Welcome to the Ravens 10-Pack, where reporter Jon Meoli hits on 10 stats, notes, and thoughts after the Ravens advanced in the playoffs with a 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round. It's typically a Monday feature, but no one much likes day-old takes, so here it is on a Sunday. Read ahead for notes on a masterful coaching day, a rare win in the turnover column, and statement games from guard John Urschel and cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
1. After the Ravens played the Jacksonville Jaguars to a tense home victory, coach John Harbaugh said the team's best game was still in front of them. They'll still need to summon better, but they certainly found the best game of the season to this point in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The offense was steady and sound, grinding out steady gains on the ground and letting quarterback Joe Flacco get chunks down the field. The defense kept the Steelers' big, fast receivers in front of them for all but one play. All told, the 2014 Ravens played their best game of the year when they needed it most, and now, they enjoy the spoils.
2. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak helped the offense find a balance that had been lacking over the last month, with as close to an even run-pass split they've had since their win over the Miami Dolphins. As we saw last week, it all kind of worked together -- some big passes opened up the run in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns -- but this week, the willingness to do both made every play unpredictable. Yes, Flacco played well. He was accurate down the field, felt pressure well, and stood in the pocket that extra second to plant his feet and make the throw. But in a game where all the coaching deserves to be put on a pedestal, Kubiak's game plan stands out.
3. On the other hand, there's Dean Pees, who had as close to a full deck as he has been able to play with all season. It showed. The Ravens' defensive front was relentless even as Pittsburgh ran 72 plays. The numbers won't reflect well on the secondary, but they limited big plays and allowed just one touchdown after six on the last trip to Pittsburgh. And his blitz call on Terrell Suggs' interception was perfectly called and executed. The same concerns about the back end might linger into next week against the New England Patriots, but until then, Pees and his charges deserve time to enjoy this.
4. Steelers tight end Heath Miller's late fumble was the third turnover of the game forced by the Ravens. The Ravens have only forced three turnovers in a game one other time this season -- the Week 2 win over Pittsburgh -- and only won the turnover battle five times on the season to begin with. All three Steelers turnovers came in the fourth quarter, when the entire world seemed to be bracing for a comeback by Ben Roethlisberger that never really came. And not included in that total was Matt Elam's pick on the two-point conversion attempt, which was sneaky important as well. This team hasn't lived and died by the turnovers, but in this case, they were all pretty big.
5. I couldn't find a way to fit fifth-year safety Darian Stewart into last week's story on the veterans either returning to the postseason after a long layoff or making the playoffs for the first time, but he played big Saturday. His interception in the end zone more or less sealed the victory, but his shove in that same end zone two quarters earlier that prevented a touchdown by Antonio Brown was perhaps more important. It could have been his best game with the Ravens.
6. To that note, it was nice of the Ravens to want to make the playoffs for 11-year veteran linebacker Daryl Smith. It was even nicer of Smith to come up as big as he did, with a game-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble in the victory. He was on the bad end of some plays in pass coverage, but on a defense where a lot of people rightfully get credit, he's one who simply doesn't get enough.
7. Recently-returned defensive tackle Haloti Ngata filled it up in his return to action after a four-game suspension for Adderall, with a first-quarter sack, a pair of tackles, a pass defense and another quarterback hit. He and nose tackle Brandon Williams collapsed the pocket on multiple occasions, and the front seven can still improve if rookie tackle Timmy Jernigan can return Saturday against the Patriots, who have struggled in pass protection on the interior of their offensive line.
8. For the second straight game, the right side of the Ravens' offensive line, with rookie John Urschel at guard and Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle, has been strong. The pair provided the push on Flacco's fourth-down sneak in the fourth quarter, an honor the television analysts gave to Yanda but which really belonged to Urschel. They also didn't allowed only one quarterback hurry between them, according to Pro Football Focus, giving the quarterback time to set his feet and throw down the field. Not only do the Ravens have a keeper down the road in Urschel, but they might have the best combination for that right side of the line in these playoffs.
9. Second-year cornerback Rashaan Melvin said this week that he's too young to worry about who the other quarterback is -- his own game gave him enough to think about. But in his first game against a Pro Bowl quarterback, Melvin certainly looked the part. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed five catches on seven targets for 39 yards, limiting Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant when he was on Melvin's side. It will be interesting whether he's given the big, physical Brandon LaFell or the shiftier Julian Edeman next week, but either way, Melvin has earned his spot out there and could be a long-term answer at cornerback.
10. For the second straight week, I can wear my nice clothes to the "Three-star Accountability Corner," which is to say no one is throwing rotten food at me here for my pregame picks for the three stars of the game. My first star of the game, Flacco, came through for 260 yards and two scores -- not exactly the lofty 280 and three I predicted, but he got the job done. Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, as I said, didn't meet his own lofty standards, but caught nine balls for 117 yards and missed his first postseason touchdown by about six inches. And his counterpart, Steve Smith, was probably the second best Ravens player on offense all day. He didn't score, but caught five balls for 101 yards and brought some fire the offense had been lacking in the last month. Plenty of defensive players deserve a nod here, but it was always going to be offense-heavy day, and these guys proper earned the plaudits I gave them before the game.