Maryland’s move to the Big Ten has been a mostly abstract endeavor. Oh, it’s real alright, but manifested only in lengthy behind-the-scenes narratives, revenue projections, and scripted addresses from old men at podiums. We’ve talked endlessly about What The Move Means For Maryland without really feeling What The Move Means For Maryland.

But as Maryland basketball stops-and-starts through its second-to-last season in the ACC, the decision’s becoming far more tangible.

The Terps played an ACC contest in Cameron Indoor Stadium for potentially the last time Saturday, hanging tough for a half but ultimately succumbing to Duke’s inevitable 3-point barrage, 84-64. That result isn’t new – Maryland hasn’t won in Durham since 2007, and hasn’t even come particularly close. But it’s now quite possible they never will again.

That the Maryland-Duke “rivalry” – which, for local kids my age, was highlight-on-your-schedule, no-way-I’m-missing-this Ravens-Steelers before Ravens-Steelers really started getting good – has lost nearly all its significance was a major reason I favored the move. Saturday’s game had virtually no connection to the battles of yore; the only direct remnants of the Gary Williams era were the two worst players to see the court for Maryland, Pe’Shon Howard and James Padgett.

Around here, “the Duke game” really means the Duke game in College Park. It’s obviously more fun to throw bottles at Carlos Boozer’s mom or profanely taunt J.J. Redick than to watch a college basketball game on TV, and most of the rivalry’s seminal regular-season moments – 10 points in 54 seconds, Steve Blake’s steal, the ACC regular-season championship – occurred at Cole or Comcast.

As exhilarating as protecting your house is, though, it can’t match the simple satisfaction of storming someone else’s, particularly when that someone else’s is Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Opposing teams (or, for that matter, the journalists who cover the opposing team) never look as alone as they do in Cameron. Cameron personifies college basketball’s few redeeming, almost European soccer-like qualities — a rabid, intimate supporters’ section in an antiquated, historic environment. Of course, the program then goes out of its way to make all that as repulsive as possible.

“What sets us apart from the pros? What sets us apart from the rest of the world? Intercollegiate sports is really something that only the United States has. No other country has that. And our thing is based on all the right values: loyalty, honesty, tradition. The branding that you have gotten from doing that has elevated the academic institutions that those athletic programs represent. And doing things the way we’re doing it now, based on money, I think it takes away from the academic missions and the innocence that an academic institution has.”

Yeah, fuck Duke.

We’ll beat any number of teams in College Park every year, but the Terps only have one opportunity a season to win there, at the “stadium” that housed Steve Wojciechowski and Mike Dunleavy and Redick and yes I really should include a black player on this list, on the court named after that guy who talks about the “honesty” of intercollegiate athletics.

Still, since the 1996-97 season, when Duke returned from a two-year lull and by which point Williams had firmly established his brand in College Park, the Terps have won only four games in Cameron, the entire history of which can be covered in three paragraphs.

Maryland won back-to-back contests in 2000 and 2001 — a sophomore from Baltimore named Juan Dixon scored 31 points on 14-of-19 shooting, and the Terps responded to 10 points in 54 seconds by spoiling Duke’s senior night, both times scoring more than 90 points and generally being awesomely frenetic. (I have repeatedly queried Shane Battier about this loss during his impromptu Twitter ask-me-anything sessions; he has yet to respond.)

The Terps’ 2002 title team actually lost in Cameron by 21 despite holding a halftime edge, but the ’05 squad — Maryland’s first non-NCAA tournament team since 1993 — managed a 75-66 win in Durham thanks to one of those random excellent Nik Caner-Medley games (25 points on 8-of-13 shooting). Oh, and there was tricking the Cameron Crazies, which for Maryland fans that season counted as a very important moral victory.

Maryland also swept Duke in 2006-07, probably the only season since Joe Smith’s sophomore year in which the Terps were clearly the better team. The careers of many up-and-down Terps rounded into shape that year; Mike Jones put up 25 in Cameron, and Greivis Vasquez, as a freshman, came up a rebound short of a triple-double.

Vasquez, more than for his all-around, four-year brilliance, will forever be cherished in College Park for these moments, for calling Cameron “my house“. Beyond the Dixon-Baxter national championship contender squads, the Gary Williams era wasn’t really about his own great teams, but the very real possibility for a victory any time the Terps played a great team. The Blue Devils were only a .500 conference team in 2007, but there’s probably some connection between nearly registering a triple-double in that environment and Vasquez’s teams beating five top-5 teams in his career – including three wins in the ’08 and ’09 seasons, when the Terps weren’t even very good.

That’s all Maryland-Duke is really about. The Terps didn’t compete on an annual basis with the ACC’s blue bloods. Maybe, one day, they’ll consolidate the talent-rich D.C. area and compete with Indiana and Ohio State and Michigan State for Big Ten titles. But Maryland basketball’s always had visions of itself that exceed reality, dating back to Lefty Driesell’s “UCLA of the East” proclamation. It didn’t matter that we went to Duke and rarely won; it mattered that we went to Duke and thought we could. Vasquez, after all, our last great conquering general, went 1-3 in Cameron, but it’s the one that counts.

By this year, it felt like just another game. The links can’t hold strong forever. Duke is still Duke; I’m sure I could gin up some good old-fashioned hatred for Mason Plumlee if I really needed to. But the Maryland-Duke rivalry isn’t inherent – and when the rivalry isn’t inherent, it relies on shit actually happening. Yes, shit certainly happened March 3, 2010, but at this point, it’s pretty clear: 2010 was one, last glorious ride, the last time a self-made, Gary-molded team would storm the gates of the ACC’s gilded class. You can only try to recreate the past so many times.

