Five thoughts on the Ravens' 20-10 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Ravens Turn Darkness Into Light
For most of the afternoon, the Ravens were looking at what could only be described as an epic fail. The Kansas City Chiefs were handling the San Diego Chargers, meaning the Ravens only needed to beat the fading Cleveland Browns and an untested rookie quarterback to make the playoffs. But with their offense sputtering badly, they trailed the Browns entering the fourth quarter. A loss in those circumstances would have qualified as one of the franchise's darkest days, a golden opportunity coughed away – at home. But the Ravens turned that darkness into light with a stirring burst of clutch offensive magic that propelled them into the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. Their 10th win of the 2014 season didn't generate many style points, but those don't matter when your options are qualifying for the Super Bowl tournament or having your season end in bitter disappointment, and you make the happier option occur.
Flacco A Real LeaderOne of Ravenstown's never-ending debates (a tired one, in my opinion) is whether quarterback Joe Flacco is worth his big salary. The "nay" crowd didn't have a good day as Flacco led the Ravens to what was, let's face it, their most important win of the year. First, the famously low-key Flacco stunned his teammates by standing up at halftime and delivering a speech "very intensely," according to receiver Torrey Smith. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said he couldn't remember Flacco ever doing that. What Flacco said isn't suitable for children, but his no-nonsense, bottom-line plea about doing your job lit up the locker room. Flacco then went out and backed up his words, completing eight of nine passes in the fourth quarter as he produced three scoring drives that won the game. I'm reminded of one of the great leaders in Baltimore sports history, the Orioles' Frank Robinson. One of his teammates said, "Frank would holler, 'Follow me!' as he headed up to the plate to hit, not when he was coming back to the dugout after making an out." In other words, a lot of guys make a lot of empty noise, but a real leader challenges himself to show his teammates the way, confident he can deliver.
Sometimes It Just Comes Down To One Guy Making A Play
When the Browns carried a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter, the Ravens were officially in desperation mode. They were getting the help they needed in Kansas City, but they couldn't help themselves. It obviously wasn't going to take much for them to overtake Cleveland and make the playoffs, but well, time was starting to run out and someone had to come through, run a punt back, force a turnover, do SOMETHING to get the Ravens going. "And Torrey made a play," Harbaugh said. Flacco spotted single coverage and launched a deep pass for Smith down the left sideline. The pass was underthrown a tad, and Smith, showing his experience, adjusted his route, basically stopped, and outmuscled Joe Haden, the Browns' Pro Bowl cornerback, to grab the ball. Sometimes a game comes down to one guy making a play, and that was the case here. The Ravens took the lead for good one play later on another pass from Flacco to Smith, and the Ravens defense teed off on Connor Shaw, the Browns' rookie quarterback, preventing a Cleveland comeback. The 53-yard pass from Flacco to Smith changed everything.
Defense No Longer Playing Scared
I think I'm safe in saying the Ravens will never face an easier string of opposing quarterbacks as they try to lock up a playoff spot. In their last three games, they faced Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, a rookie; Houston's Case Keenum, a second-year guy who had spent the year on another team's practice squad; and Shaw, another rookie, who had never taken an NFL snap until Sunday. With that in mind, it's kind of hard to gauge what's going on with a Baltimore defense that was under intense scrutiny before seemingly gaining some footing and playing better in recent weeks. Is the improvement simply a function of not facing tough quarterbacks? That certainly helped. Shaw missed several open receivers after the Ravens took the lead in the fourth quarter. But it also appears that the secondary has tightened up with Will Hill and Jeromy Miles settling in as the safeties, Lardarius Webb finally getting back to 100 percent and Rashaan Melvin providing a nice surprise as the cornerback opposite Webb. The playoffs will obviously bring tougher tests, but this is no longer a unit playing scared. In fact, it's playing with confidence after several weeks of success.
No one had a better day on defense for the Ravens than Pernell McPhee, who was all over the field with five total tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits and one pass defended. If McPhee, a pending free agent, wanted to make his last regular-season game a showcase for why the Ravens should find a way to keep him, he succeeded. Great stuff … For most of the day, the Ravens' reshuffled offensive line had a tough time, struggling to open holes. But in the end, Flacco was only sacked once despite heavy pressure from Cleveland, and the running game took off late. For the year, by the way, Flacco was sacked just 19 times, his career low … Kudos to Baltimore native and former Towson Tiger Terrence West, who was an effective ball carrier for the Browns, gaining 94 yards. The Ravens hope the return of Haloti Ngata, who comes off suspension this week, will fortify their run defense in the postseason.
Undrafted rookie Connor Shaw fumbled a snap, and the fortuitous Terrell Suggs pounced.