1. It's hard to put into words just how much pressure the Ravens were under to win this game, but one emotional scene in the locker room might give you an idea of just how satisfying it was to be the head coach.
John Harbaugh had just finished his post-game press conference, and when he walked away from the podium, he made a beeline for the Ravens locker room. A number of the players were still showering, but Harbaugh marched into a cloud of steam and let out a rebel yell that echoed off the ceramic tiles with stunning ferocity. What he said wasn't original -- he was, in fact, borrowing liberally from a famous locker room speech made by Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson -- but it didn't have to be. All the mattered was the emotion of the moment.
"HEY! HOW 'BOUT THEM RAVENS?" Harbaugh bellowed, and a group of players answered in a resounding, unintelligible roar.
It was the sort of genuine moment you can't fake, but also one you rarely see from an NFL head coach. Especially one like Harbaugh, who guards his emotions so carefully. But it was indicative of how much the whole team needed a win like this. It wasn't a perfect performance. But in some respects, it was probably more satisfying specifically because the Ravens didn't fold when things in the game didn't go their way. They didn't panic when two fumbles escaped their grasp, or when the Saints made two remarkable (and arguably lucky) touchdown catches.
"I'm just proud of this football team," Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of these men, and I'm proud of of what we accomplished today. ... Obviously, we haven't made the plays that we need to make sometimes, or call the right play at times. We all take responsibility when things don't go well. But this is a tough league, and that's a great football team. We had great coaches and great players going at it, and our players found a way to win the game. That's where the credit belongs. It belongs to the players."
Granted, the coaches deserve some credit too. Just when everyone was ready to write off the running game and line Joe Flacco up in the shotgun for 60 plays, Cam Cameron simplified things and let the offensive line push the Saints all over the field. He took chances, but smart ones like the delayed release by Ed Dickson. And Greg Mattison, after nearly two seasons of asking his players to react to what the other team was doing, decided to blitz like a madman, almost like he was Gandalf and he was sending his men to join the battle of Helm's Deep. (Nerd alert: That's a "Lord of the Rings" reference.) Harbaugh probably didn't want to compliment his coaches too much after all the criticism he and his staff have endured in recent weeks, lest he seem defensive or haughty.
But everyone understands how frustrated (and vocal) a large segment of the fan base has been with the coaching staff. It had to feel good to get it mostly right on Sunday, so that at the very least, people would start seeing the Ravens as a team again, and not two units -- coaches and players -- unable to mesh.
In his six-minute press conference, Harbaugh used the word "proud" nine times.
2. Here is what the blueprint for this offense should look like this going forward: Get Ray Rice the ball as much as possible, and build everything else off of that.
Some of the criticisms of Cameron this season have been, I think, a bit unfair. The offensive coordinator has a really difficult job when he has to juggle so many different egos on offense. And while Flacco has been great in stretches, he's been asked to do a lot behind an offensive line that has really struggled. Where I do think Cameron has occasionally erred, however, is in making the wide receivers be the focal point of the offense instead of Rice.
That doesn't mean handing the ball off to Rice 30 times every week. The offensive line probably couldn't handle that, and neither could Rice, even if they did handle it today. But it does mean getting him the ball in different and creative ways, which is what Cameron did today when Rice touched the ball 36 times and had 253 today yards. The reverse pivot and option pitch to him in short yardage was a great example of Cameron at his best. The Ravens haven't had success running the ball up the gut this year, so today they faked that play, then let Rice make one cut in space and pick up the first down. Another time, they moved Marshal Yanda to the left side to give an unbalanced look, then hit Rice on a screen back to the short side.
Obviously Rice isn't big, but he's almost impossible to cover in the passing game with a linebacker. The 17-yard touchdown Flacco threw Rice in the second quarter was one of the prettiest passes Flacco has thrown all season, but Rice ran a perfect route to get open. Linebacker Scott Shanle had no chance. The more you use him on screens and outlet passes, the more confused the defense gets. And when they take that away, you come back with traps and stretch plays that take advantage of what a good cutback runner Rice is.
Maybe the Ravens were so excited to open up their attack this year after acquiring Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they've been designing their game plans around getting the ball to the wideouts. It seems they've been going about it backward.
Rice isn't Barry Sanders, who was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. But he might be a poor man's LaDainian Tomlinson. It's funny to think back to the days when people thought he might never be anything but a third-down back.
"I saw the game plan," Rice said. "I knew we were going to run the ball today. Late in the year, it's a mentality thing. It just felt good to know that we said we were going to do something and went out and did it. There was so much energy in the huddle, it felt different than any game. We're running the ball, and the next thing you know, my receivers are blocking down the field. ... I think we've established our team mentality back."