The Big Ten move and the athletic department’s larger rebranding are pushing Maryland toward a new basketball identity. It’s rare for a school so steeped in college basketball lore to willingly reinvent itself, although Syracuse, whenever Jim Boeheim leaves, will essentially do the same in the ACC. The Terps will enter the Big Ten soon, and they will be naked. There won’t be a “Duke game” anymore; Maryland, at least until it wins something again, will have the cache of a bottom-rung program in the conference.

But at least we won’t be trying to fit a new image across an old canvas. Once we’re in the Big Ten, I think I’ll stop kvetching. Storming the court against Minnesota would be just as foolhardy as against N.C. State, but far less revolting. If Black Ops jerseys are “in” now, at least they’ll no longer defile the memory of red-clad Maryland squads that actually won big games.

The Terps have never played the Purdue Boilermakers; I couldn’t care less what we wear against them.

In our only consistent feature, we present another AFC Championship preview. (Warning: We talk about how the Patriots are like the Spurs)

Alex:

Did you want New England? Maybe it was an unconscious hedge on my part, or my inability/refusal to root with my head over my heart, but I really, really did. We bill ourselves as an “excessively macro sports blog,” and all of our Ravens “analysis” is really just our scanning Football Outsiders, anyway, so let’s get straight to the narrative. The Ravens’ post-2000 story is clear: a great defense fighting, usually in vain, against the great quarterbacks Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger. (I do wonder whether Ravens fans ludicrously overrate Roethlisberger, although I’m going to continue doing it.) New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis have won the last nine AFC championships; the Ravens, despite six playoff appearances in that span, have been shut out, and usually lose to one of those teams.

Houston is a nice team. I’m sure they’ll be able to keep this little string of AFC South titles going a little longer, get some nice banners in that indoor stadium they’ve got down there. But this isn’t about the Houston Texans. They just don’t figure into this for me.

Maybe I’m just full of irresponsible swagger, not fully appreciating how improbable our win over Denver really was, and how unlikely it is we’ll pull off another shocker against a team nearly as lethal. Maybe you should just want to play the worse team, and it really is that simple. But if we’re really going to do this, if we’re going to finally break through — let’s do it at the scene of the crime, against one of our signature rivals. When the same teams, the same players are so good, for so long, I think individual seasons lose a little significance, bowing to the historical frame of the matchup. If the Ravens win the 2012-13 AFC championship, it’ll be more than a single-year accomplishment.

Late in Ray Lewis: A Football Life, as Lewis and Reed are the last two Ravens out of the tunnel, Reed murmurs: “We’ve been doing thing so long together, bro, let’s complete it now. Let’s complete it.”

If we win in Foxborough, we’ll complete it.

Derek:

Did I want New England?  There was a rational part of me that said no, the gap in quality between the Patriots and the Texans is clear, and it was evident in Sunday night’s game. At the same time, the prospect of going in to Foxboro for a rematch with Tom Brady was too good not to want. I tweeted after the game that winning this AFC Championship would be more meaningful to me than a possible Super Bowl win would be. I probably won’t agree with that statement a year from now, but right now it feels true. Maybe it’s just my AFC bias (those CBS telecasts feel much more like real “football” than the glossy sheen of the NFC East on Fox), but I think that the last decade of NFL football has been dominated by an AFC “Big Four” of the Patriots, Colts (or whoever Peyton Manning is currently playing for), Steelers, and Ravens. The Ravens have been the Andy Murray of this group, always knocking at the door but never able to break through (the Super Bowl win came before this AFC power structure was really established). Could this be our 2012 US Open?

The odds this week are once again against us. No team has ever beaten both Manning and Brady in the same playoffs (to make another tennis analogy it would be like Juan Martin del Potro beating Federer and Nadal in the 2009 US Open). The Ravens had an opportunity in 2009 before having more turnovers than points against the Colts in the divisional round. For some reason though I too have a strange confidence in the Ravens this week. Last week was supposed to be the game where everything had to go right for us to win, where we couldn’t make mistakes.  Instead, terrible special teams play allowed 14 points and we still won the game. How? By Joe Flacco answering with big plays time and time again. I know that having so many long touchdowns is probably not repeatable, but if Flacco could torch the Broncos secondary shouldn’t he be able to do the same against the weaker Patriots? If our offense line could contain Denver’s vaunted pass rush, shouldn’t they also be able to contain Rob Ninkovich? It may be a stretch to call the Ravens’ style of football “old school” anymore, but there was something “old school” about Joe Flacco, in the age of read options and 7-yard slant patterns, playing the role of gunslinger and throwing deep ball after deep ball. Maybe this is the year he sheds the game manager label and helps Ray Lewis “complete it.”

Alex:

I feel like conference championships are generally more intense and meaningful for the fanbases involved because the two teams are so much more likely to have a history. I can probably count on one hand the number of recent Super Bowls/World Series/NBA Finals where teams and fans entered with real animosity toward their opponent. I’d much rather be in Foxborough this Sunday than in New Orleans two Sundays later. (But I would much rather be in New Orleans two Saturday nights from now than Foxborough this Saturday night.)

To provide some context for the “Big Four” analogy, the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, and Ravens have occupied 16 of the last 20 slots in AFC championship games. The closest you can come in the NFC with a “Big Four” is 9 of 20 championship game slots, and 12 different NFC teams have made a championship game in the last 10 years. This is the cost of parity. The AFC gets an era-defining game, possibly the last stand from two surefire Hall of Fame defenders, against a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback seeking his sixth AFC title. I’m glad Falcons-49ers is the matinee.

