1. There is nothing wrong with conceding that Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren't the players they once were. I don't even think that statement is really all that controversial. No man can outrun the steady march of time, not even the two greatest defensive players of this era. But in a way, I'm more fascinated watching Reed and Lewis now than I was when they were both in their prime. Because they're both still capable of conjuring up a little magic. There is something admirable about watching a great lion dig deep and mount one final, furious charge. Perfection is unnecessary. All that matters is that you live to fight another day.
If you watch sports long enough, one common thread you're bound to pick up on is that the ability to live in semi-denial about whether or not you've lost half a step is a crucial part of being a great athlete. When Michael Jordan grinded out the last two years of his basketball career with the Wizards, he could not run or jump the way he once could. His knees ached, his shooting touch abandoned him at inopportune times, and he frequently looked mortal. For a lot of people, it was kind of sad to watch. It made people uncomfortable. Most of us wanted to remember Jordan for what he was during his career with the Bulls, the epitome of jaw-dropping athletic brilliance.
It never seemed to bother Jordan that much though, at least on the surface. And certainly not in the heat of competition. Because there were some nights when he felt like he was 30 years old again. When no matter how sore his knees were, he still pump-faked, head-faked and posted up his way to a big scoring night that helped his team win a basketball game. I loved watching those games, because even though transcendent athletic grace is a beautiful thing to watch, there is something even more interesting, at least to me, about watching truly great athlete try to close the gap between "who I was then" and "who I am now" with little more than desire and savvy to fuel the struggle.
To me, that was the thrill of watching Reed and Lewis in the Ravens' 20-13 win over the Texans on Sunday. This wasn't a pretty game. It wasn't a performance you'd want to frame and hang in your living room. But there was definitely a question hanging in the air at M&T Bank Stadium that a lot of people were thinking, even though very few of us wanted to say it out loud:
What if this is the last time Baltimore gets to watch Lewis and Reed play football together in this stadium?
Lewis doesn't like to spend time pondering such things. If you listened to him on Sunday, you got the impression he thinks he might even have a few years left after this one. He's still having too much fun playing to think about walking away.
"It's kind of hard to think about Father Time," Lewis said. "I don't have time to think about 'when it's time to do this' or 'when it's time to do that.' When it's over, it's over. Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end. Those are the stories that you'll always remember."
Reed has always been a little different. It's one reason why he's been the effective yin to Lewis' yang for more than a decade. Football matters a great deal to Reed. He has a lot of pride, and he loves the camaraderie he shares with his teammates. But football doesn't really define him. You can tell, when you listen to him, that he knows he has a finite number of Sundays left. Asked in the post-game press conference about some of the recent criticism that's been directed at him, columns suggesting he's not the dynamic playmaker he once was, Reed briefly defended himself, then shrugged and conceded some of it might be true. I couldn't help but notice in that moment that some of his hair has already gone a little prematurely gray.
"The picks haven't been coming because they don't throw my way as much," Reed said. "You've got to watch the football game and understand what's going on. But like I said, I missed a couple of tackles leading up to this game. It happens. It's part of the game. I'm also getting old. At one point, I won't be up here. You'll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore."
As different as they are, there is one thing about Lewis and Reed that is exactly the same: they played football on Sunday like they're aware, in the back of theirs minds, that this might be their last real chance to win a Super Bowl. This team might be flawed, and Lewis and Reed might contribute to some of those flaws, but what does that matter now? You can't roll back time. There is no one on the roster who could replace them in the lineup. They can only fight like hell to summon whatever it is they have left.
Lewis flew around the field against the Texans, and he missed some tackles, but he also made quite a few, including a key stop in the fourth quarter on a screen pass. Reed had a bit of an uneven game as well. He made a great tackle in the first half on a third down to force a punt, but he also couldn't reel in two interceptions that five years ago he would have easily snagged.
Every time the ball was in the air, however, Reed ignored the potential for injury or pain and sold out his body trying to intercept a T.J. Yates pass. And in the final minutes, when the team desperately needed him to make a play to bail out the offense, he snagged a clutch interception at the goal line and held onto the ball even though his ankle got violently twisted when he fell.
He hobbled off the field, with Ray Lewis of all people helping him get to the sidelines, and by the time he reached the locker room, he'd already declared himself fit to play next week against the Patriots.
"The confidence that we have in each other, I think, is more overwhelming than you can ever imagine," Lewis said of Reed, when asked about the bond they share.
Defensive artistry has always been somewhat difficult for football fans to appreciate and embrace. It's not as obviously beautiful as a Tom Brady spiral, or a Calvin Johnson fingertip touchdown catch. There is a reason the league has changed the rules, in recent years, to emphasize offense. It's easier for fans to process, to get excited about. But in Baltimore, defensive wizardry is kind of all we really know. I suppose it's what we've been destined to watch for the last 16 years, even though great defense and mediocre offense sometimes feels less like a blessing and more like a curse. I was thinking a lot about all this today as I walked to the stadium.
Just before the player introductions, I slipped out of the press box, ducked through the concourse and walked into the stands. It's something I haven't done in a long time, but I wanted to do it Sunday. The pressbox can feel so sterile sometimes. It's like watching a football game in a classroom, and sometimes it's good to get outside again away from the laptop.
