1. Sometimes, "Nobody Believed in Us!" is the most tired cliche in sports. But you know what? Sometimes it's the greatest possible motivating factor that can bind a talented team together for a playoff run. One of my pet peeves is journalists who won't admit they're wrong about a team, so let me put this out there right away: I was wrong about this team.
After their loss to Pittsburgh, a total meltdown that culminated with an embarrassing 113 yards in penalties, I wrote that this team didn't deserve to make the playoffs. They didn't have the discipline or the focus, I felt, to consider themselves one of the AFC's six best teams. To be fair, a lot of fans felt the same way. The way they imploded was infuriating for Ravens fans. What happened Sunday against New England was impossible to foresee after that Pittsburgh game. But I think something happened in the wake of that loss to the Steelers, a game they should have won. I think the team heard the criticism of an entire city, listened to people who were fed up and furious, and decided to pull together and prove everyone wrong. You could see that in coach John Harbaugh's locker room speech about shovels and spears. It no longer mattered what anyone outside the locker room thought, the Ravens had endured a difficult season and found a purpose. So heat up a big plate of crow, and I'll chow down.
(Although just to be clear, I still picked the Ravens to win this game. You can read it here.)
What happened in Foxborough on Sunday was simple. One team was hungry and angry, with plenty to prove, and one team showed they had been getting it done on smoke and mirrors for much of the season. When they got punched in the mouth on the opening play, they never really recovered. Overwhelming Tom Brady with pressure early, before he could figure out where his hot reads would be, was brilliant. He seemed like he was in a daze.
The Ravens needed to go into this game believing that they wouldn't get any help from the officials so they wouldn't overreact when things didn't go their way. And that's exactly what happened. When Tom Zbikowski muffed that punt and the Ravens didn't get the call (it looked iffy as to whether the Patriots player had control before sliding out of bounds; we'll get to the non-challenge in a sec) they didn't crumble. When Chris Carr was flagged for a somewhat dubious illegal contact, they kept their composure. This is a team that couldn't figure out whether it was a passing team, a running team or a defensive team all season, but what was clear right from the start against the Patriots is they were playing as a true "team," with a focused rage and an in-your-face intensity. Didn't matter that Joe Flacco was clearly hurting and couldn't make plays in the passing game. Didn't matter that they were on the road. This team had found its identity -- the underdog with a chip on the shoulder. Sometimes cliches work.
2. This was a game in which all the Ravens who took a beating earlier in the season got a chance to thumb their nose at their critics. Are you one of those people who ripped Terrell Suggs repeatedly on talk radio, on message boards and in blog comments? How about Domonique Foxworth and Greg Mattison? Chris Carr and Frank Walker?
Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game was probably the play of the game. (Let's not forget to give credit to Marshal Yanda, Matt Birk and Ben Grubbs for great blocks on the play.) But Suggs' bullrush, sack and strip of Brady put New England in a panic mode. Suggs has been hammered by fans this season for his failure to live up to the huge contract he signed in the offseason, and certainly some of that was warranted. He hasn't been an impact player the Ravens hoped he'd be. But I'd argue his sack was as big as Rice's run. New England suddenly looked overwhelmed.
Randy Moss may have been hurt this game, but Foxworth never gave him a chance to get involved in any way. And he was physical in a manner we haven't seen until this game, wrapping up guys immediately after they did catch passes. He made a remarkable play getting his hand on the ball on Ed Reed's interception, and was rarely challenged, even when Brady did have a lot of time in the second half. Carr and Walker probably had their best games in a Baltimore uniform.
But let's talk about Mattison for a second. Earlier this year, Ravens Nation was livid with Mattison, convinced he was the only thing holding back Baltimore from another dominant defense. Go ahead and read the comments on this blog post I wrote, arguing that firing him would be idiotic. Can anyone take more satisfaction from this win than Mattison? Anyone care to argue he should be fired now? That he's only employed because he's the golfing buddy of Harbaugh's dad? Let's ponder this for a second: Has any defense in the NFL played as well as the Ravens have down the stretch? Other than the Packers game, they've been pretty darn good, despite losing arguably their best cornerback in Lardarius Webb. The fact that Ray Lewis had the first playoff sack of his career shows you that Mattison was determined to bring defenders from all kinds of angles to get to Brady.
