Early in the third quarter Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens up by four points, their offense faced a third-and-19 deep in their end of the field. It appeared the Indianapolis Colts would force a punt and have a good chance to take the lead. The game was up for grabs.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco rolled right and fired a pass far downfield. Anquan Boldin plucked it out of the air for a 50-yard gain.
Although that drive stalled, the Ravens had "flipped the field," pushed the Colts back. When they regained possession a few minutes later, Flacco aimed another majestic long toss for Boldin, who grabbed it for a 46-yard gain that set up a touchdown.
A pair of soaring, deep balls gave the Ravens control of the game, and they could really use a couple more Saturday when they take on top-seeded Denver in the next round of the AFC playoffs. As 9 1/2-point underdogs, they should be in full attack mode.
Sure, they'll also need to run the ball better and move the chains more consistently than they did when the teams met in December, but the Broncos defense is so good, ranked No. 3 in the league against both the pass and run this season, that it's silly to expect the Ravens just to dominate. They're going to need to mix in some big strikes, what the players call "chunk" plays, similar to those that brought down the Colts.
It's an element of the game they're comfortable with, with Flacco having possibly the league's strongest arm as well as an understated gunslinger's mentality. He does dig the long ball.
Almost no other team in the NFL, including Denver, even attempts such passes these days, much less completes them. The deep ball is becoming a lost art in this era of high-percentage "possession" passing games.
I don't get it. Given how games are officiated now, with so much pressure on defensive backs to follow countless rules, I'd be throwing deep all the time, looking for flags as much as for completions. But the Ravens are one of the few teams trying. Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,295 yards this season while attempting only 13 passes beyond 30 yards. Tom Brady rolled up 4,827 passing yards with only 19 attempts that long. Peyton Manning (20) and Matt Schaub (17) seldom threw the ball more than 30 yards.
Flacco, on the other hand, attempted 38 passes that traveled over 30 yards, making him by far the most active long baller of those quarterbacks. Although he completed just eight of those attempts, it was enough to make defenses wary.
"If you can't throw the ball downfield, the defense can suffocate you pretty quickly," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "Yes, Joe does throw the ball really well downfield ... that's just one of his gifts."
You can be sure the Broncos will be looking for it after Sunday's game. Flacco's seven completions of 20 or more yards Sunday matched the second-highest total of his career, and his average of 23.5 yards per completion was the second-highest rate in a playoff game in NFL history.
Making the offense more "explosive" has been the Ravens' goal since Ozzie Newsome stated after a 2010 playoff loss to Pittsburgh that the team needed to score more easily from time to time rather than just grind out points. That declaration led to Torrey Smith being drafted in 2011, and another speedy receiver, Jacoby Jones, was added this year.
They didn't go to all that trouble just to have those guys run decoy "streak" routes.
Ironically, when they did generate the desired explosion Sunday, it was Boldin, a route runner rather than a burner, who did the damage along with backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Rice raced 43 yards with a screen pass, and Pierce broke off a 46-yard run.
The inability to get enough big bangs from those guys was probably part of what led to the late-season change at offensive coordinator. The Ravens offense might not match the league's top units, but it does have big-play guys and a big-armed quarterback.
Understandably, few experts, if any, will give Flacco the edge over Manning Saturday, but the deep game is one area in which Flacco does have the upper hand. It's up to the Ravens to take advantage of that.