For that “Big Four” framework to really fit the era, I think the Ravens have to win this game. Maybe I’m moving the goalposts (if you’d told me before the season started that we’d beat Peyton Manning in a road playoff game, I would’ve deemed the year a complete success), but if the Lewis-Reed Ravens don’t win at least one conference championship, don’t once best Manning and Brady in the same playoffs, then they will forever be a substantial notch below the top three. They’ve been that notch below for years, but the finality is setting in now.

I noticed the Ravens defense has crept to 10th in weighted DVOA, an impressive achievement considering they finished 19th overall, although certainly not surprising considering how our injury situation has improved. It’s nice to say we have an above average defense again. Weighted DVOA also loves the Patriots though, who managed a 96% single-game DVOA in a game where two of their offensive starters got hurt within the first five plays. I’m not crazy about Brady, Belichick, and McDaniels having a week to plan their Gronk-less attack, although the Ravens defense has a nice habit of continually not getting completely smoked by the Pats offense (which of course means keeping the score in the 20s). But I wonder whether recent playoff history (small sample size!) has made us underappreciate just how good these Patriots are. Dating back to 2007, they’re weirdly 2-7 against the spread in the playoffs (and 3-4 in the playoffs, period, since Super Bowl 42), and thanks to the Giants, Jets, and Ravens, we all know that if you run the ball and pressure Brady, you can win these games. But the Patriots are still historically good, and more often than not, historically good should win you playoff games.

Derek:

I think you’re right that these Patriots teams have been underappreciated due to bad luck in the postseason. If you exclude 2008 and look at Brady’s last five seasons, it has to be the best five-year run by an offense in history. Part of what makes this Patriots dynasty so special is the way they’ve built around a single player at the center while the rest of the team has constantly evolved to win in new ways. Much like the Duncan-era Spurs, we’ve seen this team progress from controlling defensive-centric play to incredibly efficient offense in the course of ten years. Every time opposing teams begin to figure out their scheme they change up to something new. This is what makes them a great organization.The Ravens have probably changed more over the years than I realize, but they seem to be a great organization in a different way; not in their ability to change but rather in their ability to consistently find great players to fit their unique style of football. The Patriots have won in every possible way in the past ten years, it feels like the Ravens have won the same game over and over again.

The Ravens defense is undoubtedly in a better place than it was for most of this season. The return of Ray Lewis probably helps this, but not as much as the return of Terrell Suggs and the return to health of Haloti Ngata (despite making second team all-pro Ngata had a disappointing season). In fact, the stats show that Ray Lewis, while making our run defense significantly better, is a liability in the passing game.  He simply doesn’t have the speed to cover the middle of the field anymore. I don’t know that much about football strategy, but it seems like this would be a problem against the Patriots who rely heavily on Wes Welker slants and two tight end sets. This is why the Gronk injury seems so important to me. I know the Patriots looked just fine without him last week featuring the two running back attack of Ridley and Vereen, but I feel more confident in our ability to stop them than the Hernandez/Gronk duo. My irrational confidence in Flacco has eroded throughout the week, but I can’t bring myself to pick against the Ravens right now.

Ravens 27, Patriots 23

Alex:

Three of the six best offenses since 1991 belong to the Patriots (’07, ’10, ’11), and while the ’09 and ’12 versions aren’t in the top 12, they both led the league. They’ve even changed their offensive scheme substantially within that five-year stretch, from Randy Moss’ 23-TD behemoth of a season in ’07 to the ’12 version that set a league record for first downs. Of course, like the Duncan-era Spurs, this more aesthetically pleasing version hasn’t done won a championship. I’m just not convinced that really means anything.It’s double or nothing today.

We’re back in Foxborough, either to double down on our misery or erase the most painful loss we’ve ever experienced. The New England offense, even without Gronkowski, remains an efficient, in-its-prime machine. Our defense played a remarkable game last week, its best of the season, limiting Manning to 21 points and forcing three turnovers. But it isn’t the unit that so slowed Brady in previous years, and it’s now a unit that has played 94 snaps in back-to-back weeks. I fully expect Flacco to play well, but I don’t think Brady will play poorly just because he’s sometimes played poorly against us in the past.

The Ravens just delivered the greatest win in franchise history, and they have put themselves 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. In football, that is often enough — 60 minutes is actually a very short amount of a time, an amount of time where many strange things can occur before the Earth rights itself. But I don’t believe in momentum, and I don’t believe in teams of destiny. This is Denver again, and I don’t think we can pull it off twice.

Patriots 31, Ravens 24.

The Ravens enter Denver as 10-point underdogs, and they trail the Broncos by a staggering 26.8% in DVOA. Considering Football Outsiders pegged the Ravens as the eighth-best team in the NFL, that’s a tremendous gap, and a stark reminder the Broncos aren’t just a 13-3 No. 1 seed, the likes of which we see almost every year. Since 1991, only seven teams finished with higher DVOAs than 2012 Denver.

Despite the Ravens having played 12 of their 16 non-Super Bowl playoff games on the road, they’ve rarely been a true underdog (which explains their tremendous 7-5 road playoff record).