There are a lot of people in other cities who can't stand Ray Lewis' pre-game dance. And on some level, I guess I understand why they feel that way. I've gone back and forth over the years on whether I like one player singling himself out like that. But I wanted to see Ed and Ray run out of the tunnel together, back-to-back, just in case this was the last time it ever happened. I wanted to take a second to absorb, one more time, the connection they both have with this city.
When they finally busted through the smoke and fireworks, the roar was so enormous, I could feel the vibrations in my chest. I don't know what either of them was thinking in that moment. Maybe they weren't thinking about anything in particular, other than the Texans. Maybe they have no intention of retiring any time soon. But in that moment, I think I know how most of the Ravens fans in that stadium -- and many of them watching at home -- felt.
If this is the final charge, all you can do is enjoy it. All we can do is soak up whatever time there is left.
2. The offensive line has to play better next week if the Ravens are going to advance to the Super Bowl.
I'm a little burned out on the weekly Joe Flacco arguments, to be frank, and I think readers are, too. I feel like the past two weeks have been Flacco overkill. God bless my friends who work in talk radio because it continues to fill the airwaves and drive ratings, but I think the discussion requires a little more nuance at this point, a surgeon's touch if you will, and most people can't resist using a hammer instead. ("JOE IS ELITE!!!" or "NO, HE SUCKS!") As soon as Flacco cracked a joke last week about not getting any credit when the Ravens win, and getting ripped for throwing the ball every time they lose, I knew this town was going to get a serious case of the vapors. Arguing over Flacco has become about as fun as arguing with a door. We need a little break, at least in this column.
Instead, let's talk about the offensive line, which got bullied and bludgeoned on Sunday. I don't know what happened, but they had a really difficult time picking up stunts, and they got whipped in short yardage. Even Marshal Yanda, arguably the most reliable Raven at any position this year, didn't have a very good day. J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed are rookies, and they combined for five sacks, 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, and five quarterback pressures on Sunday. (Guess how many sacks and quarterback pressures Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata combined for? One, a pressure by Ngata.)
The Ravens' blocking during short yardage runs was ugly, and that's putting it kindly. I actually completely agree with John Harbaugh's decision to go for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but the Ravens can't run a play where the Texans' best linebacker, Brian Cushing, is able to run downhill at Rice unblocked. It was a great play by Cushing, but if someone gets even a little piece of him, it's probably a touchdown. Instead, Cushing made the perfect form tackle. The Ravens are lucky that didn't cost them the game.
It's clear the Texans have a great defense. They played some great football. And the offense did get bogged down by some dropped passes in the first half. But dropped passes don't account for the fact that the Ravens rushed for 2.8 yards per carry, and they don't account for five sacks either. The Patriots didn't have a great defense this year, but they did have 40 sacks, which is more than the Pittsburgh Steelers had, and it's more than the Titans, Jags, Seahawks and Chargers had, four teams that gave Baltimore trouble. I know some of the offensive line is banged up and playing through pain, but they need to give Flacco a chance next week, so at the very least we can have a real debate about him again.
3. The amount of pressure on Cam Cameron this week is going to be enormous. And frankly, it should be.
I've said for two seasons that it's really hard to evaluate Cameron and the job he's doing, because we don't get to watch the coaches film, we don't know how much Flacco is audibling, and to be fair, Cameron knows a lot more about football than any armchair internet columnist like me. It would be silly to argue otherwise. All we can really judge is the results, because football is a results-oriented business.
Well, the results on Sunday were mediocre. At best.
Sure, the Ravens were able to win, and ultimately that's all that matters in the playoffs. This isn't Dungeons and Dragons, and no one earns experience points for an impressive victory. But I think we can go ahead and say if the Ravens go seven consecutive possessions without getting points against New England, which is what they did against the Texans during a span that lasted the 2nd, 3rd and most of the 4th quarter, they'll lose by at least two touchdowns. The Pats are just too good to have a dry spell that long.
Harbaugh mentioned after the game that the Texans were in an all-out run blitz a lot of the time, and Flacco kept audibling into passing plays, which explains some of the head-scratching short-yardage calls. But one way or another, the Ravens have to figure out a way to convert more of those third-down plays. If the Patriots walk eight men up to the line of scrimmage, then maybe try to throw the ball to Dennis Pitta over the middle instead of launching a pass down the sidelines to Torrey Smith. One way or another, get Pitta more involved, since he's the only guy on offense who never drops a pass.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret -- the Ravens are going to have a lot of trouble covering New England's two stud tight ends. New England doesn't go vertical like the Chargers did, but those two tight ends destroy linebackers and safeties when they get the ball in space, and pass coverage from the Ravens linebackers hasn't exactly been a strength this season. Cameron and Flacco and Rice are going to have to put up points if the Ravens want to win. This isn't the era of Trent Dilfer, so don't invoke his name this week. Baltimore isn't going to be able to win simply by handing it off, or by playing field-position football. They're going to have to match the Patriots a few times score-for-score, and then create turnovers. They can't afford to get stuffed on 3rd-and-1 multiple times and let Tom Brady have extra chances. The defense will get worn down too quickly.
