(Owings Mills, MD) — Here are the facts: no road game to start the second season of the NFL 2011-12 campaign, no threat of losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the fourth straight time in the playoffs and earned a bye for the postseason, the first time since the 2006 season.
This formula for the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) appears to be the recipe for postseason success, the ingredients for which the organization was shopping for the past several years.
So, is this the year—the year in which the Ravens, who are deep with talent, youth and experience, can claim the NFL throne and for their fans to raid Pratt Street with happiness on Feb. 5?
On the other hand, will the twisted, nasty gut feeling of a letdown that many fans and members of the media have in their bellies expose itself?
“You don’t want to be the team that just has an 18-game season every year,” said Ravens linebacker Jarrett Johnson. “You don’t want to be the team that is just satisfied with making the playoffs and then goes home early. We appreciate the fact of what we were able to accomplish. We understand that you don’t get this opportunity many times.
“You look at a guy like Dan Marino, Hall of Famer, he went to the [Super Bowl] one time,” he added. “Every year, you can’t take for granted the fact that you are in the playoffs. You have to take advantage of that, because you don’t know if you are ever going to make it again.”
The worry, doubt and disbelief in the Ravens stems from a combination of their offensive woes and disappointing losses, mainly to teams the purple and gold were projected as being better than.
Apparently, the shaky faith in the Ravens’ ability to win is not because of the team, but the questionable thoughts about quarterback Joe Flacco leading them. Compared the gunslingers around the NFL like Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints (to name a few), Flacco had a dry season as he finished with 3,610 passing yards, with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Flacco is not flashy and offer plays it safe—meaning he is not going to gamble for the big play similar to his counterparts around the NFL.
“We’ve got some good ones,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs. “There are some good ones in there, but I’ll put … Me, personally, because I’m biased, I’m on this team, I’ll put him in the top. I’m not going to say which number because of the way you guys twist and turn things.
“But I will put him in the top,” he continued. “I think his play is kind of going to play out, and Joe will show you all where he’s at. We’re only going to go as far as he takes us, and I think there’s no gray area in that. We’re going to ride Joe all the way to Indianapolis.”
Nevertheless, Flacco gets the job done and has displayed his leadership and ability to deliver in time of need during his outstanding four-year career, as the Jersey native takes one win at a time.
“It’s tough to really think about what people are going to make of it if that happens,” said Flacco. “It’s our job—it’s my job as a quarterback—to take it one game at a time, and like I said, put our team in the best chance to win a game, or give us the ball with a chance to win the game at the end of the game. And I think that’s all I can do every week, is come in here and do that and play my best.
“I think when it’s all said and done, yeah, playoffs are a big part of what makes great players, but if we were to think of what would happen if we lose, what would happen if we won, then it would make me [and] it would make our team go out there and play more tentative, because we would be thinking about the results, the fallout of what could possibly happen,” he continued. “And we don’t need to be thinking about that; we need to be thinking on the task ahead, and that’s winning the football game.”
Clearly, Ravens running back Ray Rice is the team’s best offensive weapon, as Baltimore is a ground controlled, power running squad—backed by a physical, pressure defense. Yet, the Ravens will need to capitalize on big plays down the field.
When wide receiver Anquan Boldin was acquired last season via trade from the Arizona Cardinals, he was not signed to the team to pad stats. Boldin was bought to Baltimore for the postseason, to make ‘that catch,’ the play or plays to help get the team over the hump—in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Boldin missed his opportunity last season as he dropped ‘that catch’ in the end zone late in the fourth quarter with 4:02 remaining in the game that would have given the Ravens a 27-24 lead, in hopes of defeating their hated rival Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round.
One year removed former Raven, now Oakland Raiders wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a critical pass as well late in the same game against the Steelers on 4th-and-18 with 1:09 remaining in the contest.
With letdowns by past receivers, due to size, injuries and lack of playmaking abilities, the Ravens were limited in their competitive output, making one-dimensional and predictable plays with a young quarterback.
Now, the Ravens have new pass catchers, none more important than wide receivers Lee Evans and rookie Torrey Smith. Smith has been outstanding for the Ravens this season, as he finished with 841 receiving yards off 50 receptions and seven touchdowns, while Evans has been a bit of a disappointment, largely due to injuries finishing with four catches for 74 yards.
Tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson have been huge against zone defenses, helping to create big plays down the field, and they will continue to be impactful.
Nonetheless, Evans is ready to go, as he understands his true reason for being a part of the Ravens—not to pad stats and be on SportsCenter during the regular season, but to be a deep threat and help win in the postseason.
Does Smith truly know why he was drafted by the Ravens? Smith displayed his talents during the regular season, but it’s showtime now, and according to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Smith is ready for the stage.
“Well, I think Torrey understands that. We’ve talked about a lot of things,” said Ravens head John Harbaugh. “Probably more than anything, I’ve complimented him on the job he’s done. His work ethic is as good as anybody’s. He’s come a long way, but he’s got a long way to go. He’s a factor. He’s going to be a threat in this upcoming game. He’s becoming a heck of a receiver.”
Despite some obvious concerns, this is the Ravens’ best year to, at least, get to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens have a solid running game with Rice, Ricky Williams and Vonta Leach to pound the ball and help sustain drives to keep opposing offenses off the field. The team is loaded with pass catchers who are ready to place their stamp on the league.
On special teams, the Ravens have a punter in Sam Koch to help win the battle of field positioning, have a kicker with a big leg in Billy Cundiff, and have a legendary defense in the making, led by future Hall of Famers in Suggs, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed.
Lastly, if the Ravens don’t get to the Super Bowl, with the cards in their favor knowing they can win at Gillette Stadium if they have to compete against the Patriots on the road due to past success, Charm City’s finest would have no one, no refs, to blame—but themselves.