2. The offensive line has to play better next week if the Ravens are going to advance to the Super Bowl.
I'm a little burned out on the weekly Joe Flacco arguments, to be frank, and I think readers are, too. I feel like the past two weeks have been Flacco overkill. God bless my friends who work in talk radio because it continues to fill the airwaves and drive ratings, but I think the discussion requires a little more nuance at this point, a surgeon's touch if you will, and most people can't resist using a hammer instead. ("JOE IS ELITE!!!" or "NO, HE SUCKS!") As soon as Flacco cracked a joke last week about not getting any credit when the Ravens win, and getting ripped for throwing the ball every time they lose, I knew this town was going to get a serious case of the vapors. Arguing over Flacco has become about as fun as arguing with a door. We need a little break, at least in this column.
Instead, let's talk about the offensive line, which got bullied and bludgeoned on Sunday. I don't know what happened, but they had a really difficult time picking up stunts, and they got whipped in short yardage. Even Marshal Yanda, arguably the most reliable Raven at any position this year, didn't have a very good day. J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed are rookies, and they combined for five sacks, 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, and five quarterback pressures on Sunday. (Guess how many sacks and quarterback pressures Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata combined for? One, a pressure by Ngata.)
The Ravens' blocking during short yardage runs was ugly, and that's putting it kindly. I actually completely agree with John Harbaugh's decision to go for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but the Ravens can't run a play where the Texans' best linebacker, Brian Cushing, is able to run downhill at Rice unblocked. It was a great play by Cushing, but if someone gets even a little piece of him, it's probably a touchdown. Instead, Cushing made the perfect form tackle. The Ravens are lucky that didn't cost them the game.
It's clear the Texans have a great defense. They played some great football. And the offense did get bogged down by some dropped passes in the first half. But dropped passes don't account for the fact that the Ravens rushed for 2.8 yards per carry, and they don't account for five sacks either. The Patriots didn't have a great defense this year, but they did have 40 sacks, which is more than the Pittsburgh Steelers had, and it's more than the Titans, Jags, Seahawks and Chargers had, four teams that gave Baltimore trouble. I know some of the offensive line is banged up and playing through pain, but they need to give Flacco a chance next week, so at the very least we can have a real debate about him again.
3. The amount of pressure on Cam Cameron this week is going to be enormous. And frankly, it should be.
I've said for two seasons that it's really hard to evaluate Cameron and the job he's doing, because we don't get to watch the coaches film, we don't know how much Flacco is audibling, and to be fair, Cameron knows a lot more about football than any armchair internet columnist like me. It would be silly to argue otherwise. All we can really judge is the results, because football is a results-oriented business.
Well, the results on Sunday were mediocre. At best.
Sure, the Ravens were able to win, and ultimately that's all that matters in the playoffs. This isn't Dungeons and Dragons, and no one earns experience points for an impressive victory. But I think we can go ahead and say if the Ravens go seven consecutive possessions without getting points against New England, which is what they did against the Texans during a span that lasted the 2nd, 3rd and most of the 4th quarter, they'll lose by at least two touchdowns. The Pats are just too good to have a dry spell that long.
Harbaugh mentioned after the game that the Texans were in an all-out run blitz a lot of the time, and Flacco kept audibling into passing plays, which explains some of the head-scratching short-yardage calls. But one way or another, the Ravens have to figure out a way to convert more of those third-down plays. If the Patriots walk eight men up to the line of scrimmage, then maybe try to throw the ball to Dennis Pitta over the middle instead of launching a pass down the sidelines to Torrey Smith. One way or another, get Pitta more involved, since he's the only guy on offense who never drops a pass.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret -- the Ravens are going to have a lot of trouble covering New England's two stud tight ends. New England doesn't go vertical like the Chargers did, but those two tight ends destroy linebackers and safeties when they get the ball in space, and pass coverage from the Ravens linebackers hasn't exactly been a strength this season. Cameron and Flacco and Rice are going to have to put up points if the Ravens want to win. This isn't the era of Trent Dilfer, so don't invoke his name this week. Baltimore isn't going to be able to win simply by handing it off, or by playing field-position football. They're going to have to match the Patriots a few times score-for-score, and then create turnovers. They can't afford to get stuffed on 3rd-and-1 multiple times and let Tom Brady have extra chances. The defense will get worn down too quickly.
I know the Ravens pride themselves on playing great defense, and I suppose it's possible Bernard Pollard could blitz through the line of scrimmage on the first series and knock Tom Brady out for the rest of the game. But that's unlikely to happen. And if it does, Roger Goodell will probably force the Ravens to forfeit while he hurries to Kraft's luxury box to dry Gisele's tears.
