The shaky, mistake-prone quarterback morphed into a precise passer. An offense that hasn't consistently moved the ball for weeks chewed up yardage at will. A defense that has been giving up ground for much of the season had a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the run.
Nothing the Ravens had done in the past month foreshadowed their 33-14 throttling of the New York Giants on Sunday in front of an announced 71,470, the second-biggest crowd in M&T Bank Stadium history.
Picking a fine time to play their best all-around game of the season, the Ravens overwhelmed the reigning Super Bowl champions in every way. When it was all over, the Ravens celebrated the end of their three-game losing streak, their second consecutive AFC North crown and the right to host a first-round playoff game.
"Like I said last week, we're going to see what kind of team we are," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who broke from a disturbing trend of uneven play to complete 25 of 36 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. "We believe we're this kind of team, and we're really going to see if we are. I think that we showed ourselves and we showed people today that we are that kind of team. We're here to stay, and we just have to do all we can to get better than this throughout the remaining weeks."
If the New England Patriots lose to the Miami Dolphins next week and the Ravens (10-5) beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale, the Ravens could still earn the No. 3 seed and a home date in two weeks against the Bengals, who are locked into the sixth spot. However, a Patriots win or a Ravens loss, and the Ravens would host the fifth-seeded Indianapolis Colts in two weeks.
Those scenarios — and how the Ravens will handle next Sunday's game in Cincinnati if nothing is on the line — will undoubtedly be discussed plenty over the next few days. For now though, the Ravens were consumed not only by their accomplishment — they hadn't won back-to-back division titles in team history — but in the manner of which they obtained it.
"I'm not rating challenges, but I am as proud of this team right now as ever," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team avoided what would have been its first four-game losing streak in his tenure. "We've said this before [but] I love this team, I love every single guy on this team. I love the way they compete, I love the way they work, the way they fight. This is just a really special group of men. How far we take each other, we'll find out [but] for them to earn a championship like this means a lot."
In building a lead of 24-7 at halftime and 33-7 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens set season highs in net yards (533) and rushing yards (224) with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce gaining over 100 each on the ground.
Dominating both lines of scrimmage, they won the time-of-possession battle, 39:21 to 20:39. They held two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Eli Manning to 150 passing yards, with one late meaningless touchdown pass, and sacked him three times. They limited the prolific wide receiver tandem of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to three catches for 21 yards (all by Cruz), and allowed the Giants just 67 yards on the ground.
The Giants (8-7), who now need a ton of help next week to make the playoffs, were supposed to be the more desperate team because the Ravens had already clinched a playoff berth. However, it was the Ravens who played with the necessary urgency.
If the Ravens entered the game looking like one of the more vulnerable teams in the AFC playoff picture, they exited it looking capable of putting a run together in January.
"I just think we had a little bit more sense of urgency because we knew what was at stake," said Rice, who rushed for 107 yards and caught six passes for 51 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown. "This was a championship game for us. Next week, we understand what that game is, but this was the championship for us. This was [to] solidify the home playoff game, back-to-back division champs. That's huge around here. We'll humble ourselves, we'll enjoy this week, and we'll get back to work … but playoff football essentially started today."
After lacking a rhythm for several weeks, the Ravens offense played with confidence, speed and explosiveness. Wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland), who was questionable for the game after suffering a concussion last week, had a 6-yard touchdown catch on the Ravens' first possession and set up Flacco's 1-yard touchdown run on the next drive with a 43-yard catch. Smith beat Corey Webster, who was torched all afternoon, on the big play.
Two drives later, a 39-yard completion from Flacco to Anquan Boldin on third-and-18 set up the first of four field goals by Justin Tucker. On their next drive, Flacco hit Smith for 21 yards and Boldin for 12 before hitting Rice on a slant pattern for the 27-yard score. The play was a microcosm for the game. Flacco had time, stood confidently in the pocket and hit Rice in stride.
"I've always said that [Flacco] handled the pressure better than anybody I've ever seen," Rice said. "We go as Joe goes. Today, everybody just pitched in. Everybody did their job."
Said tight end Ed Dickson: "When Joe is in a zone, he's one of the best quarterbacks. I thought Joe stepped up big and showed a little emotion today. I thought he was in the zone. He was doing the things he does well. He was doing the things we've grown to love about him."
Flacco hit seven receivers and compiled a 114.2 quarterback rating. It was the first time in four games that he passed for more than 300 yards and did not commit a turnover. Flacco had turned the ball over six times over his previous three games but provided plenty of time, he didn't put the ball in harm's way at all against a Giants defense that had made 20 interceptions.
Flacco, who has been under a lot of criticism over the past couple of weeks and has taken accountability for the Ravens' inconsistent ways, shrugged off the idea that he sent a message to his critics and is at his best when his back is against the wall. Instead, he said that he appreciated the pace of the Ravens offense in the second game under new coordinator Jim Caldwell and he credited his offensive line with allowing it. Flacco was not sacked for the third time all season.
"They played great today," he said. "NFL games are won and lost at the offensive and defensive-line positions. When you can have both sides of the ball play as dominant as they did today up front, then you usually give yourself a very good chance of winning."
Aside from seeing a two-touchdown lead cut to 14-7 on rookie David Wilson's 14-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, the Ravens were barely threatened by the Giants, who have now been outscored 67-14 over their past two games.
Unlike his older brother, Peyton, who abused the Ravens defense in the Denver Broncos' 34-17 victory last week, Eli Manning was harassed all afternoon. Even when Manning had a little time to look downfield, the Ravens' much-maligned secondary made big plays.
Chykie Brown, used primarily on special teams, played in the nickel package and had four passes defended. Omar Brown and Brendon Ayanbadejo, two players not used regularly on defense, both had sacks and safety James Ihedigbo, playing in place of the injured Bernard Pollard, had three tackles and two hits on Manning. The 186yards of offense by New York was its second-lowest output of the season.
"It was all about execution at the end of the day and who is going to execute better," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "Our corners played a tremendous game today. We just have to build on it."
As Reed spoke, he put a black hat in front of him adorned with the words: "AFC North champs." That accomplishment seemed like a formality about four weeks earlier.. But after three straight losses, the Ravens finally achieved one of their primary goals. In the process, they finally played in a manner that suggests that they are capable of achieving more.
"Oh, man, this one was good," said linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who returned after missing three games with an ankle injury. "The way the offense was making plays today, and the fact that we are getting guys healthy now, that's going to be the big key for our future heading into the playoffs. If we can keep our guys healthy, we will be good in January."