Monday, January 19, 2009

Ravens Lose in AFC Championship Game

The Ravens 2008 season came to an official close last night as they fell to the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-14.

The Pittsburgh defense stifled the Ravens all night, disrupting Joe Flacco enough to force him to throw 3 interceptions including one that was run back by Troy Polamalu for a touchdown that sealed the victory for the Steelers.

We all knew beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh was going to be a tall order to fill. But that didn’t stop us from hoping they could pull it off. After all, Pittsburgh had lost 4 of their last 5 home AFC Championship games and Flacco played much better on the road this season. But in the end, the better team won.

However, the Ravens weren’t without their chances. After trailing 13-0 early, the Ravens went on a 14-3 run (2 Willis McGahee TD’s) to pull within 2 points late in the 4th quarter.

They had the Steelers right where they wanted them. Down 16-14, the Ravens looked to get the ball on their own 39-yard line with a little more than 6 minutes left in the game. But when the game came back from a commercial break, Ravens fans were dismayed to learn of an Daren Stone penalty that backed the Ravens up a whopping 25 yards to put them at the 14-yard line.

Stone, a special teams player, should be getting his walking papers as I write this article. His unnecessary roughness penalty occurred at least 5 yards out of bounds and was just plain stupid. It may not have single-handedly lost the Ravens the game, but it severely hurt their chances to drive 30 yards for a field goal attempt had they started on the 39-yard line. Instead, the Ravens struggled to get a first down on that drive and it ended with the Flacco interception returned for a TD, which put the Steelers ahead 23-14.

When the Ravens got the ball back, the game was already over, but to add insult to injury, Steelers defender Ryan Clark plowed into Willis McGahee, causing a fumble which the Steelers recovered, and leaving McGahee motionless on the field for a ten minutes. Clark himself was stymied by the unintentional helmet-to-helmet hit, and needed help walking off the field. McGahee was carted off the field and the latest news is that McGahee has a neck injury but can move his arms and legs.

But in the end, the Steelers went 3-0 against the Ravens this year, and no matter how many “shoulda, woulda, couldas” you can come up with, the Steelers were the better team then and now.

And yesterday, they were masterful on 3rd downs. While their 7-18 efficiency on 3rd down doesn’t look that impressive (38%), they converted those 3rd downs when it mattered most. It was almost as if the Steelers were doing it on purpose just to mess with the Ravens. After getting stuffed on 1st and 2nd down, the Steelers would then pull some random miracle play out of their ass. See the Ben Roethlisberger stumbling, bumbling pass lofted up into the air for anyone to catch -- and I mean anyone -- and then caught by Santonio Holmes for a 65-yard touchdown.

It was just not in the Ravens cards for them to win the game last night.

All in all, 2008 was probably the second most exciting season in Ravens history. They surprised the NFL by winning 7-8 more games than most people predicted (myself included) and won a playoff game for the first time since 2001. Then they travelled to Tennessee and knocked off the #1 seeded Titans like they did in 2000.

In short, watching a veteran-like Joe Flacco -- and swarming Ed Reed play the final 11 games of the rookie season was a joy to watch and the defense played with heart and determination even as injuries to Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle looked like they would become devastating weaknesses.

And then there’s coach John Harbaugh, who except for a handful of terrible penalties, has whipped this team into a disciplined bunch and will not settle for “me” players like Chris McAllister and Willis McGahee.

Losing to Pittsburgh and watching them celebrate another Super Bowl appearance on their home turf last night was horrible, but to be expected.

But there is reason for optimism in Baltimore. If the Ravens fill a few needs (CB, DL, TE, & WR), they can come back strong in 2009 and be right back in the AFC Championship game again.

Thanks to the 2008 Baltimore Ravens for making this season an amazing one.

Until then, please be sure to check in to read my takes and opinions on the Ravens offseason moves and draft.


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