1. A team that's been plagued all year by inconsistency may, after Thursday night, have finally sharpened its focus for good.
If we've learned anything about the Ravens this year, it's that it's dangerous to make any kind of definitive statements about them after wins or losses. Just when you're ready celebrate their dominance, they regress. And just when you're ready to write them off as serious contenders, they shine. So I'm fully aware that what I'm about to say has a very real chance of looking ridiculous if they saunter into Cleveland 10 days from now and stumble against one of the NFL's worst teams. But I'm going to roll the dice and say it anyway, because I feel like in my gut it really might be true.
This team is finally ready to play good football every time they step on the field.
That doesn't mean they won't lose again. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they lost to San Diego in three weeks, because as bad as Philip Rivers has looked this year, he's exactly the kind of quarterback who can give them fits if he has a good day. But I'm going to take a leap of faith with John Harbaugh & Co. and guess that there won't be anymore listless performances where they sleepwalk through the first half on offense and go through the motions on defense in the fourth quarter. Or ones where they abandon their game plan after one quarter. This team has flaws, and they may still be their undoing, but the Ravens also have too much talent to drop games the way they've lost them this year. If nothing else, it would be satisfying if their effort was as relentless as it was against the San Francisco 49ers, and they were mentally sharp the rest of the way.
In politics, there is a phrase people use when a candidate finally connects with an audience on the campaign trail. It represents the moment when everything starts to come together, the hard work begins to pay off, and people take you seriously. It's when a candidate finally figures out exactly what his strengths are, and he plays to them. It's called finding your voice.
I think over the last 10 days, the Ravens have finally found their voice.
I think playing two games in 10 days, and playing without their emotional leader and defensive patriarch in Ray Lewis actually helped them get here in some respects. It forced everyone, including the coaching staff, to focus on the basics. This team is built to play violent, fast, disciplined football, and they certainly have played that way for the most part. But when they've struggled, it's because they let other teams dictate the action. Jacksonville and Seattle decided to focus on taking away the run, and the Ravens responded by ... throwing the ball. Intellectually, that seems like the right strategy, because you should have a match-up advantage if teams are going to take away Ray Rice. But against Cincinnati and San Francisco, the Ravens put the onus on their opponents. It wasn't perfect, especially in the red zone, but if I had to sum up Baltimore's strategy in the last two games, it would be something like this: The hell with what you want to do, we're going to focus on us, and it's up to you to stop it.
On Thursday, that meant slamming Ray Rice into the line repeatedly, even when San Francisco walked the safety up to the line of scrimmage. That meant forcing Alex Smith to run for his life, even though he occasionally slipped free and make a few plays. Because if you impose your will long enough, it doesn't matter if you take a few punches. Eventually the stronger, more aggressive team is going to win. The 49ers are a good team. It was impressive the way they traveled all the way across the country on short rest and butted heads with the Ravens in front of a raucous home crowd. They are physical and strong at the point of attack, and they're disciplined in gap responsibility. Jim Harbaugh is a great coach. But the Ravens were the more talented team, and when you have more talent, you win games by wearing the other guy down. So even though he may drive you nuts, espcially near the goal line, give the offensive coordinator some credit for once.
"I thought Cam Cameron called a winning game plan," John Harbaugh said. "You talk about discipline and sticking to the plan and staying patient when he had to against this team. I think Cam deserves a lot of credit. And Chuck Pagano deserves a lot of credit for doing the same. He stayed patient. He called pressure when he needed to call pressure. He called coverage at the right time to not give them the opportunity for a big play."
They way the Ravens are going to take a real run at the Lombardi Trophy is by imposing their will. It's a little cliche, a little bit macho, but when you have a great player like Ray Rice, and you have as much depth on defense as they do, it's the truth. They need to say to other teams, if you're going to take away what we do best, then you're going to have to earn it. Every inch of it. You're not going to scare us or trick us out of moving forward, moving forward and furiously throwing jabs.
"We've always had focus," said Terrell Suggs after a three sack performance. "Sometimes our game plan gets away from us and we've given away a few games. So, as long as we always keep the game plan in our grasp and do what we do best, play Ravens football, feed every defense a lot of Rice, I think we've got a good chance of making a good run at this thing."
2. The strength of the Ravens pass rush is not only their talent, but also their depth.
I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I say the Ravens pass rush had an outstanding night. When you tie the franchise record with nine sacks, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves. But the way the Ravens went about getting pressure was impressive. You have to believe this is the kind of pass rush that Ozzie Newsome envisioned when he put this team together. The Ravens now have 38 sacks on the year, which is the most in the NFL. Just to put that into perspective for a moment, they had a total of 27 the entire regular season a year ago.
