1. You can look at the Ravens' regular-season finale two ways.

The first is to simply concede that Cincinnati, for whatever reason, creates matchup problems for the Ravens. Maybe Joe Flacco is orange-and-black color blind and we just don't know it, or maybe Marvin Lewis' unique brand of cover-2 defense really is the the quarterback's kryptonite. If you buy into that theory, then this game means virtually nothing. Just pretend it never happened, almost like a bad date. The Ravens got a win, and now they'll try to figure out how to beat Kansas City in the playoffs. Some teams just have your number, and even though it doesn't make sense, you just try to eke out a victory against them and move on.

The second way to examine it is to concede that this team still has serious issues, especially on offense. And that a deep playoff run, though possible, seems pretty unlikely.


Now, I'm going be the first to admit I had similar feelings about the Ravens last year. Most of us — fans, media — did. When they closed out the regular season, we were all pretty underwhelmed. And then they went out and kicked in the Patriots teeth a week later in Foxborough. So anything is possible. This team is definitely more talented than last year's team. They're a lot more capable of putting together three good games, on the road, and surprising us with an appearance in Dallas. But after watching them for 16 games, it would stun me to see them suddenly flip a switch and put it all together.

You know the French term je ne sais quoi? Roughly translated, it means an intangible, but indescribable quality that makes something distinctive, attractive or excellent. Championship teams have je ne sais quoi. The Ravens, at least right now, do not. It's a strange thing to write about a team that's 12-4 and is one blown protection against Pittsburgh away from having the No. 2 seed in the AFC Playoffs, but I'm not sure how anyone outside the Ravens locker room could credibly argue otherwise. The Bengals had five turnovers today, two of which were complete gifts. And the Ravens scored 13 points.

The trouble is, people have tried all season to pin blame in one area, but I think the more honest analysis would be to understand that there have been issues with a little of everything. Nearly every aspect of this team has been good, but also a little flawed. The quarterback, the coaches, the offensive line, the receivers, the defensive line, the linebackers, the safeties, the corners. Even the front office doesn't get a total pass for rolling the dice on Sergio Kindle and his character issues in a year when the Super Bowl was a real possibility. Only the kicking game has been essentially flawless.

I think it's too easy to say "If Cam Cameron weren't the offensive coordinator, this team would reach its potential."

Or "Joe Flacco isn't an elite quarterback."

Or "Greg Mattison is holding this defense back."

Absolutes make for satisfying emotional arguments, but it doesn't mean any of them is 100 percent true.

This is a good team. It's also a flawed team.

And so are the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens' first playoff opponent.

Whatever flaws the Ravens have, they have enough talent to overcome them. Doesn't mean they will, but they can. And that alone makes this year's playoffs more interesting than last year. Perhaps Baltimore's je ne sais quoi is still waiting to be found.2. Ed Reed led the NFL in interceptions this year, despite playing in only ten games. Say what you will about him, but the man is one of the greatest ball hawks the NFL has ever seen at his position.

I'm convinced that Reed could play center field for the Orioles next year and do it credibly. I don't know if he could hit a lick, but I'm pretty certain if you let him study tape on hitters for an entire offseason, he'd run down just as many shots in the gap as Adam Jones. Some athletes just have an innate sense of knowing where the ball is going to be before it gets there. But what makes Reed even more remarkable is he also has the fast-twitch muscles to grab the ball and secure it even when it changes direction at the last second.

Pittsburgh fans love to tell you that Troy Polamalu is a better player than Reed, but it's always been sort of a pointless argument because they play different positions. Polamalu is a better tackler, and a bigger hitter, but as a strong safety, he has to be. Reed closes on the ball better, and when he gets it in his hands, he's a threat to score points every time. He's now second in NFL history in interception return yardage (1,438 yards on 54 INTs), trailing Rod Woodson by 45 yards despite playing in 110 fewer games.

It's sort of a shame Reed's body broke down over the years, because it would have been sort of fun to watch him play a little offense the way the Cowboys briefly used Deion Sanders. There is no doubt in my mind that Reed could have been a two-way threat. He has better hands than Todd Heap, can read blocks like Ray Rice, and is probably faster than Anquan Boldin. I doubt he could have made Kyle Boller into a good NFL player, but looking back, I sort of wonder if the Ravens ever considered trying to work him into their offense a bit.

As it is, he'll have to settle for simply being one of the smartest, and most exciting, defensive players of this era.


3. The best thing about the playoffs finally getting here is maybe now we can stop having statistical arguments about Joe Flacco.

I like debating Flacco's merits as a quarterback. I think, at times, people hold him to a standard that's almost impossible to live up to, but I also believe people who dismiss any criticism of him by invoking failed quarterbacks of Ravens past (Boller, McNair, Wright, etc.) are about as fun to argue with as a door. Saying you wish Flacco got the ball out quicker doesn't mean you'd rather have Boller as your quarterback.