I still think Baltimore needs to put up 28 points, minimum, to get to the Super Bowl. That's not unrealistic. It's something they've done six times this year, although one of those games was against the Jets, where the defense scored three touchdowns, so it's really more like five. But New England scored at least 30 points in 13 games this year, if you count Saturday's thrashing of the Broncos. And while it's true the Patriots played a softer schedule this year than the Ravens, the chances of Baltimore winning a 17-14 game in New England feel microscopic.
This is going to be the moment that either makes or breaks Cameron as the Ravens' offensive coordinator. That may sound harsh, but that's how this business works. Steve Bisciotti said he liked the idea of Cameron "under fire" at the end of last season, and now we've arrived at the furnace. Get to the Super Bowl, and you'll almost certainly be back next year. Fall short, though, and I think we all know what's likely to happen.
4. The fact that the Ravens didn't commit a single penalty on Sunday should be worn like a badge of honor.
If you would have told me in 2009 -- right after the Ravens were flagged 11 times totaling 113 yards in a 23-20 regular-season loss to the Steelers -- that Baltimore would ever play a penalty-free game in the playoffs under John Harbaugh, I'd have scoffed. Those Ravens teams were so undisciplined and sloppy, it looked like mistakes in key moments would always be their undoing.
It seems clear now that it simply took Harbaugh some time to not only weed out some players who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- play his brand of football, but it also took the Ravens some time to shed that reputation as undisciplined. A reputation earned, I might add, by doing stupid stuff like throwing a flag into the stands in protest after a call. (I'm looking in your direction, Bart Scott.) The referees remember that kind of stuff. If a team commits a lot of holding penalties, or late hits on the quarterback, what are the officiating crews going to be told to pay attention to prior the game? It's a self-perpetuating cycle.
I think it's obvious Lardarius Webb has had a great season, one of the best seasons a Ravens corner has had in a number of years. He has such good hands, I half wonder if the Ravens should run him out on offense occasionally, the way the Cowboys used to use Deion Sanders. (I'm mostly kidding here, as Webb is much too valuable as a corner to risk injuring him on offense, but if it motivated the Ravens' receivers to stop dropping balls, I wouldn't rule it out.) But as good as Webb has been at hawking the ball when it's in the air, what's just as impressive is how few penalties he -- and Cary Williams, frankly -- have committed this year. It's hard to get cheap penalty yards against Baltimore, which wasn't the case when Frank Walker was drawing three illegal contact penalties a game.
Even Michael Oher, who had all kinds of problems with false starts earlier in the year, has quietly made that problem go away. Even if this team does get beat by New England next week, at least we know it's not likely to happen because they beat themselves with dumb mistakes.
5. Terrell Suggs has talked a lot about how badly he wants to touch the confetti in Indianapolis this season, and I've done my best over the past four months to explain why I think he deserves to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. So I don't feel like I'm picking on him at all when I say this: He needs to step up his game a notch.
There aren't a lot of rivalries left in the NFL where the dislike truly feels mutual. So many players share the same agents, they schmooze with one another at the Pro Bowl, or they pray together after games, that sometimes I feel like the NFL has lost a bit of the edge it used to have. Half the young players in the league consider Ray Lewis to be sort of a quasi-father figure, for heaven's sake.
But that's not the case with Tom Brady and Terrell Suggs. I really do believe they don't like one another, that the distaste is mutual and genuine. Suggs has never forgotten the play two years ago when he brushed Brady's thigh and Brady responded by pointing to his knee, whining to the referee, and pumping his fist when Suggs was flagged for a illegal hit under what might as well be called "The Brady Rules" -- where you can no longer tackle a quarterback anywhere below the waist. Suggs has a lot of respect for Brady as a player, but in his mind, whining for a flag like that was a dishonorable act.
Brady, on the other hand, doesn't like the way Suggs can't seem to stop talking about him, and when you throw in the fact that Brady tried to throw a low block on Suggs when he wasn't looking the next time the two teams met, well, that's how you end up with one of the game's best, and most genuine, rivalries.
All that said, Suggs is going to have to play at the absolute highest level of his career on Sunday if Baltimore is going to win. He can't turn in a ho-hum performance like he did against Houston where he didn't once get to the quarterback. He has to play one of the best games of his career, a game like the one Ray Lewis played against the Titans in 2000 when he broke Eddie George's spirit. This might not be Suggs' team yet, but he's the Ravens' best defensive player now. And he can't let a man who wears Ugg Boots get the best of him, or he might never live it down.
As Baltimore native Josh Charles -- a fine actor, in addition to being a die-hard Ravens fan -- tweeted on Sunday night, it's "Suggs vs. Uggs for the AFC Championship."
Sounds like a heck of a lot of fun.