When the Ravens trotted out all the standard cliches after the game, pointing out that what happened in the AFC divisional playoffs a year ago didn't matter, and that it had nothing to do with what happened at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, it seemed a little hard to believe them at first. It's obvious this was a cathartic win for this franchise. It would be silly to pretend it wasn't. There was an energy and a buzz in the Ravens locker room after the game that hasn't been there for awhile, and if you saw John Harbaugh during the game, waving his arms and imploring the crowd to get on their feet as The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" blared from the stadium loud speakers, you could tell how much this one meant.
This Ravens' team has so many new faces, what happened in Pittsburgh last year is sort of irrelevant. When Baltimore jumped out to an early lead, you couldn't help but think about what happened in the playoffs, but Ray Lewis wasn't having any of it. He told his teammates at halftime, they were going to play the second half like they had no idea what it felt like to hold a 21-7 lead going into the third quarter against the Steelers.
"Everybody was saying 'We've been here before,' " Lewis said. "And I was like 'We haven't been here before, because 2010 is 2010, and 2011 is a whole new year. If you understand it that way, then you understand this is a whole new team."
Steelers safety Ryan Clark said during the preseason that he didn't think the Ravens should be considered the Steelers' rivals because they simply hadn't beaten them enough to be considered their equal. And in some respects, he might have been right. Animosity alone doesn't make for a great rivalry. But it was interesting -- and maybe a little telling, in retrospect -- how the Steelers couldn't seem to resist yapping about the Ravens throughout the lockout. They took a few digs at Joe Flacco, they downplayed the suggestion that the Ravens were close to being their equal, and they seemed to be commenting an awful lot on a team they had beaten repeatedly. They showed up in Baltimore Sunday looking like a team that just assumed it could do what it always does against the Ravens -- fluster Flacco, bottle up Ray Rice, and make one or two plays at the end to win it.
By the time they realized this wasn't the same old Ravens -- I think it was probably the moment Ed Dickson streaked past Troy Polamalu for a touchdown catch -- all that was left was an implosion. Roethlisberger looked like he just wanted to hurry up and get the game over with, and Polamalu completely lost his composure and tried to twist Rice's leg at the bottom of a pile.
"I may have lost it a little bit, which is not a good example, especially to my family and to the fans and children," Polamalu said. "The truth is, we got our butts kicked today."
Maybe the Steelers will regroup, and maybe they'll be able to fight through the malaise that tends to dog the team that lost the Super Bowl the previous year. But even if they do recover, they're likely going to be faced with an unpleasant reality: This does not look like a Ravens team that beats itself, or implodes in key moments. This looks like a team that punches you in the mouth, and dares you to match-up with the speed and strength they have at nearly every position.
It's just one game, sure. It would be prudent not to overreact. But all the talk of the Ravens mental hangups -- the stuff that has held them back the last two years -- seems pretty irrelevant right now. There is talent at almost every position. Some of it's green, and some of it graying, but there is certainly talent. And that is a scary reality for the rest of the NFL.
2. This is the year Terrell Suggs stakes his case to be called the best defensive player in the NFL.
When the Ravens gave Suggs a record-breaking contract three years ago, he became a convenient target for fans during a a frustrating 9-7 season. He started the season a little out of shape because he was slow recovering from off-season surgery, and then he was injured when Brady Quinn put a helmet on his knee after an interception. Fans complained that Suggs was lazy, that he never deserved a big contract in the first place, and that he was never going to be the premier pass rusher Baltimore needed.
A lot of that criticism was foolish, but some of it was fair. Suggs was too talented to not put everything together, and about midway through 2010, everything started to click. He's too strong and too fast for most tackles, and when the Ravens move him around, make him hard to account for, he's a force of nature. He makes it almost impossible to run stretch plays, you can't leave him unblocked if you run away from him (because he's fast enough to run down the ball carrier from the backside) and he can even drop into coverage if you want to blitz a corner or a safety. We're now seeing the culmination of his skills on a consistent basis after he had three sacks and forced two fumbles against one of the hardest quarterbacks in the game to bring down. And if you love defense, it's a beautiful thing to watch.
"He’s one of the premier defensive players that everybody gameplans around," Harbaugh said. "He gets blocked every different kind of way a guy can get blocked, from one game to the next, when you watch it. He still finds a way to make plays. Plus, he’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around. This guy is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around."
That may not have always been the case, and Suggs is the first to admit it. He'll always be a prankster, a talker and a free spirit, but he understands, too, the Ravens need more from him.
"After nine years, you've got to grow up sometime," Suggs said. "I was always the big kid, but Ray [Lewis] said he needed me to take my place along side him and [Ed Reed]. I think that's going to be big for us this year. We're the General, the Lieutenant and the Captain."
If Suggs isn't named Defensive Player of the Year this year, then hopefully it's because Haloti Ngata steals the award away from him. Both of them should make opposing coaches lay awake night, sweating, trying to figure out ways to block them.
3. There may still be growing pains, but I think Sunday made it clear that cutting ties with Derrick Mason and Todd Heap was a good thing for this team and for Joe Flacco.