2000 Ravens (DVOA: 24.1%, No. 3):
vs. Denver (16.0%, 9)
at Tennessee (33.3%, 1)
at Oakland (20.8%, 5)
New York (9.3%, 11)

2001 Ravens (7.0%, 12)
at Miami (9.0%, 10)
at Pittsburgh (17.3%, 7)

2003 Ravens (15.6%, 7)
vs. Tennessee (22.9%, 2)

2006 Ravens (27.7%, 2)
vs. Indianapolis (16.3%, 7)

2008 Ravens (27.6%, 2)
at Miami (6.2%, 14)
at Tennessee (23.8%, 5)
at Pittsburgh (26.0%, 4)

2009 Ravens (29.1%, 1)
at New England (28.8%, 4)
at Indianapolis (16.5%, 8)

2010 Ravens (21.7%, 5)
at Kansas City (0.3%, 17)
at Pittsburgh (35.4%, 2)

2011 Ravens (14.5%, 7)
vs. Houston (18.6%, 5)
at New England (22.8%, 3)

2012 Ravens (9.8%, 8)
vs. Indianapolis (-16.0%, 25)

The Ravens were the better regular-season team in 11 of their 18 playoff matchups; in a beautiful manifestation of the math, they’ve won 11 of their 18 playoff games. Of course, the math and the results have not always aligned: The franchise’s most defining victory, the 24-10 drubbing of the Titans (Trent Dilfer went 5-for-16 in that game, by the way), came at a 9.2% superior opponent, while a home loss to 11.4% worse Indianapolis after the ’06 season ranks among its most deflating.

But we’re in uncharted territory here. The Ravens-Broncos DVOA gap is nearly twice our previous biggest playoff disparity.

So, what solace should Ravens fans take? Well, there’s the whole that’s why they play the games/anything can happen in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE motif — random chance, basically. Ask Giants fans — it works better than you’d think.

The upside Ravens fans have is simple: If we win, it will be because something awesome happened. The Ravens have come to specialize in agonizing victories, like last year’s divisional round win against Houston, in which the Ravens managed 227 total yards; Ed Reed made what should have been a game-clinching interception, but the offense couldn’t run out the clock, so an injured Reed had to return to the field and make a game-clinching knockdown; and fans spent the team’s first home playoff game in the Harbaugh era, after eight on the road, freaking out about possibly losing to the aforementioned T.J. Yates.

If the Ravens beat Denver, our league-best special teams will probably make a big play; if the Ravens beat Denver, the defense will create turnovers (and if the defense creates turnovers, Ravens fans get one more chance to whoop it up for Ray Lewis and, perhaps, Reed); if the Ravens beat Denver, for the first time in 10 tries, we’ll have beaten Peyton Manning. The Ravens aren’t winning this game 14-10; if we win, Joe Flacco will almost assuredly have played pretty well.

The Ravens have nothing to lose. Our recent playoff losses have run the gamut from embarrassing (the offensive performance against Indianapolis in 2007) to humiliating (three turnovers in a quarter at our archrival) to the Stomach Punch (Evans/Cundiff), to borrow a “Levels of Losing” phrase from Bill Simmons. Having escaped an inspirational-but-actually-pretty-bad Colts team, the Ravens did what they were supposed to. These Ravens teams have, thankfully, always at least done what they were supposed to do. They’ve rarely gone beyond that and beaten Roethlisberger, Manning, and Brady, but they’ve always given fans that season-defining game against an opponent we view as a worthy rival. Fourth-seeded Maryland’s 2007 second-round defeat to No. 5 Butler, a game marred by a 7-for-15 performance at the free-throw line, still gnaws at me because it cost the Terps a chance at defending-champion Florida. The Gators might’ve easily crushed those Terps, a compelling mismash of the raw, athletic group that won the ’04 ACC Tournament but missed the next two NCAA tourneys and two young point guards who would eventually meet a more memorably tragic second-round end. But we’ll never know. The Terps simply lost to Butler, before Butler was cool.

With these Ravens, we pretty much know. We have gnawing losses, but they’re self-evidently gnawing, not gnawing because they kept the Ravens from some later matchup. Tomorrow’s game could be a vain battle with a buzzsaw; just like their forefather Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ last hopes of a championship could disappear in the Mile High air. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil could pound Flacco into submission on one end, while Reed again kicks his helmet on the sideline after another miscommunication with Cary Williams on the other. As I’ve made pretty clear by now, I think Denver is better, much better.

I think the Ravens will show up. Even in the disheartening losses of the last five years, the Ravens have shown up. They played New England tougher than most expected last year, holding a prolific offense in check (/injuring the prolific offense’s best receiver). They even covered the spread, which totally made up for everything that happened in the final 30 seconds. You can argue that was a different Ravens team, particularly a different Ravens defense, but the unit the Ravens will send onto the field is possibly their healthiest of the season. It’s certainly healthier than the unit that faced Denver in December, in a game that was one play from being 10-7 at halftime.

We’re asking for a lot of things to go right. They’re things that have gone right before — Manning has had terrible playoff games, Reed has picked him off three times in two playoff meetings, a special teams advantage has swung a playoff game — but aren’t terribly likely.

I can’t give you anything more hopeful than that. Ray Lewis is 37; Ed Reed is 34. For the first time in a long time, the Ravens are not particularly great, and they’re facing an opponent that is. John Harbaugh said last week that you can’t play 60 minutes on emotion, and I think he’s right. Unfortunately, you can’t play 60 minutes on pride, either.

In 2003, the Ravens ran for the most yards in football, passed for the least, and conceded the third-fewest. Baltimore won the division; Ray Lewis won his second Defensive Player of the Year award. And that was likely just how No. 52 liked it.

The Ravens have, nominally, been a “team in transition” for more than a half-decade. Upper management made a conscious decision to end the days of “Give Jamal the Ball!” and a high-penalty, high-rap sheet defense – “Play Like a Raven” means something slightly different in 2013 than it did in 2003. There was replacing “players coach” Brian Billick with college-style John Harbaugh (and only after “offensive guru” Jason Garrett turned them down); “old guard” defensive players like Chris McAlister quickly landing in the new coach’s doghouse; hiring LaDainian Tomlinson’s old offensive coordinator; revamping the offense with the 2008 selections of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice; the many determinations to “open up the playbook.

