Still, the weekly obsession over the play of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed allowed the team's two most talented (and highest paid) defenders, Ngata and Suggs, to fly under the radar. They needed to play a lot better down the stretch.
We knew all week that the Patriots were going to try to create mismatches with their hurry-up offense, and that there was a good chance they'd find a weak link in the Ravens defense and exploit it. There was a real assumption it was going to be Bernard Pollard, but it actually turned out to be Dannell Ellerbe. He was burned repeatedly by Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens tried to hide him in different coverages, but it was just too difficult to give him help on every play.
Ray Lewis said after the game he was absolutely planning to return next year, and that's a good thing. He still has some football left in him. I thought Lewis was totally ineffective as a blitzer on Sunday, but he played surprisingly well in pass coverage. He cut off angles, helped confuse Brady early, and he punished people when they did catch the ball in front of him. But he can't outrun or out-think the calender forever. What happens if he misses time next year with injuries?
It's time to get serious about finding a young and talented linebacker who can play alongside Lewis for a season (or two) and then take over when he does hang up his cleats. Jameel McClain has developed into a solid starter, but the Ravens need better athletes at that position. Undrafted free agents like Ellerbe and McClain make for a great story, but there is a reason Ray Lewis was drafted in the first round. I'm sure the Ravens will claim they're going to stick with their philosophy of "Best Player Available." But internally, the discussion needs to take place. When do you use a high draft pick to address that position? Because they haven't in years.
Defense is obviously still important in the playoffs, but teams are throwing the ball more and more in the regular season, and linebackers who can get back in coverage are more important than they've ever been. Next year, the Ravens will have to face Ben Roethlisberger twice, Andy Dalton twice, and also play against Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Mike Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Matt Schaub. Those are a lot of bullets to dodge.
5. Ed Reed truly is a strange, but fascinating enigma.
I really look forward to the day Reed goes into the Hall of Fame, because his speech in Canton has the potential to be one of the strangest moments in the history of sports speeches. He might burst into tears, start doing impressions, or start spouting out song lyrics that summarize how he's feeling. I say this last one because that's precisely what he did in the locker room on Sunday, declining to answer questions from the media, and instead choosing to belt out lyrics to Teddy Pendergrass' "Love TKO." I can't decide if the lyrics were Reed's cryptic attempt to comment on the game, or if he had his iPod on shuffle and that song just happened to appear. To be honest, one is just as likely as the other. The lyrics are poignant if you buy into the idea he was trying to say something deeper, but you can read what he was singing and decide for yourself.
Lookin' back over my years
I guessed, I've shed some tears
Told myself time and time again
This time I'm gonna win
But another fight, things ain't right
I'm losin' again
Takes a fool to lose twice
And start all over again
What's all the more fascinating is Reed played what I think was his best game of the season against the Patriots. He was all over the field, swatting down passes, taking away the deep threat, wrapping up receivers and making real tackles for once. The play he made on third down late in the game to force a New England punt was textbook Ed Reed. He broke on the ball almost before the receiver did.
I honestly have no idea if Reed is going to retire. And I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the Ravens probably have no idea either. Reed could threaten to retire, then turn around 12 hours later and insist he needs a new contract. No one on the Ravens can tell him what to do, or predict what he's going to do. The team had no idea he was off giving a radio interview on Tuesday when it happened. Reed speaks with the media so sporadically, the Ravens' PR staff only asks him do it a handful of times during the year, because he'll just refuse. So to say the organization felt blindsided by the interview would be completely accurate. But what can you do? Reed is an extremely intelligent guy, but he's also mercurial. He marches to the beat of his own Second Line, to steal a New Orleans reference. And no player in the locker room is as universally revered as Reed is. People assume it's Ray Lewis, but that's not accurate. From the practice squad rookies to the 12-year vets, it doesn't matter if they're black, white or Asian, Reed tries to embrace them. It's a strange dynamic, but it also speaks to Reed's weird magnetism.
In a way, Reed's personality and play is an accurate way to describe this year's team. Talented but erratic, frustrating but dynamic, and now facing a lot of tough questions about the uncertain future.
Thanks for another fun season writing this column, folks. Hard to believe that game literally came down to Lee Evans needing to get a heel or a toe on the ground a few tenths of a second sooner, and everything would be different. But that's why sports are so riveting.