Carroll County Times

Much has changed since Denver loss

Joe Flacco throws under pressure from Broncos safety David Bruton in the Ravens' Dec. 16, 2012 loss to the Denver Broncos in Baltimore.

NEW ORLEANS - It wasn't even two months ago that the Baltimore Ravens reached what safety Ed Reed described as the "low point" of their season.

That would be Week 15 against the Denver Broncos, a game Baltimore trailed 31-3 early in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling 34-17.

It was the third straight defeat for the Ravens. Their offense was sputtering - and was held scoreless on 10 of its first 11 possessions against the Broncos. And their defense, decimated by injuries at that point, appeared vulnerable against both the run and the pass.

At the time, Baltimore bore little resemblance to a team that was going to be any bit of a threat in the playoffs, let alone one capable of legitimately contending for the Super Bowl.

Yet, just seven weeks later, the Ravens find themselves only one win away from a Super Bowl title.

Their offense is now surging under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Their defense, much healthier now, has been dominant at times in the playoffs. Baltimore as a whole looks very little like the team that was beaten so handily by Denver in mid-December.

"There's been a lot of highs and lows to this season," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "We started off really well, and then midway towards the end we hit a little bit of a lull. ... And I think a defining moment for this team was when we played the Giants [the week after the loss to Denver].

"That was an important game for us, an important game after a three-game losing streak and we went into that game and treated it like a championship game."

The result?

A 33-14 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. Joe Flacco threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for 230 yards on the ground. In total, the Ravens' offense, which had been so inconsistent for much of the previous three months, racked up a season-high 533 yards in its second game under Caldwell.

But it wasn't just the offense. Baltimore's defense limited Giants quarterback Eli Manning to just 150 yards through the air, held Ahmad Bradshaw to just 39 yards on the ground and, as a whole, allowed just 186 yards from scrimmage as it held a talented New York offense scoreless on eight of its first nine possessions.

"We played well in that game, and kind of just put it all together," Pitta said. "I think that was the turning point when we started to gain some momentum."

The momentum continued to build.

The offense has flourished under Caldwell since that loss to the Broncos, Caldwell's first game as the team's offensive coordinator after replacing a fired Cam Cameron earlier in the week. And the defense has excelled as well, aided by the returns of safety Bernard Pollard and inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, all of whom missed the Denver game.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is healthier and more active than he was at that point, as is defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and the result has been a defense that's yielded just four touchdowns in three playoff games after surrendering a combined 88 points during the Ravens' three-game losing streak.

"We've gotten healthy," cornerback Cary Williams said. "Now that we've gotten guys back, now you're starting to see that we're actually a pretty good defense."

Behind the leadership of Lewis, Baltimore's defense didn't allow a touchdown in the team's wild-card win against the Indianapolis, held a high-powered Broncos offense scoreless on six of its final seven possessions a week later and kept an explosive New England Patriots offensive unit off the scoreboard during the second half of the AFC championship.

Lewis missed the final 10 games of the regular season after suffering a torn triceps in mid-October, but he returned for the wild-card game against the Colts and has 44 tackles thus far in the playoffs, a team-high and the second-most for a player in a single postseason since 2000.

Williams called getting Lewis back "a huge emotional lift for the team."

"And for us to be able to go out there and play with our leader," he continued, "it's wonderful."

Aside from getting healthier defensively, the biggest change since that loss to Denver has been the play of the offense, particularly Flacco.

Baltimore rested most of its offensive starters during its regular season finale, but it has averaged 452 yards and 31 points per game in its other four games under Caldwell since that loss to the Broncos.

The offense averaged just 309 yards per game in its final nine games under Cameron.

The offensive line is better than it was during the regular season, dominant in the playoffs after inserting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and moving Michael Oher to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele from right tackle to left guard. A unit that so often struggled in pass protection during the regular season has yielded just four sacks in the playoffs and has paved the way for Rice and Pierce to rush for 416 yards.

But it's been Flacco that's really flourished.

The same quarterback that was limited to 188 yards or less in six of his final nine games under Cameron has thrown for an average of 291 yards in the last four games that he's seen a full workload under Caldwell. He's thrown for 853 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception in the playoffs.

And with Flacco leading the way, the Ravens scored three second-half touchdowns in the AFC championship win over the Patriots, scored 38 points in the divisional round win over the Broncos and racked up 441 yards in the 24-9 wild-card win over the Colts.

"I would say it's been the coach Caldwell effect," Osemele said. "It's been how simple he's made things, his attention to detail and just everybody being sure of what we're trying to get accomplished, and it's really showed."