As he does each week, Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' 35-31 playoff loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
1. Above all, the Ravens and Patriots gave us a great show.
It's hard not to view the final defeat of a season in negative terms.
What went wrong? What needs to be fixed for next year? These are the questions we inevitably ask in the unforgiving realm of professional sports.
But as the seconds wound down in this AFC divisional-round playoff loss, I wasn't dwelling on those thoughts, and I hope you weren't, either. Because, folks, that was quite a game, one of the best you'll ever see on this stage.
It featured another brilliant playoff performance, and then a forehead-smacking interception, from Joe Flacco.
It reminded us why Tom Brady long ago earned his spot in Canton.
It gave us the usual playoff moxie from John Harbaugh, who allowed Flacco to throw deep on fourth-and-6, setting up a touchdown in the second half.
It showcased the wonderful resourcefulness of Bill Belichick's coaching staff, as the Patriots played stretches with just four offensive linemen on the field and tied the game on a 51-yard pass from one wide receiver to another.
As the drama swung back and forth, it was impossible to know who would win or which strategic call would be the decisive one. Twitter buzzed with a nation of fans sharing every delicious moment.
On the days when Ray Rice or head injuries or performance-enhancing drugs swallow the headlines, some might wonder why we continue watching. That game was the answer.
2. We saw the full spectrum of Joe Flacco.
A quarterback can't play a whole lot better than Flacco did in the first half, when he found seemingly every receiver on the roster with passes that smacked each in the hands. Coming into the game with an impeccable string of five straight playoff victories, this seemed to confirm January Joe as a superior being descended from Krypton or some other alien realm.
And then his X-ray vision somehow started missing Patriots safeties. The first interception, by Devin McCourty, didn't matter much because of a timely third-quarter stand by the Ravens defense. But the second killed. Flacco seemed to see Torrey Smith in a man-to-man matchup, the perfect scenario for one of those deep balls he so dearly loves. He did not see Duron Harmon tracking Smith the whole way.
It was a mistake October Joe makes from time to time. But January Joe had gone so long without such a blunder that it felt startling.
Of course, it was silly to think any quarterback could remain infallible forever against the vicious competition of the NFL playoffs. This was Flacco's day to be human again, simple as that.
Flacco went 4-for-4 on the Ravens' opening scoring drive as Gary Kubiak kept the Patriots off balance with a nifty tight end screen to Crockett Gillmore and a bootleg for the 19-yard touchdown pass to Kamar Aiken. Flacco's mobility has been key throughout the postseason, helping him find the extra space he needs to throw unmolested.
Much of the talk last week centered on incomparable Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis and how he would neutralize either Steve or Torrey Smith. But the Patriots made the curious choice to play zone coverage early in the game, limiting Revis' chances to show off his one-on-one genius.
Brady gave the Ravens a big chance late in the first half, when he badly underthrew an open Rob Gronkowski and put the ball right in the hands of Daryl Smith. Flacco converted the opportunity with a wonderful touchdown throw to Owen Daniels' back shoulder. It was maybe the best example of how precisely he carved up one of the NFL's best secondaries for the better part of three quarters.
Rather than focus too much on his final mistake, I'll simply say we saw all of Flacco on Saturday. He's still the guy who's not bothered by any environment, with the arm to make any throw necessary. He's the guy who can go pass for pass with a Hall of Fame-bound counterpart and give the Ravens a good chance to win. And he's the guy who sometimes overplays his hand at the wrong moment.
In the wash, he's more than enough.
3. Tom Brady went strength for strength with the Ravens and won.
Brady is a masterful short passer, incredibly decisive and accurate on throws of 15 yards or less. But, secondary woes aside, the Ravens actually defended short passes well all season. The way to beat them was to throw downfield, something Brady doesn't do nearly as well.
He also had no running game to play off, so he could rely on only his quick trigger to thwart the Ravens' world-class pass rush.
Well, there's a reason Brady is an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He pulled it off.
Oh, Brady hit a few longer passes, including an early 46-yarder to his most dangerous target, Gronkowski, and a 23-yard touchdown strike — ultimately, the game-winner — that looped gorgeously into Brandon LaFell's hands.
But by and large, he did what he does best, throwing so quickly that he neutralized the Ravens rush (the team's two sacks came on the same first-half drive) and so accurately that he kept the Patriots moving for most of the game.
Brady's 5-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski in the third quarter summed up what he does so well. He waited an extra beat at the line, read the Ravens' impending blitz, found the matchup his receiver couldn't lose physically and threw almost as soon as the snap hit his hands.
No way to stop that.
4. James Hurst and John Urschel were the Ravens' unexpected heroes.
After watching the Steelers' James Harrison repeatedly streak by Hurst last Saturday in Pittsburgh, many analysts saw potential disaster in the rookie tackle's matchup with New England pass-rush specialist Chandler Jones.
Harbaugh showed faith in Hurst, sticking with him despite the fact that a gimpy Eugene Monroe was active. Hurst rewarded that belief with arguably his best performance of the season, keeping Jones from laying a hand on Flacco all game long.
Urschel, a rookie guard from Penn State, had played well against the Steelers, so he was less of a hot topic. But he also played one of his best games, throwing eye-catching run blocks on the much bulkier Vince Wilfork. Urschel was a big reason Justin Forsett piled up 129 yards.
When the Ravens lost Monroe and Rick Wagner, it was easy to think their season might be sunk. It's awfully hard to win playoff games with a debilitated secondary and a debilitated offensive line.
The story did not turn out that way. Marshal Yanda shifted from being the best guard in the league to a capable right tackle. Kelechi Osemele continued to play at a Pro Bowl level. And the two rookies, who weren't supposed to play much at all, helped hold the ship together on enemy fields where communication must have been difficult.
What a 2014 draft the Ravens pulled off, adding future defensive stars C.J. Mosley and Timmy Jernigan, a potential longtime starter in Urschel, and immediate contributors in Gillmore and Lorenzo Taliaferro.
Picking up Hurst as a free agent was the cherry on the sundae.
5. The Ravens' outlook is brighter now than it was a year ago.
This was a season to try fans' souls. If any of us had forgotten, the Mueller Report was released last week, reminding us how badly the Ravens mishandled the fall from grace of former star Ray Rice.
There were times when the support for this team felt uneasy compared with that of previous years, though crowds at M&T Bank Stadium remained robust and loud.
The scrutiny wasn't particularly fair to the players who remained. But it was unavoidable.
If we've learned anything in recent years, it's that fans will continue to care about football, no matter what madness swirls around it. Now that the season is over in Baltimore, we'll pivot to wondering whether free agents Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee and Forsett will wear purple next season. We'll guess at how the Ravens might revamp their secondary and which positions they'll bolster in the draft.
The Ravens finished last season out of the playoffs and facing serious questions about their offensive line, running game, receivers and even Flacco's standing as a franchise quarterback.
They enter this offseason with a comparatively solid outlook.
Their collection of defensive talent is among the best in football, with veteran stars Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil now backed by young, cheap standouts Mosley, Jernigan and Brandon Williams. The secondary is shaky but will improve instantly with the healthy return of Jimmy Smith, one of the league's best cornerbacks.
The offensive line is much improved, with Yanda playing better than ever, Osemele healthy, and Wagner and Urschel leading a pack of solid, young blockers.
Flacco and Harbaugh are locked in.
Despite the aforementioned free-agent questions, it's hard to imagine the Ravens not contending for a playoff spot in 2015.
When you consider all of the turmoil of the last 12 months, that's not a bad note on which to conclude.