Commentary: Flacco, Rice give Ravens reason to believe

The Ravens didn't have to win Sunday to make the postseason. They were already in.

The Ravens didn't have to win Sunday to secure the AFC North title. They could've taken care of that next week.

But after three consecutive losses and escalating criticism of an underperforming offense, the Ravens had to win Sunday if only to give other teams, their fans, and, most important, themselves a reason to believe they're a threat to be more than a one-and-done playoff participant.

After thoroughly whipping the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 33-14 behind one of their best offensive performances, not to mention a fine job done by their patchwork defense, they have one.

The Ravens ran to a season high rushing total and got a tremendous bounce-back performance from quarterback Joe Flacco while holding the potent Giants to 186 yards of offense, forcing the team that came into the game with the second-fewest three-and-outs in the league to six of them.

"Like I said last week, 'We're going to see what kind of team we are - we believe we're this kind of team and we're really going to see if we are,'" Flacco said. "I think we showed ourselves and we showed people today that we are that kind of team."

It was an impressive performance and shows why this team can't be written off just yet, no matter how many injuries are incurred on defense or how lackluster the offense had looked since Thanksgiving.

"I am as proud of this team right now as ever," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after securing a second consecutive division title. "I thought our guys played exceptionally well."

They did. Three weeks after Flacco turnovers started a three-game losing streak. Two weeks after firing their offensive coordinator. One week after falling behind 31-3 to Denver in their worst home showing since Harbaugh took over in 2008.

Talk-radio callers will, no doubt, point to the fact that Ray Rice touched the ball 30 times (gaining 107 yards on 24 rushes and 51 yards and a touchdown on six catches) as the sole reason for the offensive resurgence.

Every Ravens fan worth his purple camo pants knows Baltimore is virtually unbeatable when Rice gets at least 25 combined rushes and receptions - they are are now 23-3 in such games, unbeaten since the middle of the 2010 season.

Of course, if it was as simple as that, owner Steve Bisciotti could simply pluck a well-lubricated fan in an ill-fitting No. 27 jersey out of Section 548, make him the offensive coordinator and simply mandate that Rice get the ball on the Ravens' first 25 plays from scrimmage.

Fact is, all the moving parts have to work together. As Rice said, it isn't about morale or sticking together as a team,"it's about execution."

Rice played well - as did understudy Bernard Pierce - because, unlike last week, there was room to run. The offensive line, buoyed by the return of guard Marshal Yanda, redeemed itself and helped Pierce and Rice both go over the 100-yard mark. They also dominated a formerly fearsome pass rush, holding the Giants without a sack.

And Rice played well because the defense kept sending two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and his array of weaponry off the field. The Giants never converted on third down until midway through the third quarter and finished just two for 10.

Finally, Rice played well because Flacco played well.

Actually, Flacco was magnificent. Maddeningly so.

In the midst of a most inconsistent contract year that has some fans questioning whether Flacco will be back next season and wondering if the enduring image of the quarterback in Baltimore would be of him lying disconsolately on the ground after throwing that pick-six to the Broncos at the end of the first half last week, Flacco was under perhaps the most heat he's faced in his five seasons.

He handled it all brilliantly and played one of his best games, connecting on 25 of 36 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, as well as scoring on a quarterback sneak.

Flacco was particularly good on third down. He completed 11 of 15 third-down passes, including a 6-yarder to cap the Ravens' first possession with a touchdown and converting not once but twice in seemingly hopeless third-and-19 situations.

"The whole offense [played well]," said safety Ed Reed. "When they are clicking like that ... and Joe is on point with the ball, just getting it to the playmakers, you see what we can do as a team."

Reed added "I know he's been getting a lot of gripe the last couple of weeks, probably even from teammates" but Flacco downplayed any pressure he was feeling.

"Yeah, what are you going to do?" he said.

Rice was impressed.

"I've always said that he's handled the pressure better than anybody I"ve ever seen," Rice said. "We go as Joe goes."

And a team that looked like a mess after the three consecutive losses goes into the playoffs looking every bit like a team that could certainly beat Indianapolis or Cincinnati in two weeks. And like a team that could go into Houston or Denver the following week and give either a much better game the second time around.

No question, that's what they believe Sunday.

"Even though we lost three [in a row], we kept saying we had everything ahead of us," Flacco said. "Coming out here and playing as hard as we did and as well as we did today, I think, just says a lot about what kind of team we are and what kind of team we are going to be headed forward."