Back to Basics, Ravens Roll the Pats
This is how the Baltimore Ravens felt in the middle of Sunday afternoon. They'd scored 24 points in the first quarter in a town where no visiting team had won a playoff game since 1978. They had a 24-7 halftime lead and a running game and a defense they believed would be good enough to make it hold up. And what they were thinking was, "Just don't let the Patriots through that door, or they're going to eat our brains."
"We wanted to win the third quarter," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "That's what we talked about at halftime. Don't let up. We wanted to maintain our lead in that third quarter."
They didn't quite win the quarter -- New England outscored them 7-3 -- but they got the point. The Ravens were still up 13 at the end of the third, then they scored early in the fourth to go up 19. And while the championship-tested folks on the opposite sideline hadn't given up...let's just say the sixth-seeded visitors had obtained some valuable space in their heads.
"The reality is, once you look up and there's seven minutes left and you need three touchdowns," Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren said, "you know a miracle would have to drop out of the sky."
For the Patriots, the miracle never dropped. The Ravens took the lead on the first spectacular play from scrimmage -- an 83-yard Ray Rice touchdown run that silenced a crowd that hadn't even settled into its seats -- and locked the game down from there. They pummeled the Patriots on both sides of the ball throughout the opening 15 minutes, forcing three turnovers and scoring off all of them, and building a lead New England could not overcome. Baltimore would win the game 33-14 and earn a trip to Indianapolis for next weekend's divisional playoff round.
But as outrageous and shocking as that first quarter may have been, for the Ravens it couldn't have been simpler. Their game plan was as basic as it gets -- truthfully right out of a playbook they worked on in last spring's first minicamp.
"I looked at the date on the binder, and it was May 8," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Our first practice. All the plays we ran in this game were plays we ran in that first practice in May. We built this offense for the playoffs, and we wanted to run plays we knew would work in the playoffs."
See, the Ravens have always thought of themselves as a playoff team -- a Super Bowl favorite, in fact. They started the season hot and struggled through some tough times, losing close games to teams like the Patriots, Colts, Vikings, Steelers and Bengals. They made the playoffs with a white-knuckle win in their final game. But now that they're here, they feel like they have as good a chance to win the whole thing as anybody does. And so Cameron, Harbaugh and the coaching staff wanted to remind the team of how good it felt about itself way back in May.
"You've got to be thinking playoffs in May," Cameron said. "And also, you don't want to be putting in a lot of new plays in the playoffs."
Better to go from more complicated to less complicated this time of year than vice-versa, is Cameron's point. So the opening play of the game, run from their own 17, was a basic run up the middle behind the fullback. It's just that the guy running it was a stud on a mission.
"I wanted to be the guy to start this game off fast, whether it was going to be a five-yard run or an 83-yard run," Rice said. "As soon as I made the cutback, I saw the safety was about 15-20 yards deep. That's any running back's dream, right there. I made the first guy miss, and then it was a footrace."
Rice had announced his presence and the Ravens' presence with authority, and everybody took notice. Even the players on the Baltimore defense.
"If we weren't already charged up, that did it," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Because we always feel like, on defense, we're the unit that has to carry the load around here. So we had to show them we're still boss."
Foxworth went out and blanketed Randy Moss all game, forcing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to throw short passes underneath to Wes Welker replacement Julian Edelman and ageless running back Kevin Faulk. When Brady had time to throw, that is. The Ravens also smartly picked their spots on blitzes and executed them. They didn't swarm all game, but as a result they weren't sloppy about it either.
"It was just a real precise game," Harbaugh said. "Our pressure was real precise."
The result, especially in the first quarter, was field position. After Rice's long run, the Ravens' starting field position in the first quarter was the New England 17, the New England 42, the New England 25 and the New England 9.
"The story was what our defense did today," Cameron said. "We were in great field position all day, and when that happens the play-calling gets pretty easy."
Which was good, because by midway through the second quarter the Ravens were in full dresser-against-the-door mode. Joe Flacco threw a couple of passes, sure, but his final stats (4-for-10, 34 yards) indicate that they didn't want him to be a big part of the game plan. They wanted to run. Even when the Patriots knew they were running. Even when the Patriots stopped them from running.
"Anytime you play New England, it's a test of patience," Cameron said. "But when your defense is playing that well, it allows you to be patient with the run. We ran our fundamental offense and stayed physical."
And in the end, not only did the zombies go away, they did so without poking too many holes in that old, beat-up wooden door. The Patriots got punched in the mouth and never really got up. The Ravens, who were supposed to be good enough to do this all along, rolled into Playoff Week 2 and a date with the top-seeded Colts in Indianapolis, where they'll try and do just what they did here Sunday -- overpower them early and hold on tight.
"Our M.O. for the playoffs is to be physical and to set the tempo for these games," Rice said. "We have a team that can do that. After all the adversity we've been through, we expect to win."