Ray Lewis: The Last Ride
NEW ORLEANS -- It didn't always appear that the Ravens would get this far. They began the season with a bang, routing the Cincinnati Bengals 44-13, but slumped badly in the end by losing four of their last five games. They're in Sunday's Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, and these are the top 10 reasons they got there:
10: Trusting a rookie: It was a mild surprise that undrafted K Justin Tucker edged Billy Cundiff in the kicking duel during training camp, but Tucker has proven to be money. He made 30 of 33 FGs for the season and has been perfect in four attempts beyond 50 yards. He has never missed a kick indoors, and he nailed the game-winner from 47 yards in overtime of a divisional playoff game at Denver and hit two on the road in San Diego, one to force overtime and another to win it in a stirring comeback. If Tucker doesn't deliver, the Ravens may have missed the playoffs. Cundiff went on to be cut by the Washington Redskins and 49ers.
9. Installing Jacoby Jones: It took coach John Harbaugh until Week 6 to make him a kick returner, replacing rookie Deonte Thompson, and it paid off. In Jones’ first game in the role, he went 108 yards vs. the Dallas Cowboys to tie an NFL record. Jones made his first Pro Bowl with 3 TD returns, including one on a punt that gave the Ravens a pivotal win in Pittsburgh. Plus, the celebration dances. Can't forget about those.
8. Welcome back, Anthony Allen: This appears to be just a blip on the screen, but it's not. Jones’ returns wouldn't have been possible without Allen, who was among the final cuts after the last preseason game. Allen’s weakness in pass protection doomed him from the start as he allowed the Atlanta Falcons to rattle QB Joe Flacco in the first preseason game. He fell out of favor from that point, but before the season-opener Harbaugh realized he needed him for special teams because of a season-ending knee injury to Emanuel Cook. When Jones breaks for daylight, Allen is usually involved in creating the lane for him.
7: Unselfish Ray Rice: After an ugly 9-6 win at the Kansas City Chiefs, Rice made it clear, in an understated way, that he was glad the then-pass happy Ravens remembered how to run the football. Rice had 17 carries for 102 yards in that game as the Ravens ran out the clock by giving him the ball in the fourth quarter. His overall numbers were down from a season ago, about 400 fewer, when Rice led all players in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with more than 2,000, but he started to share the workload with rookie RB Bernard Pierce. The Ravens are running the ball about 10 times per game more.
6. Finally beating New England: This came long before the win in the AFC championship game a few weeks ago. The Ravens did it in Week 3, coming back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots, who had edged them 23-20 in the 2012 title game when Lee Evans dropped a TD pass and Cundiff shanked a 32-yard FG in the waning minutes. It was just the second win vs. the Patriots in franchise history. Less than 24 hours after Torrey Smith’s young brother died in a motorcycle crash, he put on a career-defining performance with 6 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs.
5. 4th-and-29: A miraculous conversion in San Diego, which helped set up the tying field goal by Tucker to force overtime as the Ravens eventually won, is the season’s most spectacular individual effort. Rice ran for about 25 of the yards and Flacco admitted it was a bad decision to check down on his throw and that he would've looked like “an idiot” had Rice not converted.
4. Sizzling Suggs: He had mostly been a non-factor since coming back early in Week 7 from an Achilles tear. Plus, Suggs has played through a biceps tear from Week 13. But starting with the second half of the playoff game at the Broncos, Suggs has been on fire. He's living in the backfield, harassing quarterbacks again and commanding double-teams. As a result, the entire defense has improved its ability to get pressure.
3. Feasting with Big Mac: This is a product of luck, not coaching genius. Bryant McKinnie was forced into duty because of a season-ending toe injury to Jah Reid. So Harbaugh doesn't get any credit for this one. McKinnie, the starting LT a season ago, was forced to take a pay cut, lost his starting job and was in Harbaugh's doghouse all season. Michael Oher was moved to LT and Ramon Harewood, Bobbie Williams and then Reid split starting duties at LG. Rookie Kelechi Osemele -- a bold but good decision to make room for him -- was the starting RT. The left side of the offensive line was unstable all season, particularly when it came to pre-snap penalties and holding calls on Oher. Osemele played mostly on the left side at Iowa State and had trouble with speed rushers. McKinnie, 6-foot-8 and 340, has started all three playoff games and has no penalties. Osemele is now the LG and Oher is back at his natural position at RT. Flacco is more comfortable in the pocket. Veteran C Matt Birk said the Ravens finally have their five best linemen on the field.
2. Ray Lewis' last ride: Question how good he actually is at this stage as he enters the final game of his 17-year career, but Lewis' playoff-high 44 tackles mean something especially when considering he missed 10 games with a torn triceps tendon. Also, it was Lewis' locker room presence that kept the team together after the controversy in Week 14 when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired. To a man, the players said Lewis emphasized the importance of staying unified and not turning on each other. The value of a veteran such as Lewis goes far beyond the numbers. This is a team that draws on emotion. And there's no better emotional leader in the NFL regardless of age.
1. The Big Switch: It was no secret that the offense was out of sync as the Ravens were mired in what would become a three-game losing streak as they couldn't clinch the AFC North until Week 16. The play-calling was predictable and Flacco clearly wasn't in sync as Cameron all but eliminated the hurry-up offense. Since Jim Caldwell took over play-calling duties for the first time in his career, the Ravens have become a well-balanced machine, running the ball about 10 times per game more, better using Pierce, re-installing the fast-pace offense, moving the pocket for Flacco and re-discovering Smith after he all but disappeared in the second half of the season. Caldwell downplays the move. Don't believe it. It mattered. If this move isn't made, the previous nine reasons are irrelevant because the Ravens wouldn't be here.