Ravens Prove To Nation They're Set For Playoff Run
The Ravens' backs* *were against the wall Monday night.
"They absolutely had to have [the win] to keep pace in the ultra-competitive AFC North division," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson.
The pressure doesn't get more intense in the regular season. You have a banged up secondary against future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Lose, and you're stuck in last place in the most competitive division in football. Win, and you're in second place.
Oh, and the entire nation is watching.
The Ravens responded with an emotional 34-27 win over the Saints, and proved to onlookers that this Ravens squad is a real playoff contender.
"The collapse of the New Orleans Saints' home mystique is one of the stories of this 2014 season, and will probably be the main national talking point coming out of Monday night's NFL doubleheader," wrote NFL.com's Around The NFL Editor Gregg Rosenthal. "I'm a lot more interested in the team that played in the Superdome with a legitimate chance to make noise in January.
"It might take 11 wins for Baltimore to make the playoffs, but we believe they have the squad to pull it off."
That's saying a lot, especially considering the AFC North is making NFL history. This is the first time every team in a division is at least three games over .500 at the end of a week of play, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
AFC North Standings
1) Bengals 7-3-1, next at Buccaneers
2) Ravens 7-4, next vs. Chargers
3) Steelers 7-4, next vs. Saints
4) Browns 7-4, next at Bills
Rosenthal believes the Ravens have the talent and balance to pull off a playoff run. He points to the "vastly improved offense" under Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak. The run game is clicking with a dominant offensive line and surprise running back Justin Forsett. Steve and Torrey Smith are a great receiving duo for quarterback Joe Flacco. The run defense and pass rush from the defensive front is sick.
"The secondary is a problem, and there will be no obvious fixes with Jimmy Smith out for the year," Rosenthal wrote. "But overall this is a defense you can win with. This is a team that can win different styles of games."
And here's the really good thing if Baltimore emerges from the AFC North with a playoff spot, according to ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.
"The great thing about this division, whoever comes out of this is going to be hardened," Dilfer said after the game.
"It's a hard road. You're going to learn a lot about yourself. All your weaknesses, you're going to have to mask. Your strengths are going to have to be maximized. And you're going to go into the playoffs confident you can beat anybody."
Steve Smith Likes To Look Into His Victims' Eyes
We were scratching our heads when the referees signaled a touchdown.
That's because it looked like wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. didn't have a chance to reel in* *the pass for a score early in the first quarter.
But the 35-year-old veteran did. AND he got his derrière in bounds. I guess one cheek = two feet.
Yooooooooooo how the hell — lindsey ok (@lindseyyok) November 25, 2014
Honestly, I don't know. But it was by far the Ravens' best catch of the year. Smith finished the game with four catches for 89 yards and the touchdown, and he was sure to tell the Saints secondary how badly he was beating them throughout the game. "I'm a route technician," he told the ESPN crew after the game. "Anybody can run a go-route. Just like anybody can press. But can you cover? Can you cover these multiple routes that I'm going to run? The answer is no, they can't." Then in the second half, Monday Night Football suddenly turned into WWE's Monday Night Raw. That's because Smith got tangled up in a scuffle with Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro that resulted in this:
Why so much animosity toward Vaccaro?
"That last time we played here I was with Carolina, and I ran a little rub route, and Kenny Vaccaro went directly at me," Smith said during a post-game interview with ESPN. "Ever since then, I told him I was going to get him back.
"I kind of tried this thing this offseason – made a pact with myself – I look in the eyes of all my victims before I take their lunch money."
Smith's victim one-liner quickly became a social media hit, and you can tell retired Ravens linebacker and ESPN analyst Ray Lewis loved it in the video below.
The ESPN crew asked Smith how only Vaccaro got flagged for the altercation,* *and Smith explained that Vaccaro threw a punch while the receiver's retaliation was "within the framework of the game."
"Were you trying to push his head through the turf?" asked Lewis.
"Yes," Smith said with a smile.
"But you love this," fellow ESPN analyst Steve Young said to Smith. "You love being here. You love this team."
"Oh, I love this," the 14-year-veteran replied. "I love just being physical. I love going after guys. I love blocking safeties. … Coach [John Harbaugh] says be yourself because everyone else is taken. I love that.