Yet, it was less than a year ago the Ravens took the league’s top-ranked defense into Foxborough, Mass., for the AFC championship game against the conference’s best offense. The Ravens made no bones about it; our defense vs. your offense, Ray Lewis vs. Tom Brady. Defense wins championships, right? “Please do it my way. Trust me,” Lewis recalled telling Brian Billick back in 2000, “We ran the ball 35 times a game, and we won the Super Bowl.” When Flacco started flinging the ball around during that 3-0 start in 2009, or the opening-night win over Cincinnati three months ago … we never really believed that, did we?

Statistically, the last Ravens squad of Lewis’ career is a little different. The Ravens had the league’s 19th best defense in 2012, after final rankings of 2, 4, 6, and 1, from 2008-2011. Still, despite the 10-6 record, the Cam Cameron firing, and various injury calamites, the Ravens might not be much worse than their predecessors. Their team efficiency rankings? 2, 1, 5, 7, 8. So, perhaps they’re not “elite,” but as a Ravens fan, I’m contractually forbidden from parsing what “elite” means. The Ravens remaining a top-10 team while the defense cratered and the offense didn’t get much better stems directly from their special teams, the best in the NFL this season. Jacoby Jones’ return touchdowns provided the margin of victory against Dallas and Pittsburgh, and Justin Tucker proved superior to Billy Cundiff at both chip-shot field goals against New England and the other, less important aspects of kicking.

Still, it’s clear where the heart and soul of any team with three Defensive Player of the Year winners roaming about lies. After all these years, the Ravens essentially enter their ninth postseason of the Lewis era with the same mindset they took into the first eight: Ride the defense, even if it’s playing on little more than fumes and pride.

Assuming Lewis’ retirement and #Chuckstrong mitigate each other (or otherwise do not actually influence the outcome of the game), the Ravens should beat Indianapolis. The Colts were the 25th best team in the league, per Football Outsiders, and their opponents outscored them by 30 points; Aaron Schatz rates them among the four worst playoff teams of the last 20 years. While Schatz notes the other three teams (’98 Cardinals, ’04 Rams, ’10 Seahawks) won their opening-round playoff games, I don’t think it’s terribly likely that completely coincidental, statistically unlikely events will continue occurring. The Ravens are the better team.

No, Lewis’ “last ride” will likely pit the Ravens against Tom Brady (if Cincinnati wins) or Peyton Manning (if Houston wins). It will be fitting. And if history’s any guide, it will likely end in defeat. The Ravens’ last five playoff defeats have come at the hands of Messrs. Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger; they’ve dispatched everyone else. In the era of illegal contact rules and incessant 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties, the Ravens fielded an all-time great defense against all-time great quarterbacks. They’ve lost nearly every time.

I’m not nervous about the playoff run. The Ravens have lost road playoff games to slightly better teams before, and New England and Denver are two of the 12 best teams since 1991, while this is the worst Ravens team of the Harbaugh era. 2011 was “the year:” a dramatic win in Pittsburgh to seal the elusive bye week and home-field advantage; a classic Ravens slug-it-out win vs. Houston; a defensive effort few thought possible against the vaunted Patriots’ offense. No loss this month can possibly hurt as badly.

Lewis’ retirement, which I have to imagine doesn’t exactly increase the odds Ed Reed wears a Ravens jersey next year, doesn’t mean the Ravens won’t continue being one of the NFL’s most successful franchises. The various decision-makers at the Castle are too smart for that. But Lewis, as Derek wrote here last year, “has been both the symbolic and on-field heart of the Ravens from the beginning of their existence. Literally from year one. Who else in sports can claim that right now?”

The Ravens are only 17 years old. But their franchise identity, their national brand, trails only the bluest of the blue bloods – Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Chicago, Dallas, New York. Lewis took an empty slate and cast it completely in his image; he clearly didn’t make Baltimore fans forget about the Colts (the city’s embarrassing froth before the 2007 divisional playoff against Indianapolis tells that much), but a younger generation of fans now has as strong a bond to a football team as children of the ’60s do to the Baltimore Colts.

A playoff loss to Brady or Manning is with precedent, already part of the Ravens narrative. But what if they win? What if Terrell Suggs strip stacks his arch-nemesis Brady, or Reed’s chess match with Manning ends in a pick-six, or Lewis reprises his touchdown scamper from Nashville 12 years ago? The game won’t just be a referendum on the 2012 season, but on this entire generation of Ravens. Maybe they’re stuck in the wrong era. But can the team with the defining defensive superstar in the age of the quarterback defy history before it’s too late?

So Gabby Douglas is the 2012 AP Female Athlete of the Year. This is, of course, completely irrelevant. But because her name is now indelibly marked on this Wikipedia page and this Sporcle quiz (if “Ben” ever updates the damn thing, the lazy bastard), I feel compelled to tell our vast readership that the Associated Press made a mistake.

Admittedly, there is absolutely no good way to determine an “athlete of the year,” especially in an Olympic year. We need Baseball Reference to start computing a version of Wins Above Replacement for every athlete, in every sport. And even then, we’d have to compare it to the Fan Graphs version.

Roughly, though, we can examine how close an athlete came to maximum achievement in his or her sport. By this criteria, Britney Griner’s case (18 votes) seems strong — she averaged 5 blocks a game and her team never lost a game — but she played college ball, and until you’ve gone into the Verizon Center and stared down Crystal Langhorne’s Washington Mystics, you’re just an amateur. That Carli Lloyd even “also received votes” over Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach or Megan Rapinoe or Hope Solo probably speaks to a few sportswriters who saw exactly one women’s soccer game the entire tournament. Watch more soccer. It’s fun.