3. Harbaugh deserves praise for the strong start, but the non-challenge on the muffed punt was still was a head scratcher. If you're going to be critical of Harbaugh's decision not throw a challenge flag, at least first throw some praise his way for getting his team ready to play. New England hadn't lost a playoff game at home since 1978, and they'd never lost at Gillette Stadium before today. That Sword and Spear speech might have seemed like another one of Harbaugh's collegiate inspirational slogans -- and I'm not 100 percent certain professionals totally buy into them -- but it worked. In the Ravens' biggest game of the season, they committed only one silly penalty (Foxworth losing track of where the line of scrimmage was while chasing Julian Edelman). That victory lap around the stadium had to feel pretty good. All Harbaugh has done in two seasons is go 3-1 in the playoffs, and you still have people arguing he shouldn't be the Ravens' head coach. It's ridiculous.
Now, all that said, nothing has surprised me more this season than seeing him suddenly get shy with the challenge flag on a play that was clearly debatable. No one likes to throw the challenge flag more than Harbaugh. He is like a challenge addict. To be fair, some of the criticism fired his way was clearly influenced by Phil Simms' commentary. Simms would like you to believe the play would have been immediately overturned, and I'm not sure that's the case. It was very close. However, there really wasn't anything to lose by throwing the challenge flag there, and it could have prevented a big momentum shift if the call was reversed. Losing a timeout there with a big lead wouldn't have hurt the Ravens.
We can't put it entirely on Harbaugh though. The play happened on the opposite sideline, and I can only assume there was no quick replay on the big screen at Gillette Stadium. In that situation, a head coach has to rely on his assistants up in the booth, who are watching the television broadcast (or at least some sort of internal broadcast with replays) and have to radio to him immediately, letting him know that the play was in dispute. Someone dropped the ball there. (I refuse to believe New England intentionally cut off the video feed to the Ravens coaches. It could not have happened, so drop the conspiracy talk.) It ultimately didn't matter, but it could have. Owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome should have some kind of offseason boot camp for Harbaugh and his staff (with flash cards and everything) going over when to challenge and when to use timeouts, because it's still a work in progress.
4. It's obvious Joe Flacco isn't healthy. There is no point in pretending he's fine at this point. After saying he was fine for several weeks, he finally admitted he was battling a "hip contusion," which clearly limits his ability to step into throws. That doesn't mean he can't still make plays or that the Ravens should give Troy Smith more reps. It just means they can't get in a shoot out, and they have to run the ball. Flacco is a tough dude. You could tell the criticism from the media was bugging him a little bit this past week. He was testy with reporters for the first time all year, which is understandable. It's been a long time since anyone has been critical of his play, and it must have been weird to get ripped for his performance against Oakland, when all the Ravens did was win. He did make a few good throws against New England, and even though his deep pass to Demetrius Williams wasn't perfect, it should have been caught.
But Flacco's first-down scramble -- a play that ultimately did get challenged and ruled a first down -- was a gritty play by a quarterback who was doing everything he could to help his team. It's unlikely he's going to get healthy in a week's time, but it is likely he'll feel better playing in Lucas Oil Stadium than he will in 22 degree weather in Foxborough. To beat the Colts, the Ravens will need him to make five or six plays. We'll see if he's healthy enough to do it.
5. Seeing Ray Lewis make 13 tackles in a big playoff game never gets old, does it? He looked like he was 27 again out there today, flying around, blasting guys in the face and setting the tone. He's the man most of America loves to hate, and that's fine. I could almost hear the nation's blood boiling during his post-game interview, when he peeled off his pads to reveal a shirt with hand prints that said "Best Dad" that his kids had obviously made him. Some of his legendary "leadership" might be overstated a bit, but that's OK. Sometimes emotion truly does matter above all else in the playoffs. It doesn't really matter that he's not the player he used to be. He's still a force out there, physically and emotionally. He's the best middle linebacker of his generation, and it isn't even close.
He and Peyton Manning have had some epic battles in the past -- including one in the playoffs two years ago -- and they are likely to have another next week.
The Ravens won't be favored. A lot of people will think it's already a foregone conclusion that the Colts will be hosting San Diego in two weeks, and that's exactly the way I suspect Lewis and Harbaugh prefer it.
No matter what happens, it should be a thrill to watch.