Suggs was obviously the most relentless Raven with three sacks, but he had a lot of help. Haloti Ngata appears to be almost back to 100 percent after battling injuries. He had two sacks, two hurries and a tackle for loss, and unlike Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, he didn't try to stomp anyone while they were still on the ground, which to me kind of seals the argument for which defensive tackle I'd rather have over the next five years.
Corey Redding (2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries) continues to be the Ravens' most underrated player on defense. He catches some grief for not getting more pressure as a rusher, but in the 3-4 defense, he's been a great fit, sacrificing a lot of personal glory to keep contain and open up lanes for other players. But the main reaspm tje Ravens have improved so much in getting to the quarterback this year is the improved play of guys like Paul Kruger and the addition of Pernell McPhee.
Kruger's commitment to become a better player physically and mentally this season is obvious. He'll be the first to admit he's been able to make the leap by fully grasping that playing in the NFL is a full-time, year-round job. The talent has always been there, but now he's putting in the work as well. And McPhee is emerging as one of the Ravens best late-round steals ever.
It's fun to watch Pagano just keep sending his guys at quarterbacks in waves. Occasionally, they're going to get beat. It seems pretty clear the Ravens were bailed out when the refs called a very questionable chop block which negated a 75-yard touchdown to Ted Ginn. But it still feels like the right strategy to be aggressive and try to fluster the other team. The Ravens' secondary is playing well enough right now that if I were Harbaugh, I'd tell Pagano one thing: When in doubt, bring the heat. (Especially against Cleveland and Indianapolis.)
Of course, so much of it comes back to Suggs. With apologies to Ngata, Suggs is still the Ravens most talented player on defense. I didn't get a chance to do it after the game, but I kind of wanted to tease him a bit and ask if Ball So Hard University had been on Fall break the last few weeks. After calling him the most complete defensive player in the NFL and stating that he should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year honors earlier in the season, he made me look like I'd spoken a bit too soon after turning in a couple of quiet performances recently. But he came back with a vengeance against the 49ers, terrorizing Alex Smith and blowing up run plays right and left.
"It has been a little while but it’s the NFL," Sugg said. "I would love to line up every day and get three sacks, I would love that. But it’s the NFL. It’s not going to happen like that. Some teams are going to scheme and key me. But the number one thing is that we win. I got down on myself. I was hard on myself like, ‘Why ain’t I getting them? Why ain’t I getting them?’ But there’s a lot of guys with a lot of sacks with a team that’s not very good and a team that doesn’t have a chance with the playoffs. But, here I am. I have some sacks, and my team is 8-3, and we’re going on a playoff run."
3. If you don't think Joe Flacco's played a great game on Thursday, it's probably because fantasy football has warped your perspective of what a great performance is.
If you didn't watch the game Thursday (maybe you ate too much turkey and slept through the entire thing) you might look at Flacco's stats and decide he played OK, but obviously didn't do anything particularly special. When a guy goes 15-of-23 for 161 yards and a touchdown, it doesn't exactly jump off the page. I looked it up in my Yahoo fantasy league. It was good for a grand total of 13 points.
But I thought Flacco was exceptional on Thursday. I think he threw one pass all night that I'd categorize as a bad throw. He was accurate, he was smart with the football, he didn't take a single sack, and he was clutch when he needed to be. Seven of his completions came on third down, and he knew he was going to have to make plays in those situations because the Ravens were determined to keep feeding Ray Rice the ball on first and second downs.
“When you have that kind of game plan, your line being so efficient on third downs, you have to come through," Flacco said. "We had a lot of guys come through for us and just made some big plays in those situations.”
His touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta -- on 3rd-and-goal from the 8 yard line -- was one of my favorite throws he's made all year because not only did he have to fit it through a small window, he had to throw the ball before Pitta came open and trust that he was going to get between the linebacker and the safety. (Remember when he used to avoid throwing over the middle like the plague?) That throw made it 13-6 and capped off a 16 play drive that chewed 7:34 off the clock.
Like the majority of football fans, I love fantasy football. I've been playing for more than a decade. But I do truly believe it's skewed our perspective a bit when we evaluate what passes for a good performance from a quarterback. You can't evaluate football stats the way people evaluate baseball stats. Leadership, patience and knowing when to take risks are really difficult, if not impossible, to quantify with football statistics. Obviously Flacco and Cameron still need to figure out a better red zone approach. I have no idea what either was thinking on that quarterback draw. It was a weird call, and Flacco ran it like he was a flamingo trying to tip-toe through a herd of wildebeests. But overall, I thought he was very good. Not only was he rocking a ridiculous but awesome Fu Manchu that gave the Ravens a fitting theme for the night -- Winning Ugly -- he even inspired Jameel McClain to give one of the most absurd, yet funny quotes of the year.
