1.This isn't figure skating, and there are no style points. This was not an aesthetically pleasing win, but in the end, all that really matters (for now) is that the Ravens are 8-3.
Every week around here, we spend a lot of time talking about style points. When are the Ravens going to play up to their potential? When are they going to produce a signature victory? When are they going to blow a team away and prove they're one of the best teams in the NFL? When will they finally dominate?
All those questions are interesting, and no one should stop asking them, but here is the truth about the NFL: It's a grind. Some weeks are completely forgettable, as long as you score the most points. They're only about survival. This win over Tampa Bay was one of those games.
The Ravens didn't play well in the second half against the Bucs, especially on offense. But they endured. They lost their starting fullback, their starting left tackle and their starting strong safety to injury, and they survived. Let's give them some credit for that. If the referees don't throw a questionable flag on Anquan Boldin for a phantom block in the back on a touchdown pass to Ray Rice, this win suddenly seems a lot more impressive. At least when the Ravens had to run the ball at the very end of the game to put it away, they were able to do it, which has been a pretty rare occurrence this season.
Can the Ravens win next week against the Steelers if they play like this in the second half? Probably not. But maybe. Pittsburgh hardly looked like Super Bowl contenders Sunday against the Bills, when they only survived because of a dropped touchdown pass by a Buffalo receiver in overtime. But that's why every week in the NFL can be viewed as its own one-act play.
Nuanced analysis and rational criticism is part of what makes sports great, and if everyone (the fans and the media) blindly embraced a team while ignoring its obvious flaws, it would make for a lot of boring conversations. Maybe the Ravens finally put it all together next week, and maybe they don't. But victories, ultimately, are what matter. And for now, this team is winning, especially at home. We'll have a much better understanding of how good this team is next week.
"We've had seasons where we've been No. 1 across the board in defense and we still came up short," Terrell Suggs said. "We have nothing to show for it, no hardware. We were just No. 1 for that year. So I guess we're just kind of approaching it like we've got to win by any means necessary. If we get the numbers, the turnovers, we get 'em. If not, and at the end of the day we don't give up as many touchdowns [as the other team], we're going to continue to win."
2. If they make a movie about Todd Heap's 2010 season, he should be played by Brad Pitt because he appears to have aged backward in the off-season as though he was Benjamin Button.
If you claim you saw this coming from Heap, I'm coming to your house on Monday and we're driving to the airport so we can fly to Vegas and place a bunch of sports bets. (Don't worry about lunch. My wife will make us sandwiches.) We may even want to invite a few Ravens coaches and executives with us, because I don't believe for a second they saw this coming either.
Sure, I'll buy that the Ravens believed Heap could have a decent season in his 10th year in the NFL, as long as he could stay healthy. But that's one heck of a caveat. I'm not sure Heap has been totally healthy for years, maybe not since the era when Kyle Boller was hanging him out to dry on a regular basis on balls over the middle. If the Ravens really believed Heap was going to be healthy for 16 games — and by that I don't mean active for 16 games, I mean legitimately healthy — would they have drafted two tight ends? I'm sure they would say yes, but I don't know that I believe it.
When Heap split Barrett Rudd and Ronde Barber on Sunday with a perfect seam route, and Flacco hit him in stride, I didn't believe for a second he was going to score a 65-yard touchdown. But he just kept chugging along, running like he did when was drafted from Arizona State.
"You never expect to be that wide open, but Joe saw the same thing I did," Heap said. "We've run that play a few times and with the play-action, the safety kind of bit up, and the linebackers [too]. Everybody was flat-footed. I think Joe's eyes got as wide as mine did."
It was sort of a reminder of how good Heap might have been had his back been pain free for most of his career, and had he not played much of his prime with a quarterback who thought dating Tara Reid was a good idea, among other questionable decisions.
"I feel great," Heap said. "All season long, I've had just one nick here, and one nick there and been able to play through all of them. Right now, I feel really good, especially for this point in the season. Just knock on wood. [I want to] keep it going."