I don’t particularly understand how competitive skiing (or just skiing, really) works, but Lindsey Vonn (also 18 votes) appears to have had a better season, based on the little table in her Wikipedia page, than in 2010, when she won the award. Allyson Felix (“also received votes”) won three of the four sprinting events she entered in London, and more awesomely, didn’t bow to some public pressure to concede her spot in the 100 meters to Jeneba Tarmoh, who responded to feeling “robbed” by declining to participate in a runoff for the spot.

Missy Franklin — of four swimming golds and one bronze — finished second with 41 votes. Natalie Coughlin won six medals in 2008, but only one gold — Franklin’s performance certainly looks historic, although I’m always skeptical with swimming because of the sheer number of the events. (Can we really say Michael Phelps is a better Olympian than Usain Bolt? The Associated Press just did, but I wonder how much his medal total, which athletes in other sports don’t have the opportunities to accumulate, inflates our perceptions of him.)

Douglas, our winner (48 votes) won the women’s all-around and led the U.S. to its first team gold since 1996. Pulling the most inane passages I can find from the AP writeup: “With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile,” and “Douglas’ story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato.”

Omitted, of course, is Douglas becoming the first all-around champion in Olympic history not to medal in an individual event. Nastia Liukin, the individual all-around champ, won two other individual silvers in Beijing, plus the team silver. Douglas certainly deserves credit for her performance in the team competition, where she registered one of the team’s two best scores in all four categories. But Liukin put in nearly as impressive a performance for a 2008 U.S. squad that actually scored higher in falling to the host country.

So who came in third place? An athlete with just as “heartwarming and inspiring” a story, even though most reporters rarely write about her smile. But she’s 31, so we’ve heard it all before.

Serena Williams won her semifinal and final matches at the Olympic tournament by a 24-4 combined game score against the first- and third-seeded players, and took gold in doubles. Outside the airs of the IOC, she won the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open singles’ titles, and the doubles Wimbledon title. Yes, Williams only won two of the four Grand Slam events, but if we’re treating the two-week Olympic period as the extent of female athletic achievement in 2012, then surely her complete annihilation of the Olympic tennis field counts for something. Williams won 94 percent of her matches in 2012, a figure slightly below Steffi Graf’s incredible 1988 and 1989 totals but the best of her career, higher than in her two previous athlete of the year victories.

See, Williams has won the award before, in 2002 and 2009. Therein lies the problem, and it’s a simple one: Voters get bored.

***

Let’s play a game. I’m going to reassign every MVP and Cy Young award since 1998, based solely on WAR, Win Shares, and DYAR — a simple, narrative-free statistic. It’s not perfect, but we get an objective, consistent measurement of the league’s best player that year. My hunch: more players will receive MVP awards than deserve them.

Year NFL MVP (QB) DYAR MVP
2011 Aaron Rodgers Drew Brees
2010 Tom Brady Tom Brady
2009 Peyton Manning Tom Brady
2008 Peyton Manning Drew Brees
2007 Tom Brady Tom Brady
2006 Drew Brees Peyton Manning
2005 Peyton Manning Peyton Manning
2004 Peyton Manning Peyton Manning
2003 Peyton Manning/Steve McNair Peyton Manning
2002 Rich Gannon Rich Gannon
2001 Kurt Warner Kurt Warner
2000 Donovan McNabb Peyton Manning
1999 Kurt Warner Kurt Warner
1998 Randall Cunningham Randall Cunningham
Year NBA MVP Win Shares MVP
2011-12 LeBron James LeBron James
2010-11 Derrick Rose LeBron James
2009-10 LeBron James LeBron James
2008-09 LeBron James LeBron James
2007-08 Kobe Bryant Chris Paul
2006-07 Dirk Nowitzki Dirk Nowitzki
2005-06 Steve Nash Dirk Nowitzki
2004-05 Steve Nash Kevin Garnett
2003-04 Kevin Garnett Kevin Garnett
2002-03 Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2001-02 Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2000-01 Allen Iverson Shaquille O’Neal
1999-00 Shaquille O’Neal Shaquille O’Neal
1998-99 Karl Malone Karl Malone
1997-98 Michael Jordan Karl Malone
Year AL MVP WAR MVP
2012 Miguel Cabrera Mike Trout
2011 Justin Verlander Ben Zobrist
2010 Josh Hamilton Josh Hamilton
2009 Joe Mauer Zack Greinke
2008 Dustin Pedroia Dustin Pedroia
2007 Alex Rodriguez Alex Rodriguez
2006 Justin Morneau Johan Santana
2005 Alex Rodriguez Alex Rodriguez
2004 Vladimir Guerrero Ichiro Suzuki
2003 Alex Rodriguez Alex Rodriguez
2002 Miguel Tejada Alex Rodriguez
2001 Ichiro Suzuki Jason Giambi
2000 Jason Giambi Pedro Martinez
1999 Ivan Rodriguez Pedro Martinez
1998 Juan Gonzalez Alex Rodriguez
Year NL MVP WAR MVP
2012 Buster Posey Buster Posey
2011 Ryan Braun Cliff Lee
2010 Joey Votto Roy Halladay
2009 Albert Pujols Albert Pujols
2008 Albert Pujols Albert Pujols
2007 Jimmy Rollins Albert Pujols
2006 Ryan Howard Albert Pujols
2005 Albert Pujols Albert Pujols
2004 Barry Bonds Barry Bonds
2003 Barry Bonds Barry Bonds
2002 Barry Bonds Barry Bonds
2001 Barry Bonds Barry Bonds
2000 Jeff Kent Todd Helton
1999 Chipper Jones Randy Johnson
1998 Sammy Sosa Kevin Brown
Year AL Cy Young WAR Cy Young
2012 David Price Justin Verlander
2011 Justin Verlander Justin Verlander
2010 Felix Hernandez Felix Hernandez
2009 Zack Greinke Zack Greinke
2008 Cliff Lee Cliff Lee
2007 CC Sabathia Josh Beckett
2006 Johan Santana Johan Santana
2005 Bartolo Colon Johan Santana
2004 Johan Santana Johan Santana
2003 Roy Halladay Pedro Martinez
2002 Barry Zito Barry Zito
2001 Roger Clemens Mike Mussina
2000 Pedro Martinez Pedro Martinez
1999 Pedro Martinez Pedro Martinez
1998 Roger Clemens Roger Clemens
Year NL Cy Young WAR Cy Young
2012 R.A. Dickey Clayton Kershaw
2011 Clayton Kershaw Roy Halladay
2010 Roy Halladay Roy Halladay
2009 Tim Lincecum Tim Lincecum
2008 Tim Lincecum Tim Lincecum
2007 Jake Peavy Brandon Webb
2006 Brandon Webb Brandon Webb
2005 Chris Carpenter Roger Clemens
2004 Roger Clemens Randy Johnson
2003 Eric Gagne Mark Prior
2002 Randy Johnson Randy Johnson
2001 Randy Johnson Randy Johnson
2000 Randy Johnson Randy Johnson
1999 Randy Johnson Randy Johnson
1998 Tom Glavine Kevin Brown

