This would have sounded crazy a month ago, but as of this morning, the Ravens are two wins away from their third straight AFC North title. They have turned the season around because Joe Flacco has found his groove, his supporting cast has picked up its play and the Ravens remembered how to win close games.
But where would the Ravens be right now without the trusty right leg of young kicker Justin Tucker?
Well, they would be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture in the AFC. Instead, they are 8-6 and remain on the postseason path after yet another bust-out-the-Rolaids Ravens victory.
Tucker made all six of his field-goal attempts Monday night, scoring every point for the Ravens in their 18-16 win over the equally-as-desperate Detroit Lions. Every kick was critical for an offense that is struggling mightily in the red zone, but his game-winner will go down as one of the biggest kicks in franchise history.
The Ravens found themselves in another tight game when Flacco and the offense took the field after the defense surrendered another fourth-quarter lead with 2:21 left.
Flacco, a bit gimpy after a low hit to his plant leg on the previous drive, made a big-time throw to wide-out Jacoby Jones on a crossing pattern to move to Detroit's 45-yard line. But the drive stalled as the Lions snuffed out a screen pass to Jones and Flacco threw a pass over the head of tight end Dennis Pitta on second down.
On 3rd and 10, the Ravens ran a draw play into the teeth of a tenacious Lions front four. Running back Ray Rice could only get to the 43-yard line before he was tackled.
Normally, that kind of conservative call would be met with major criticism, but not when you have a cocky, quirky 24-year-old who is the hottest kicker in the NFL.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh once said that he had the faith in Tucker to let him kick from 60-plus yards if the situation dictated it and the elements allowed it, and this was a perfect storm inside Ford Field. As special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg joked earlier this week, it is always 72 degrees and calm inside the dome.
Tucker jogged out onto the field, lined up behind holder Sam Koch and crossed his heart, as he does before every kick. This was the longest he had attempted in his two years in the NFL, and no kicker in franchise history -- not even Matt Stover -- had made one from 61 yards, the distance he was called on to kick from.
But really, with the way Tucker is kicking right now and with the way he has kicked in do-or-die situations -- Denver game, anyone? -- was there every really a doubt?
OK, maybe there was a little as the kick started to tail back toward the right upright, but it stayed just inside and his leg had more than enough juice to send the ball over the bar.
No kicker can win a game by himself. Flacco and the offense made enough plays on six different drives to move Tucker into range and the defense did its part by picking off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford three times, including once on their final drive, and keeping star wide-out Calvin Johnson out of the end zone.
But Tucker showed how invaluable a clutch kicker is. He has now made 33 straight kicks, three shy of Stover's franchise record, and just like Stover in 2000, Tucker is carrying the Ravens toward the playoffs three points at a time. Monday night was the third time in four weeks that Tucker made at least four field goals in a game.
With two weeks -- and two tough games against playoff contenders -- left to play, Tucker has established himself as the team's undisputed Most Valuable Player. He has made 35 of his 37 field-goal attempts. No NFL kicker has buried more three-pointers and his 94.6 field goal percentage ranks fourth in the league.
Usually, it is a big-money quarterback, the star running back or a sack-happy defensive end that ends up being named team MVP in the court of public opinion.
But in this wacky season in which the Ravens have won five games by three points or fewer and climbed out of a 4-6 hole to take control of the AFC's final wild-card spot, it is the cowboy-boot-wearing, opera-singing, fantasy-football-playing kicker who has been their best player, consistently delivering whenever called upon.
One thing that I learned
Jimmy Smith has grown to the point where the Ravens can trust him to cover the NFL's best wide receivers. For Sunday's paper, I wrote about Smith's development in his third season and whether the Ravens would go against their defensive philosophy and have him shadow Johnson. We got our answer on the first drive, when Smith left his usual spot at right cornerback to cover Johnson on the other side of the field. Smith didn't trail Johnson on every snap -- Corey Graham often covered him when he was in the slot -- but when he did, he gave Johnson fits. Johnson had six catches for 98 yards, but much of that came when someone other than Smith covered him. We'll see if the Ravens use the same approach two weeks from now against Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.
Handing out game balls
Tucker gets a game ball, of course, but he isn't the only one. Jones had six catches for 80 yards and his 36-yard kickoff return gave the Ravens good starting position on their game-winning drive. And free safety Matt Elam gets the defensive game ball for picking off Stafford days after he made headlines for calling Johnson "old."
This week's head-scratcher
The Ravens had clock management issues at the end of both halves, but the most puzzling part about Monday's game was the usage of Pitta in his second game back from a major hip injury. In the Week 14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Pitta played 36 snaps. I would be surprised if Pitta played that many this week. He was rarely used on first and second down, even in the red zone, where the Ravens could have used his big body and soft hands over the middle. He finished the game with just two catches for 24 yards on four targets. Maybe the Ravens don't want to overwork Pitta while easing him back into the offense, but his usage was curious.
They said it (or tweeted it)
"He kind of ordered me to kick it." -- Harbaugh on Tucker, who apparently started campaigning his coach to let him kick it as soon as the Ravens crossed midfield.
The stat that stands out
28.6 -- the Ravens' red zone touchdown percentage over the past four weeks. After settling for field goals on all three of their red zone trips on Monday, they are 4-for-14 during their four-game winning streak.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. Credit should go to defensive coordinator Dean Pees and middle linebacker Daryl Smith for attacking Stafford whenever the Lions emptied the backfield and left the quarterback alone in the shotgun. When the Lions did that, usually motioning Reggie Bush from the backfield out wide, Smith would check into blitzes, knowing that the Ravens could fluster Stafford with some of the coordinator's clever schemes. Two of Stafford's interceptions came on such plays. On the first, nose tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass to defensive end DeAngelo Tyson. The second was a bad pass right into Smith's gut. Those plays were good examples of how preparation during the week mixed with execution during the games can pay off.
2. During the game, I got a few questions about Vonta Leach's role -- or lack thereof -- so I figured I might as well address it here. Leach has played sparingly since Week 7 as the Ravens have used their 11 personnel on more than 75 percent of their offensive plays. This should be no surprise, as this was the direction the offense had been heading in all along and it was part of the reason why Leach was released in the offseason, only to come back to Baltimore at a reduced rate. Leach lovers argue that he needs to be more involved, that the running game would thrive with him in there. But the reality is that the Ravens haven't run the ball effectively with him on the field and have actually been a little more efficient running out of singleback sets in recent weeks. Throw in the fact that Leach is limited in the passing game and that the Ravens want to use a lot of no-huddle, and it's easy to see why they have moved on from him. And you should, too. Leach is one of the best fullbacks in recent NFL history, but he just isn't a fit here anymore.
3. I'm not sure how the coaches will grade them out, but I thought the Ravens' interior offensive linemen, center Gino Gradkowski and guards A.Q. Shipley and Marshall Yanda, did an admirable job against Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, who have terrorized guards and centers throughout the season. Suh and Fairley were disruptive -- Shipley got shoved back into Flacco's lap on a few plays -- but the offensive line was able to keep them from wrecking their game plan and, more importantly, their quarterback. Suh did not record a quarterback hit and Fairley had just one. The Ravens even had a little bit of success running the ball, too. A passing grade is good enough against those two.