It's probably time, in fact, for the Ravens to try to use Heap a bit more in the red zone. He's averaging more yards per catch this season — now 14.7 after two catches for 79 yards against Tampa — than he has at any point during his career. Pittsburgh might be able to take away some of what the Ravens passing game does, but they shouldn't be able to take away everything.
3. For the second year in a row, the Ravens could be playing Pittsburgh in the most important game of the season with Oniel Cousins starting at one of the tackle spots.
Injuries are often a freak thing in the NFL, so there is no real point in blaming Cam Cameron for calling an unsuccessful quarterback sneak in the third quarter where Flacco just so happened to roll up the back of Michael Oher's knee. It wasn't, I thought, the best call at the time (Flacco telegraphed it way too much anyway), but the knee sprain Oher suffered was just one of those bad breaks.
Oher logged on to Twitter in the fourth quarter to inform fans that the injury was no big deal and that he expects to be back for the Steelers game (probably not the wisest move, since NFL players are prohibited from tweeting during games) so perhaps he'll be fine. But it's likely the Ravens will be cagey about his status all week, and if he can't go, a big burden will fall on Cousins.
Now, this is probably a good time to point out a few things about Oher that are going to fly in the face of what is generally accepted as gospel regarding him. He has been a good NFL player thus far, but he is by no means a great one yet. Because of Michael Lewis' book, "The Blind Side," which told his remarkable life story, and the movie of the same name that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar, I think he has been somewhat immune from any criticism people might otherwise have about his play. He's been good in some games, but he's also been very average in others. His potential absence would hurt the Ravens, but Marshal Yanda has been a better tackle this season, and he's really a guard playing out of position. If Yanda got hurt, I'd argue it would hurt the Ravens more.
Cousins struggled badly in the Pittsburgh game last year filling in for Jared Gaither [EDIT: As a few posters below point out, he played right tackle that game with Oher shifting to LT] getting flagged for several penalties and beat for a pair of sacks by LaMarr Woodley. But in limited action against the Bucs, he wasn't bad. Tony Moll, in fact, had more issues inside than Cousins did on the outside. In all likelihood, Cousins has improved from where he was a year ago at this point. He can run block better than he can pass block, so the Ravens may need to try and get their running game going, or at the very least, tell Flacco he needs to get the ball out quickly. Plays that require a seven-step drop could be trouble.
4. It really doesn't matter if Joe Flacco and Derrick Mason don't love one another all the time.
Mason and Flacco said all the diplomatic things they felt they needed to say in the media this week about their blow-up on the sidelines against Carolina. They laughed it off, said it wouldn't be a big deal going forward, and even seemed to wonder at times what all the fuss was about.
Then they came out and proved that, even if bad feelings are lingering, it doesn't really matter. Flacco threw 13 balls to Mason against the Bucs, and he caught eight of them, resulting in one of Mason's best games this season. Flacco laughed when asked if T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin should scream at him if they want more passes.
"I don't know if they want that," Flacco said. "I don't know if that's a good matchup for them. Me vs. them? I think I might be able to handle them a bit."
The truth about Mason is that he probably plays a little better when he's a feeling ornery. In fact, at this stage of his career, I'd argue he has to play angry to play well. He's very proud, obviously. And he shouldn't ever be grabbing his quarterback's facemask. But it's better to be grumpy and have high standards than to be complacent.
5. Chris Carr is quietly having a very nice season. He's easily the Ravens most dependable corner right now.
There has been plenty of drama involving Ravens cornerbacks this season. Domonique Foxworth's ACL injury. Fabian Washington's benching, poor tackling and eventual deactivation on Sunday. Lardarius Webb's bad coverage and bad fumble against the Falcons. Josh Wilson's struggles against the Bills and the Falcons. But through all that, Carr has been the quiet and steady rock in the Ravens defense. No big plays, no major gaffes, just steady reliable coverage.
In some respects, I think he got tagged early last year as someone who was no more than a nickle corner, and that reputation wasn't really fair. In fact, he probably should have been playing in front of Washington last year.
He may not be a shutdown guy like Charles Woodson or Nnamdi Asomugha. In fact, he's not even close. But he's a player you can count on, and the Ravens have been lucky to have him this season.