Five thoughts on the Ravens' 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Day's Best Moment Was Unscripted
There were several scripted moments that helped make Ray Lewis' final home game memorable, including his impassioned speech to his teammates when they gathered around him after their pregame warm-ups, and of course, the final rendition of his introductory "Squirrel Dance," which brought the house down. But the day's best moment, certain to become part of Baltimore lore, was completely unscripted. After the final gun, Lewis circled the field acknowledging the fans who had roared for him for, in some cases, 17 years. It was a replay of Cal Ripken's unplanned but unforgettable Victory Lap on the night of 2,131, which Lewis said he watched, and like Cal's lap, it crystallized what occasions such as this really are all about: a city's fans saying thanks for the happiness an athlete has brought to their lives. "It wasn't about one guy," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the day. "It was about a team, a city, a fan base, a great career." You can't say it better than that.
Antidote For Mistakes Was Big-Play Offense
The Ravens made enough mistakes to put themselves in danger of losing. They committed nine penalties, continuing a season-long trend. Ray Rice fumbled away a pair of scoring chances. Lewis dropped a gift-wrapped interception. The defense unfathomably allowed the Colts to complete a long pass and kick a field goal just before halftime. Combine that with the efficiency of the Colts offense, which controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes, and you have the recipe for defeat. But in fact, the Ravens led most of the way and were almost always in control. The antidote for their mistakes was a big-play offense, which spun out gains of 50, 47, 46 and 43 yards (all but one of which set up a touchdown) as well as four more gains of 20 or more yards. The Colts couldn't match that, and in fact, barely even tried to throw far downfield. For that matter, few teams make that attempt in this era of possession passing games. But the Ravens can go deep because of Joe Flacco's big arm, and they do take their shots. Fans complain about it at times because it's not an efficient approach, but it knocked the Colts out Sunday.
OK, here's your runaway winner of the jaw-dropping stat of the day: the Colts' offense ran 87 plays without scoring a touchdown. Eighty-seven! Do you realize what a ridiculous number that is? The Ravens' opponents averaged 67 plays during the regular season. The New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals combined to run 94 in the Ravens' last two regular season games. The Colts basically had the ball all day, yet weirdly, they also really never threatened to put it in the end zone. That's the kind of defense the Ravens have played down the stretch this season, not dominating as they did in the old days, yet not yielding easily, either. It's a savvy approach, typical of a veteran unit, and it's the style the Ravens will take to Denver next week. Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Broncos had their way in Baltimore last month, but the Ravens defense has tightened some things up since then and could be in line for a better showing.
Tweaked Run Game Could Be Difference In Denver
Speaking of Denver, all anyone seemingly remembers about that December game (a 34-17 win for the Broncos) was the symbolic pick six that Flacco threw, which ended with him lying face-down near the goal line. But you want to know what really threw the Ravens off stride that day? Denver stopped their running game cold, limiting it to 56 yards on 19 attempts. No other defense has come close to doing that to Baltimore this season. But the Ravens will throw a different-looking running game at Denver this time. Bernard Pierce has emerged as a seriously dangerous No. 2 behind Rice. (He has been the team's leading rusher for three straight games.) And the line was reshuffled Sunday, with veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie finally getting a shot and seemingly holding up well, Michael Oher switching to his better (right) side and Kelechi Osemele moving to guard. The Ravens have to be able to run the ball better to have a chance.
When Lewis Was Drafted …
The enormity of the end of Lewis' career hit me at the end of the day, an hour after the game, as Lewis finished up his group interview with a roomful of national reporters. Urged by Kevin* *Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations, Lewis recounted the day he joined the organization, when he was drafted in 1996. The team had just moved from Cleveland and had never even played a game in Baltimore. When the Ravens' Ozzie Newsome called to tell him about being drafted, he asked Newsome what the team was going to be called. Imagine that: Lewis' career with the Ravens started before they were even called the Ravens. He has truly been there for it all. Going forward without him will feel strange, but this was the day to toast the kind of longstanding relationship between a player and a city that seldom exists anymore, not in this era of free agency. It was an epic saga, never to be repeated. Well done, fifty-two.