I know the Ravens pride themselves on playing great defense, and I suppose it's possible Bernard Pollard could blitz through the line of scrimmage on the first series and knock Tom Brady out for the rest of the game. But that's unlikely to happen. And if it does, Roger Goodell will probably force the Ravens to forfeit while he hurries to Kraft's luxury box to dry Gisele's tears.
I still think Baltimore needs to put up 28 points, minimum, to get to the Super Bowl. That's not unrealistic. It's something they've done six times this year, although one of those games was against the Jets, where the defense scored three touchdowns, so it's really more like five. But New England scored at least 30 points in 13 games this year, if you count Saturday's thrashing of the Broncos. And while it's true the Patriots played a softer schedule this year than the Ravens, the chances of Baltimore winning a 17-14 game in New England feel microscopic.
This is going to be the moment that either makes or breaks Cameron as the Ravens' offensive coordinator. That may sound harsh, but that's how this business works. Steve Bisciotti said he liked the idea of Cameron "under fire" at the end of last season, and now we've arrived at the furnace. Get to the Super Bowl, and you'll almost certainly be back next year. Fall short, though, and I think we all know what's likely to happen.
4. The fact that the Ravens didn't commit a single penalty on Sunday should be worn like a badge of honor.
If you would have told me in 2009 -- right after the Ravens were flagged 11 times totaling 113 yards in a 23-20 regular-season loss to the Steelers -- that Baltimore would ever play a penalty-free game in the playoffs under John Harbaugh, I'd have scoffed. Those Ravens teams were so undisciplined and sloppy, it looked like mistakes in key moments would always be their undoing.
It seems clear now that it simply took Harbaugh some time to not only weed out some players who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- play his brand of football, but it also took the Ravens some time to shed that reputation as undisciplined. A reputation earned, I might add, by doing stupid stuff like throwing a flag into the stands in protest after a call. (I'm looking in your direction, Bart Scott.) The referees remember that kind of stuff. If a team commits a lot of holding penalties, or late hits on the quarterback, what are the officiating crews going to be told to pay attention to prior the game? It's a self-perpetuating cycle.
I think it's obvious Lardarius Webb has had a great season, one of the best seasons a Ravens corner has had in a number of years. He has such good hands, I half wonder if the Ravens should run him out on offense occasionally, the way the Cowboys used to use Deion Sanders. (I'm mostly kidding here, as Webb is much too valuable as a corner to risk injuring him on offense, but if it motivated the Ravens' receivers to stop dropping balls, I wouldn't rule it out.) But as good as Webb has been at hawking the ball when it's in the air, what's just as impressive is how few penalties he -- and Cary Williams, frankly -- have committed this year. It's hard to get cheap penalty yards against Baltimore, which wasn't the case when Frank Walker was drawing three illegal contact penalties a game.
Even Michael Oher, who had all kinds of problems with false starts earlier in the year, has quietly made that problem go away. Even if this team does get beat by New England next week, at least we know it's not likely to happen because they beat themselves with dumb mistakes.
5. Terrell Suggs has talked a lot about how badly he wants to touch the confetti in Indianapolis this season, and I've done my best over the past four months to explain why I think he deserves to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. So I don't feel like I'm picking on him at all when I say this: He needs to step up his game a notch.
There aren't a lot of rivalries left in the NFL where the dislike truly feels mutual. So many players share the same agents, they schmooze with one another at the Pro Bowl, or they pray together after games, that sometimes I feel like the NFL has lost a bit of the edge it used to have. Half the young players in the league consider Ray Lewis to be sort of a quasi-father figure, for heaven's sake.
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But that's not the case with Tom Brady and Terrell Suggs. I really do believe they don't like one another, that the distaste is mutual and genuine. Suggs has never forgotten the play two years ago when he brushed Brady's thigh and Brady responded by pointing to his knee, whining to the referee, and pumping his fist when Suggs was flagged for a illegal hit under what might as well be called "The Brady Rules" -- where you can no longer tackle a quarterback anywhere below the waist. Suggs has a lot of respect for Brady as a player, but in his mind, whining for a flag like that was a dishonorable act.
Brady, on the other hand, doesn't like the way Suggs can't seem to stop talking about him, and when you throw in the fact that Brady tried to throw a low block on Suggs when he wasn't looking the next time the two teams met, well, that's how you end up with one of the game's best, and most genuine, rivalries.
All that said, Suggs is going to have to play at the absolute highest level of his career on Sunday if Baltimore is going to win. He can't turn in a ho-hum performance like he did against Houston where he didn't once get to the quarterback. He has to play one of the best games of his career, a game like the one Ray Lewis played against the Titans in 2000 when he broke Eddie George's spirit. This might not be Suggs' team yet, but he's the Ravens' best defensive player now. And he can't let a man who wears Ugg Boots get the best of him, or he might never live it down.
As Baltimore native Josh Charles -- a fine actor, in addition to being a die-hard Ravens fan -- tweeted on Sunday night, it's "Suggs vs. Uggs for the AFC Championship."
Sounds like a heck of a lot of fun.