Hey, I’m right! Since 1998, voters have awarded 64.5 different players MVP or Cy Young awards, while only 49 different players have led their league in the chosen, all-inclusive statistic. (I reassigned running backs’ MVP awards to the quarterback receiving the most votes, for ease of comparison.) Team performance varies more than individual performance, so writers’ inclination to give MVPs to “winners” certainly plays a role — this helps explain why guys like Rodriguez and Pujols got shafted. And luck-based “performance” (i.e. pitcher wins) varies more than individual skill-based performance (i.e. WAR), which hurts the truly elite pitchers — Martinez, Santana, Johnson, and Verlander all lost a Cy Young award thanks to relatively weak peripherals. Some of these results, though, speak to voters’ need to be different: O’Neal’s Lakers actually won more games than Iverson’s 76ers in 2001; writers in 2011 were clearly eager to hand the award to anyone not named LeBron James and that Derrick Rose guy seemed nice enough.

Why does this matter? Look down the DYAR/Win Shares/WAR column again. The MVP processes obscure true greatness. Peyton Manning was the best quarterback in football for four straight seasons; Tom Brady’s set to follow that in four of his five most recent healthy seasons. LeBron James has been the best basketball player in the world for four straight seasons; whenever Kevin Durant knocks him off that pedestal (if the season ended today, he would), it’ll be that much more significant. If Alex Rodriguez has the six MVP awards he deserves, is he viewed any differently? Probably not, but at least he’d have six fucking MVP awards. Can we all appreciate that from 2001-2009, there really only should have been two NL MVPs? Pedro Martinez not only should have another Cy Young, but he probably should’ve won two MVPs — remember that when some jackass says he’s not a true first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Look, AP, I understand it’s no fun. But give Williams the damn award.

Warning: A team’s window is never as large as it first appears.

In that magical year when a young team finally makes “the leap,” the possibilities seem limitless. Our players are young – we’ll only get better! Our payroll is small – we have financial flexibility! And this season isn’t even that important – we’ll be back again next year!

OK, I’m probably the first person to put an exclamation point after “financial flexibility.” But take it from a Capitals fan. There’s never a playoff run quite like the first one.

***

“The [Oklahoma City] Thunder have been an elite team for two seasons now, and while they still have an aura of newness about them, it’s finally starting to feel like some tough things are expected,” Brian Phillips wrote on Grantland last season. “There’s a bar now that they can’t clear just by showing up. Maybe what I’m really feeling here isn’t worry about Durant and Westbrook at all; maybe I’m caught in the vague anxiety of one of the hardest transitions, for both players and fans, in sports. Like the Thunder, I now have something to lose.”

The Thunder’s steady rise over the last few seasons has explicitly demonstrated what we already knew; becoming a championship team is a process – in basketball. Young NBA teams invariably lose, but they learn things (like, after the Dallas loss, that Kevin Durant should be closer than 25 feet from the basket late in playoff games).

But in baseball, it’s hitter vs. pitcher until you make 27 outs. Age, so much as age is independent of skill, shouldn’t particularly matter.

The fully armed Nationals are among the best teams in the National League. Will they reach this position again? Probably. But probably, even with Zimmerman, Harper, and co., is as far as I’m willing to go.

I’m not willing to grant the Nationals this degree of starting pitcher health (total starts made by pitchers outside their regular rotation this season? Six), or bullpen effectiveness, ad infintum. The offense should improve, given a full season of Jayson Werth, something other than a black hole at catcher, and Bryce Harper not being Nineteen Forever. There’s a rationale for presuming the team will remain among the best in baseball for the next few years, even as the National League grows stronger.

But this, too, is a risk.

***

To the extent playoff series aren’t completely arbitrary, the drop-off from Strasburg to Ross Detwiler is real (and it’s spectacular.) Detwiler’s produced a great season for a No. 5 starter, with an ERA and WHIP comparable to Strasburg’s. But Strasburg’s much better at missing bats (11.2 K/9 vs. 5.7) for Detwiler and more capable for producing a dominant game in the playoffs. The flip side of this, of course, is that the playoffs are completely arbitrary, and once the Nationals are in, the sample size is sosmall it hardly matters what roster they field. After all, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Detwiler stack up rather nicely with the Jeff Weaver-Jeff Suppan garbage heap the Cardinals rode to their 2006 title.