"The AFC North is like the NFC East. It's tough-man football. It's blue-collar football. That's not a slight. It's facts. And I know it because I'm gonna have to ice up after this game."
Turning Point For The Secondary?
Watch it in slow motion.
It's safety Will Hill's pick-six.
The Ravens secondary allowed Brees to pass for a whopping 420 yards and they* *still need to cut down on the big plays, but it was Hill's interception and return for a touchdown that changed the game. The Saints never fully recovered.
That's why ESPN's Jamison Hensley says the secondary's ability to make more plays like that will be the linchpin in the Ravens' playoff hopes.
"This makeshift defensive backfield is still going to give up plenty of passing yards and a frustrating amount of big plays," Hensley wrote. "The Ravens just have to find it within themselves to push back. What's going to keep the Ravens (7-4) in the ultra-competitive AFC North and a crowded playoff field is showing much-needed fight in the defensive backfield.
"The Ravens are building a physical identity with a bullying ground game and a run defense that doesn't budge. Their glaring weakness is a secondary that starts a converted safety (Anthony Levine) at cornerback and rotates safeties on almost every series. If this secondary can stay competitive, the Ravens will stay in the thick of the playoff race."
Ravens Fans Give 'Super-O' In New Orleans
It was apparent that Ravens fans traveled down to New Orleans in droves, and you could hear them representing during the national anthem, as WSNT captured* *in the video below.
It continued throughout the game. You could hear the Seven Nation Army chant at the end, and ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett tweeted this:
Preston Gives Glowing Grades
Outside of the big plays, it was tough to find a glaring weakness in the Ravens' performance last night, and it showed in The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston's grades:
"Joe Flacco didn't have overwhelming numbers, but he managed a strong game. His biggest asset Monday night was his ability to get rid of the ball quickly under pressure. Flacco knew exactly where he wanted to go with the ball and reacted without doing a lot of thinking."
Running backs: A
"Justin Forsett was outstanding from start to finish. His cuts were excellent, and his patience was superb. He got a lot of yards with good cutback moves. Backup Bernard Pierce was solid, but he still looked a little slow in hitting the hole."
"Steve Smith showed that he is still one of the best in the league despite recent criticism. He could cut down on some of the aggressive antics, but at least he plays with a fire. Torrey Smith had a solid effort, but this was basically the Steve Smith show."
Offensive line: A-
"The Ravens ran the ball extremely well, and there were some huge holes. The Ravens did a nice job at the point of attack and cut off pursuit from the backside. From technical and fundamental standpoints, this was their best game of the season."
Defensive line: A-
"The Ravens shut down Mark Ingram, who was one of the hottest running backs in the NFL. The Ravens controlled the middle of the field and got good push from tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams. More importantly, they gave Drew Brees little room to step up and throw."
"Few teams ever get to Drew Brees, but outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs kept constant pressure on him. It was a good game by both against a quality pass-blocking offensive line. Courtney Upshaw also had a strong game against the run."
"This group actually made some plays, but it still can't be trusted. Safety Will Hill appeared slow at times, but got stronger as the game went on matching up with tight end Jimmy Graham. The Ravens, though, still need major improvement if they want to go deep into the playoffs."
Special teams: B
"Punter Sam Koch was excellent and hit a 73-yard kick. Justin Tucker converted on two field goals, including one of 55 yards in the fourth quarter that gave the Ravens a big lift."
"The Ravens looked like a team coming off a bye week. They played with energy and enthusiasm. They were physical from the start. Gary Kubiak stayed with the running game, and Dean Pees got the maximum out of his pass rush. John Harbaugh didn't even gamble on a short-yardage situation."
- Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees delivered a fiery "reality check" halftime speech to the Ravens. "That's all you can call it," Hill said. "He said we need to tackle, we need to continue to get after the run and said the secondary has to make plays. That was a wake-up call." [ESPN]
- Flacco excelled from deep and against the blitz. His touchdown pass to Steve Smith was his 11th score on a throw of at least 15 yards downfield this season. Only Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has more with 12. Then against the blitz, he completed 13 of 17 attempts for 222 yards and a touchdown. [ESPN]