Five thoughts on the Ravens' 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium:
Flacco No Longer A Wannabe Star
It all started with a single, simple declarative sentence uttered in the locker room at halftime. "We're going to attack more," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. The Ravens were behind by six points at the time, and their offense had spent the first half in an odd kind of torpor, mostly running the ball on first down. "You always want to establish the run. I do think we were a little conservative in the first half, and we realized it," tight end Dennis Pitta said. So understand what happened: When the second half began, the Ravens put the game in Joe Flacco's hands. Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell began throwing on first downs, taking chances with deep routes, challenging New England's coverage. Basically the Ravens asked Flacco to win the game, and he did, putting 21 points on the board in a 10-minute flurry that blew things open. He had help from his line, which tightened up its protection, and his receivers, who basically caught everything, but Flacco's arm and a more aggressive approach turned the game around. It was very much a career-defining moment for Flacco, who outplayed Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in winning successive playoff games. He is no longer a wannabe star. He is there.
Win Sweet For Dean Pees Too
Sure, the result is sweet for Ray Lewis, who gets to end his career in the Super Bowl. It's also sweet for Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, splendid players whose resumes were lacking a Super Bowl appearance. But when compiling the list of who this means the most for, don't leave out Dean Pees. The Ravens' veteran defensive coordinator worked under New England's Bill Belichick and parted ways after a playoff defeat. Replacing popular Chuck Pagano this year, he had a tough assignment. His unit suffered crucial injuries, he took a lot of heat and he had to resort to using young, untested players. It was taken as fact that his 2012 defense wasn't up to the usual Baltimore standard. But he kept patching, kept tinkering, kept plugging, and when a trip to the Super Bowl was on the line Sunday, his unit held Tom Brady without a point in the second half. Pees did a masterful job all season in his low-key way, and beat Belichick in the end to go to the Super Bowl. How very, very sweet it is.
McKinnie Suddenly Crucial To Success
In a corner of the Ravens' happy locker room, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie pulled on a sports coat for the ages, all pastels and plaids and as big as a tent. Now that the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl, we can look back at his insertion into the lineup at the start of the playoffs as a pivotal moment – in its own way just as pivotal as Lewis' "last ride" declaration. The line had struggled badly late in the regular season, but since he has started manning the blind side, pushing Michael Oher to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele to left guard, it has given Flacco all the time he needs to throw. McKinnie's two seasons in Baltimore have been interesting, to say the least. He was almost cut before this season over a salary reduction dispute. He barely got off the bench all season. But suddenly, he's absolutely crucial to the team's success. "Just really glad we won," he shrugged with a smile as big as his jacket. "We couldn't come up here and lose again in this game. Just so glad about how this all worked out."
Ravens Put Fist To Patriots' Chin
It's a bit of a stretch to say the Ravens beat up the Patriots physically as well as on the scoreboard. Remember, the Ravens stopped running the ball after halftime precisely because they were struggling to budge the Patriots' rugged defensive interior. But having said that, the Ravens did put a figurative fist to the Patriots' chins when the game was turning their way. As a New England fan might say, they exhibited a wicked killer instinct. Bernard Pollard's symbolic late-game, fumble-inducing knockout of Stevan Ridley will garner headlines, as well it should. "You will never see a better tackle in football," Harbaugh said. But the Ravens were the tougher team in other ways, such as receivers going up for 50-50 balls. "If you think you're going to come in here and knock us around, you've got another thing coming," receiver Anquan Boldin said.
It's funny, the game was barely over and Harbaugh was already trying to back away from the HarBowl storyline. "We talked about that last year," he said, referring to the hullaballoo that preceded the Ravens' Thanksgiving game against the San Francisco 49ers, who are coached by Jim Harbaugh, John's younger brother. But both boys had better get used to the fact that their meeting in the Super Bowl in two weeks is a big deal and the spotlight on them will be intense. Between them, they have coached seven seasons in the NFL and made five trips to their conference title games. That's pretty good. And considering that their teams share numerous characteristics such as toughness, poise and big-play capabilities, there's definitely a Harbaugh Handbook. You had better believe the 30 other teams will be taking notes in two weeks.