3. Let's get a shovel and bury the question about whether Joe Flacco cares enough. And then let's bury the shovel.
If you've read this column this past year, you know I have my concerns about Flacco. I think he's a good quarterback, especially for being in his third year, but his footwork and his pocket awareness keep me from downing the Purple Kool-Aid by the gallon like some people. People point to stats a lot with him. I think stats tell some, but not all of the story. It will be both fun, and occasionally frustrating, to see how his career plays out.
But one criticism of him that's silly is that he never shows any emotion. I think he shows emotion when he's moved enough to show it. I don't know that any media person feels like they know him very well. He's a private guy with a dry sense of humor, but he relies on a lot of cliches to get through interviews. But one thing I think I can say about him is that he doesn't do things for show. He's not fake.
So it was clear when Saints defensive end Alex Brown kneed him in the facemask in the third quarter, a cheap shot that came way late after Flacco had already been pulled to the ground by Jimmy Wilkerson, that the quarterback was genuinely pissed.
"Everybody wants to say [I don't show] passion," Flacco said. "I have my things on the sidelines. I don't know that they always get caught. But apparently this one did."
Flacco spent the next 30 seconds on the sidelines barking at someone still on the field, and lip-readers watching on TV were treated to an R-rated monologue.
"I didn't know what it was," Flacco said. "I heard it was a knee. I went down on on the ground and then something hit me. I don't care what it was; I just thought it was way late."
So was Flacco directing his rant at Brown or at the official? He couldn't hide a sheepish smile when he answered.
"I was saying a little something to the ref a little bit," Flacco said. "And him a little bit too."
4. It seems Ray Lewis can still give a pretty good speech behind closed doors
In the team hotel Saturday night, Lewis apparently got up in front of the team and gave one of the most emotional speeches he's given in years. What he said, exactly, he preferred to keep private. But the theme of the speech, Lewis revealed, was sacrifice. About putting aside your ego, and doing whatever you can to help the Ravens win.
"Everything that I speak to my team about is just always straight from the heart," Lewis said. "And me spending a lot of time with God before I came to the meeting, he just kept putting things in my heart. It was just about one thing: sacrifice. I've been in this business 15 years, and I've seen some good teams and I've seen some OK teams. What we have right now, the question is very simple. What would you give for the man beside you? That's it. I don't care what the score is. If we come out of here with a win, we're a better team."
This is a delicate subject, but I'm going to address it anyway. A lot of what you see Lewis do in the pre-game, on the sidelines, is as much for Lewis and the cameras as it is his teammates. (It's for the fans too, but it's very much Ray's "Song of Myself.") It's the way he motivates himself at age 35 to play at a high level, even though his body is slowing down. And often, it's effective.
But what Lewis does behind closed doors, away from the cameras, is where he still reaches people. It's the hours of film study and the one-on-one long locker room talks where I think he makes his biggest impact. Some of the dancing and yelling is just bluster. But the stuff no one sees is why he remains the most dominant personality this franchise has, even after 15 years.
"[The speech] was very personal," Lewis said. "Because I went into some personal stuff with my teammates to really share that these moments will never be again. Ever. I went all the way back to my first year [to share a memory]. And now I'm in my 15th. If the young guys understand this, they'll appreciate second, every time we step on the field."
5. Dannell Ellerbe needs to play more down the stretch, and permanently escape the doghouse he was exiled to months ago.
Whenever the media has asked Harbaugh why Ellerbe wasn't playing very much this year, he's artfully dodged the question in a way that would make Ari Fleischer and Robert Gibbs proud. He'll say it's a numbers game, that the Ravens have a lot of guys they'd like to have active on game day, and that it's always a tough call who sits and who plays. (As Donte' Stallworth can attest.)
But it was clear watching Sunday's game that Ellerbe simply has better instincts than Jameel McClain. He may not have McClain's work ethic or lack of ego, but he makes more plays. He's a better blitzer and he's better at sniffing out screens. He's still not great in pass coverage, but to be frank about it, none of the Ravens linebackers are very good in coverage. He still had six tackles today, including a sack. In the last five games, Gooden has 10 tackles.
It's certainly the right of Dean Pees, Mattison and Harbaugh to play whomever they feel is the best fit for the Ravens defense at linebacker. But Ellerbe has a better nose for the football than McClain and Tavares Gooden. That seems apparent watching the game in real time, and it should seem clear watching film.
Ellerbe may be an underachiever, and he may not always have the right attitude (I once watched special teams coach Jerry Rosburg go ballistic on Ellerbe for loafing on a kickoff drill in practice) but he can help this team the rest of the way.
Hopefully keeping him inactive so often this year has made him humble and hungry. But it's time to get something out of him.