But if Strasburg over Detwiler gives the Nationals some appreciably better chance to win the World Series, isn’t that the point of the whole having-Strasburg-on-your-team thing in the first place? Shout “Prior and Wood!” all you want, but that implies there’s no middle ground between an arbitrary innings limit and Dusty Baker-style pitcher abuse. Here are Mark Prior’s pitch counts from September 2003 through the Cubs’ NLCS loss: 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133, 116, 119. You can’t find some compromise between that and a complete shutdown?

Rany Jazayerli, the Baseball Prospectus co-founder who developed pitcher abuse points nearly 15 years ago, recently noted: “I’ve been arguing for protecting pitchers arms since 1998. But we’ve reached the point where the pendulum has swung too far the other way.” Rob Neyer, Jazayerli’s lone partner in Kansas City Royals fanhood, diagrams this manifestation: “It seems like the Nationals have replaced an old paradigm — let pitchers pitch until they get hurt, which has actually been out of style for a while now — with something new that’s nearly as ill-considered as the old one. The only way to keep Strasburg healthy is to bench him after 160 innings and no time off? Really?”

I don’t know all the science. But, to Neyer again, no one else does, either: “There are doctors who are encouraged by the Nationals’ caution with Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John Surgery last year. Those same doctors can’t say that throwing just 160 innings this season will lower the chance that Strasburg will be injured again.”

Shutting Strasburg down simply diverts blame from Washington’s front office in the event Strasburg gets hurt in the future. It doesn’t actually make the team better in the long term. Per ESPN The Magazine’s Peter Keating: “There’s no evidence the arbitrary limitation will keep Strasburg healthy.” This is managerial cowardice at its worst: Rizzo’s jeopardizing, to whatever degree playoff Detwiler-over-Strasburg starts do, the Nationals’ 2012 title hopes to cover his own ass.

***

Why does this bother me? After all, the number of starts affected by this will be in the single digits, and the actual impact of any individual baseball personnel move is often much smaller than we realize.

I can’t stand the Nationals taking this playoff run for granted, assuming the future will always look so rosy.

Unless the Nationals win the World Series soon – which, regardless of how many playoff innings Strasburg pitches in 2012, they probably won’t – there will be, in a few years, a bar they can’t clear just by showing up; tough things will be expected.

I just hope it won’t already be too late.

This just doesn’t feel the same.

I don’t feel guilty. Factors outside the teams’ control impacting the end result is part of nearly every sport, and fans have to come to grips with that. There’s no functional difference between a victory aided by poor refereeing and a victory inhibited by it. But there’s certainly an emotional one.

The U.S. and Canada played a wonderfully dramatic game yesterday. There were beautiful goals and there were ugly goals; early goals and late goals; high goals and low goals — there were many goals. There was even a competent save.

And, as this is soccer, the sport with the low goal total and refusal to use replay to actually get calls right, there was poor refereeing, poor enough to have a very tangible impact on the game’s outcome.

The “let the players play” argument is generally quite stupid (and ignorant of omission bias). Christiana Pedersen didn’t err in calling a six-second violation on Canadian goalie Erin McLeod because she was taking the game into her own hands. Referees need to make the best call, regardless of the game situation. But best call and by-the-book call aren’t the same thing. If you’re making a call that U.S. coach Pia Sundhage says she’s never seen made at the professional level, it might be technically accurate, but it’s not the best. Pedersen is the equivalent of the drivers’ ed teacher who insists there’s no fast lane because the state hasn’t made the legal distinction.

Her handball decision on the preceding indirect kick on the resulting indirect kick at least follows your more run-of-the-mill, subjective-call-made-in-a-split-second formula, but – especially compared to a similar incident involving Megan Rapinoe, which went uncalled – it was hardly better.

Sundhage shrugged and answered, “nope,” when asked whether she felt any sympathy for Canada. That’s the right answer from anyone associated with the U.S. soccer team. Sympathy probably isn’t a great trait for an athlete to hold, and I imagine you’d go crazy if you actively kept count of every controversial refereeing decision, positive and negative, toward your team – imagine the bitterness if you retired at -3. You have to instead rely on an athlete’s most important trait – the ability to forget.

Fans, though, don’t forget. We come fully armed with the knowledge of what happened 30 seconds, minutes, hours, and years ago, and each successive moment can reinforce, or assuage, those memories. That’s why Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria and Abby Wambach’s against Brazil were so special. It wasn’t just because they were frenetic, end-to-end scrambles late in their respective games. It was because we were angry.

We remembered Maurice Edu’s disallowed goal against Slovenia, (Does, “The referee was not available for comment. A spokesman for world soccer’s governing body FIFA said: ‘As is our practice, FIFA will make no comment on this issue and in any case, the referee’s decision is always final,’ sound familiar to anyone?), and Clint Dempsey’s earlier in the Algeria match, as well as Algeria’s insistence on playing a super-defensive game despite needing a win. We remembered the odd red card on Rachel Buehler, Hope Solo’s disallowed penalty save, Marta’s offside goal, and Brazil’s egregious time-wasting. I spent extra-time against Brazil telling myself, “I will not be suckered into watching international soccer again, I will not be suckered into watching international soccer again.”

Alex Morgan’s go-ahead(er) didn’t come with the U.S. at the brink of elimination – that’s the obvious reason 2012 isn’t yet 2010 or 2011. But when the Donovan and Wambach strikes finally came, they were antidotes to the sickening feeling of getting screwed by rogue referees and FIFA incompetence and suppressed anti-Americanism and whatever else we could come up with. They brought the sort of emotion an entire nation could’ve felt yesterday. Just not ours.