What drives me the most bonkers, however, is people who constantly point to Flacco's stats (3,633 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 INTs, 93.6 quarterback rating) and insist that means he's already a great quarterback. That's a fantasy football argument. It's similar to the argument people make when they say Peyton Manning is a better quarterback than Tom Brady. They point to stats. And while stats tell you some stuff, I'm never going to be convinced by stats alone. This isn't baseball, where stats trump intangibles.

For example, Flacco's stats this year are superior to Joe Montana's 1981 stats (3,565 yards, 19 touchdowns, 12 INTS, 88.4 quarterback rating) in pretty much every category. That was Montana's third year in the league, and he won a Super Bowl. Can anyone really make the argument Flacco is close to playing at the level Montana did that year? Because the stats say he was better, and the quarterback I watched against the Bengals was still moving laterally against pressure, holding the ball too long, and under-throwing deep balls. It might be unfair to compare him with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, but that's why saying Flacco is a great quarterback because he completes 62 percent of his passes is silly. Stats tell you only some of the story.

Flacco's rookie year, he was essentially a caretaker, even when the postseason came around. The Ravens couldn't open up their offense in the playoffs because he wasn't ready to handle it. His second year, come playoff time, he had a hip bruise so purple and painful, he could barely walk, much less push off his back leg and step into throws. Now in his third year, he's developed into a reliable leader and promising play-maker. There is nothing in the playbook, physically or mentally, he shouldn't be able to handle.

But now is his chance to make the statistical argument irrelevant. He's healthy, he's ready, and he has the talent around him. No excuses. Can he make the pressure throw on third down that puts away the Chiefs late in the fourth quarter? Can he keep the Ravens momentum going if his team has Kansas City on the ropes?


Ben Roethlisberger, big meathead that he is, had a pretty average season statistically in 2008. But he made enough of the throws that mattered and won a Super Bowl. That dude is a winner, period. Flacco certainly possesses the talent to do the same. In fact, he passes Roethlisberger for the most wins in his first three years in the league. But Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings, and just how much Flacco has progressed will be measured by those important moments, those key throws, over the next few weeks. And not by what his stats say.

4. Anquan Boldin has certainly done a nice job swallowing a little pride this year in the name of TEAM.

In the last four games, Boldin has had a total of eight catches for 67 yards. That's not exactly what everyone envisioned when the Ravens traded third- and fourth-round draft picks for him in the offseason. Over that same span, Derrick Mason has caught 14 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns, so you could make the argument that Boldin is opening up opportunities for Mason on the other side. If you were cynical, you could also make the argument that maybe Boldin should grab Flacco's facemask on the sidelines and start screaming at him, and maybe he'd get targeted more often, but I don't think that's the case.

Whatever is going on, there is certainly something to be said for the quiet way Boldin goes about his business. Not every player in his prime would be thrilled with how often he's being targeting in the passing game, and they would certainly let you know about it if they were unhappy. But Boldin, who doesn't do many interviews, still blocks hard on runs, works hard to get open, and sacrifices whatever personal glory he might be capable of for a larger goal.

Listen to his answer when he was asked today about what it would take for the Ravens to get to the Super Bowl.

"Everybody has to be on the same page," Boldin said. "Everybody has to believe in each other. Everybody has to have the same goal. ... I think we have exactly what it takes to win a championship. And that's not just me saying it because I'm here. I've been with other teams, and I've been to a Super Bowl. I don't think we had half the talent that we have here. So I definitely think we have what it takes to win it all."

5. Billy Cundiff tying Mitch Berger's record for touchbacks is one of the best, and most unlikely, stories in the NFL this year.

Officially, Cundiff and Berger will go into the record books tied with 40 touchbacks, but it's pretty obvious which season was more impressive. Half of Berger's kicks came in a dome, and with the old footballs that the NFL used to let kickers manipulate however they wanted. (Footballs today come directly out of a box before they're put in play.) And Berger also got his 40 touchbacks in 112 attempts, a percentage of 35.7. Cundiff got his in 79 attempts, a percentage of 50.6.

"I think that tells you how impressive that record really is," Harbaugh said.

But the achievement is even more impressive when you consider last year, Cundiff was working for a venture capital firm in Arizona, kicking at a local high school every morning before work, before an NFL team called to offer him another chance. Yet there he was Sunday, getting a standing ovation from the fans after his record-tying touchback.

"You know, it's exciting," Cundiff said of the standing ovation. "It's strange. You know you have sophisticated fans. They understand the importance of field position and all that other stuff. Most other places when it comes to kicking, they kind of say 'Whatever. We want to see our quarterbacks throw touchdowns and we want to see rushing yards.' It's nice to be in that environment."

We still don't really know how Cundiff will perform on a do-or-die kick. His overtime kick against the Bills this year is probably the most pressure he's had on him, but that's nothing compared to playoff pressure. Whatever happens, it seems obvious Cundiff believes in himself, something he didn't always do back when he first came into the league with Dallas. He and Sam Koch may not quite be the co-MVPs of this team, but they're awfully close, which is sort of remarkable to admit. But it says a lot about this Ravens season.

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