHL and MLB, where the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals happen. In the NFL, teams had their last chance two years before anyone realizes it. Try telling Jacksonville Jaguars fans in January 2000 that their team, coming off a 14-2 season, won’t make the playoffs again until 2005. Or Minnesota Vikings fans the next year that second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper and third-year receiver Randy Moss had exactly one more playoff win in them. Then again, try telling an Indianapolis Colts fan in January 2006, after a 13-0 start and their first home divisional playoff game since 1999 went up in smoke when Ben Roethlisberger somehow arm-tackled a safety at midfield, that the very next year would indeed be the year.
The Ravens vastly outperformed expectations that Sunday–they covered the spread and once again proved they’re quite capable of holding elite offenses in check. I don’t think they got lucky–Tom Brady threw two interceptions, but only because of superb plays by Baltimore’s sometimes-maligned, not-Ed Reed defensive-backs. The Ravens were every bit as good as the Patriots were. And the Patriots are the team that’s favored to win the Super Bowl.
After their first three possessions, the Ravens moved the ball, if not at will, with consistency and flow. On a 3rd-and-3 to effectively ice the game, Reed beat Brady, mano-a-mano. The Patriots’ inability to grind out a first down late in a game looked to again be their undoing, something Bill Simmons will almost surely have mentioned, whenever I can stomach reading and listening to his take on this game. Sure, there are Ravens coaching decisions that deserve questioning–the inexplicable draw on the edge of field goal range and the refusal to “ice” a clearly rushed Cundiff even though icing the kicker isn’t a thing that actually works, anyway. But I’m not sure either of those are much worse than Bill Belichick sticking Julian Edelman on Anquan Boldin.
In baseball, teams reach a point–a win total in the mid-90s, roughly–where when the inevitable playoff disappointment comes, a smart GM will throw his hands up and tell himself, “I did what I could.” While there’s always work to be done for the future in the ever-changing NFL, for 2011, the Ravens reached that point. The defense certainly didn’t cost them this game. I don’t think an offense that three times advanced the ball into New England territory after falling behind by 3 did, either. I suppose you can argue special teams did–but Cundiff made the Pro Bowl last season. The Ravens didn’t massively overlook the kicker position last summer; they entered the season with one of the better ones, and he missed a field goal at a very inopportune time. Sometimes shit just happens, without a reason. Sometimes the scoreboard malfunctions and you don’t realize in time. Sometimes that outcome with the 1 percent chance of occurring actually occurs.
It’s just math, and math sucks.