"Joe Flacco for President, and the offensive line is the vice president," McClain said when asked what he thought of the offense.
Matt Stafford, by the way, threw three interceptions Thursday but was good for 19 fantasy points.
4. There aren't many Ravens playing better right now than Lardarius Webb.
If you want to look for silver linings from last year's playoff meltdown against the Steelers -- I know it's not easy, but bear with me for a second -- maybe it wasn't such a bad thing Webb got burned by Antonio Brown on that 3rd-and-19 that set up the winning touchdown. Because it appears no defensive player came back in 2011 more motivated than Webb to prove he was ready to play well and erase the memories of 2010.
If you watch the replay of Webb's interception at the end of the first half, watch how Braylon Edwards is yanking on Webb's dreadlocks as he hauls in the football. Not even a little hair pulling was going to break his concentration from making a big play.
“I mean, it was simple. He tried to go deep. They tried to big boy me, you know, put a tall guy [against me]," Webb said. "And I played it well, but he had to get the ball out right then [because of the pass rush], so it made it easy on me.”
Webb has always been fun to watch because, thanks to the fact that he actually played safety in college, he's probably one of the most physical tacklers in the league at the cornerback position. But this year, he's combined that physical play with great technique in pass coverage, and he's been one of the team's most consistent players.
It's interesting how, at the beginning of the year, the Ravens corners were their biggest question mark. Webb and Cary Williams haven't been perfect, but they've definitely held their own. They're two of the reasons the pass rush has improved as well.
5. It's impossible to overstate how badly the Ravens wanted to win this game for John Harbaugh.
John Harbaugh did his best to keep the family dynamics out of his discussions with his team this week. Yes, it was a huge story that two brothers were facing one another for the first time in NFL history, and by kickoff, we'd heard pretty much every family anecdote anyone named Harbaugh could ever remember. But John Harbaugh really wanted his players to focus on beating a 49ers team that came into Baltimore with a 9-1 record. The fact that his own flesh and blood happened to be standing on the other sideline wasn't particularly important in the big picture of the Ravens season. According to a couple players, he only mentioned it once during the week, when he gave a speech to the team about how football teams are like big extended families. They're tribes, really. And while his brother might be on the other sideline, his family -- his tribe -- would be wearing purple and black.
Players, though, are human beings. They understand there were some larger themes swirling below the surface. Think about what it would be like to be John Harbaugh for a second. You've grown up in a football family and you're a good athlete, but your younger brother has always been a little bigger, a little faster and a little stronger. You've had to grind your entire career for some of the things that seemed to come easy for him. You love him deeply, but you've always been eager to carve out your own success. Losing to him would probably sting in ways you'd never want to admit.
That's why I thought the Gatorade bath -- the second the Ravens have given Harbaugh this season -- was kind of cool. Steelers fans are already grumbling that the Ravens are going to regret celebrating regular season victories so exuberantly, that it will somehow come back to haunt them. (I'm not sure I follow the logic there. Somehow the Ravens will be all out of emotion by playoff time? As if you're only allowed a certain amount each season and you must distribute it appropriately? This kind of logic is probably why a lot of Steelers fans are still learning how to use a knife and fork for meals.) What was clear is the Ravens wanted John Harbaugh to know they have his back.
"The whole team," Suggs said, when asked whose idea it was to douse Harbaugh. "We were going
to win the game for him and then we were going to drown him.”
Both Harbaughs handled the entire affair with exceptional class. John Harbaugh doesn't let his guard down very much. (There are times when I think he'd made a great Secret Service agent.) But when someone asked him in the post game press conference what he was thinking as he was walking to midfield to meet his brother Jim, there was obvious emotion in his voice. I was sitting in the front row, just a few feet from him, and he kept fiddling with a notch in the wood on the podium as he gave his answer, his hand trembling the tiniest bit.
"I felt really humble," Harbaugh said. "Really humble. Just thankful. It’s Thanksgiving, and we told our guys there is so much to be thankful for. God has given us a lot to be thankful for, but the main thing he gives us is each other. He gives us our relationships. Running across the field to my brother – he’s my best friend, along with Mom and Dad and my wife. If you put yourself in his shoes, you don’t put yourself in many other coaches’ shoes, but you can put yourself in your brother’s shoes – I’m really proud of him.”