Monday, December 29, 2008

Ravens Beat Jags, Year in Review & Playoff Outlook

The Ravens secured a playoff berth yesterday by beating the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-7 to finish the 2008 season with a surprisingly solid 11-5 record.

The Ravens gave us fans a small scare after allowing the Jaguars to score an early touchdown, which put the Ravens down 7-3, but the defense re-grouped and didn’t allow the Jags to score again, and the offense dropped 24 unanswered points to close out the celebratory win.

Joe Flacco passed for 295 yards (a career high) and recorded no touchdowns or interceptions. His deep ball was a thing of beauty, but even more beautiful was the sight of Mark Clayton running down those passes to the tune of 128 yards and making some great catches to bail out his QB. Flacco, meanwhile, seems back on track just in time for the playoffs.

On the ground, Le’Ron McClain scampered for 70 yards and 2 TD while Willis McGahee got the rock just 4 times, but ran impressively on his 13-yard TD run. He finished with just 24 rushing yards, but caught 2 passes for 25 yards.

Defensively, the unit was excellent save for the early touchdown they allowed. Jags’ RB Maurice Jones-Drew ran well for 78 yards, and they allowed a total of 245, but they came up big with 4 turnovers, including 2 more interceptions by Ed Reed.

After the Ravens marched down the field following the Jacksonville touchdown to retake the lead 10-7, the game became more of a celebration of the Ravens’ season than anything else.

With a win in the bag, the attention turned to the Dolphins/Jets game which decided the outcome of the Ravens opponent in the first round next week. Had the Dolphins won, the Ravens would be travelling to Miami. Had the Dolphins lost, the Ravens would be going north to New England to take on the Patriots.

The Dolphins won, which means the Ravens take on the Dolphins in Miami this Sunday for the second time this season. It’s a good thing too, because while I do believe the Ravens could beat the Patriots in New England, I feel much more comfortable facing the Dolphins again.

After all, the Ravens trounced the Dolphins earlier in the season, 27-13, and the Ravens are likely to be the favorites again. Granted, the Dolphins are a sound football team and committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL this season, but the Ravens match-up extremely well with Miami. Chad Pennington is not the kind of QB that gives the Ravens secondary problems and while Miami’s running game is strong, it is also likely to be contained by the Ravens tough run-stopping defense.

For the Ravens to lose, they’ll have to play a sloppy game, full of turnovers and mental mistakes.

Yes, Miami is much better than they were when they played the Ravens earlier in the season, but so are the Ravens. Prediction: Pain. Actually, I see a repeat of the first game in my crystal ball. 28-17.

Looking back, this has to be one of the most satisfying seasons in Ravens history. I predicted them to win 3 games at the beginning of the season and even the most optimistic fan couldn’t see them winning more than 6, maybe 8 games.

We are happy to be proven wrong.

The Ravens’ unpredictable success was due in large part to the play of rookie QB Joe Flacco. Flacco was named the starting QB during the pre-season when Troy Smith went down with tonsillitis and Kyle Boller suffered a season-ending elbow injury. From the start, Flacco looked the part, standing tall in the pocket and having great accuracy. It took him some time to gain confidence and see the field clearly, but watching him yesterday he looked like he’d been in the league 5 seasons. He finishes the season with an 80.3 passer rating, 2,971 passing yards, 14 TD, 12 INT and 2 rush TD’s. However, after the infamous Colts game where he threw 3 INT, Flacco went on to have a magnificent 11-game stretch where he tossed 13 TD and 5 INT.

On defense, the usual suspects of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed had what could be called career seasons. Lewis will never top his prime from 1997-2001 seasons, but that is like climbing Mount Everest and then looking for a taller mountain to climb. Lewis responded to the critics who said his age was catching up to him (I myself was even believing it) and totaled 84 solo tackles, 3 sacks and 3 interceptions. More importantly, he still played the game with his patented intensity and leadership that fueled the rest of the defensive unit.

Ed Reed, who played most of 2008 with a severe neck injury that many said could end his career, equaled his career high in interceptions (9), and scored a career-best 3 defensive touchdowns as a game-changer in the secondary.

And they were all lead by rookie head coach John Harbaugh. Many critics said that Harbaugh was the only choice the Ravens had after Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett turned them down, and other potential candidates were hired elsewhere, but Harbaugh has made drastic changes in the Ravens organization in just one season. The Ravens are now a more disciplined unit than they were under Brian Billick, and perhaps the most important characteristic Harbaugh has going for him is his ability to let his staff do their job.

And that has allowed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron work his magic. No longer do the Ravens struggle to score more than 14 points a game. Cameron, in just his first season as Ravens OC, and working with a rookie QB mind you, has catapulted the Ravens offense from the depths of the NFL to 11th of 32 teams in points scored. He’s also demolished the “don’t lose” mentality that Billick lived and died by, by taking the training wheels off Flacco around the half-season mark.

The Ravens, or more specifically, Ozzie Newsome, also made a ton of smaller, but very important roster moves that contributed to their 11-5 season. They traded for CB Fabian Washington on draft day, who has filled in nicely for a deactivated Chris McAllister. They picked up OL Willie Anderson to shore up an inexperienced offensive line after the Bengals cut him. And they signed a veteran-savy Lorenzo Neal to block for Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. They've also smartly worked Troy Smith into the offense, bringing with him an unpredictible and explosive potential.

So looking back, I really couldn’t have been more wrong about the Ravens and the prediction of 3 wins. The Ravens proved that they could rebuild on offense faster than expected while the defense still played dominant championship-caliber football. And it has all culminated at the right time, with the team playing their best football as they head into the playoffs.

What does that mean? I don’t exactly know. I think they can beat anyone, anywhere with the way they are playing now, but I still do worry about facing the likes of the Titans, Steelers and Colts on the road. And while I am completely confident that the Ravens can handle their business in Miami this Sunday, a costly mistake in a close game can make all the difference.

So I think the Ravens will go as far as they allow themselves to go. If they play mistake-free football, they can beat any team the NFL can throw at them. But, the game film to beat the Ravens is there. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 78 yards yesterday. The Giants trounced the Ravens by rushing for over 200 yards in a loss earlier this season. And the Colts put on their yearly clinic on how to make the Ravens defense look like a bad high school team.

But the most important thing to remember is that the Ravens were never expected to do anything. They had a rookie head coach, a rookie QB and a defense that people called over-the-hill. It was supposed to be the end of an era. And now they’re playing their best football as they head into the playoffs and they can hang with anyone.

Not bad for a team that essentially never had a bye week, huh?

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