Thursday-and-Long: Ravens' Revenge Tour, Week Two
And guess what? The Ravens feel like they should have beaten the Colts in November.
"What we talked about after that game was finishing," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We've got to convert drives in the scoring zone better than we did that day. We played them well that day, but when we got down near the goal line, we couldn't finish it off."
That game was a 17-15 Colts victory in Baltimore on Nov. 22. The Ravens forced three turnovers, including two Peyton Manning interceptions. They had a 15-14 lead in the fourth quarter, but Matt Stover's field goal with seven minutes left gave Indianapolis the win. During that fourth quarter, the Ravens had a first-and-goal from the Colts' one-yard line but couldn't get in and had to settle for a field goal. And with just over two minutes to go, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett intercepted Joe Flacco on the Indianapolis 13 to seal the win.
One of many close, frustrating losses for the Ravens this year. But in discussing those losses last week, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said they're actually helpful in retrospect because now, faced with the task of beating those same teams in playoff games, Baltimore can draw confidence from how close the scores were. A couple of little things here and there, and they know they could have beaten the Patriots in October, the Colts in November.
"We were right there in those games," Lewis said. "It's one thing if you get beat up and pushed around and manhandled, then you say you got beat. But when you lose by two points or right at the end, you look back and you feel like you can beat that team. You just need to make a couple of little adjustments."
So this Saturday night, Indianapolis becomes Stop 2 on what the Ravens hope is their 2009-10 Revenge Tour. They avenged that October loss in New England. Now they'll try and avenge the November loss to the Colts by making sure they finish off their drives.
"The Colts did a great job all year of keeping teams out of the end zone, and especially when we played them," Ravens center Matt Birk said Wednesday. "So obviously that'll be a challenge, and they'll be tough to beat if we don't score seven instead of three."
Projecting a little bit (or a lot, considering we're talking about a No. 6 seed): If the Ravens get past this week, they'll get either the Jets, whom they didn't play in the regular season but whose coach is their former defensive coordinator, or the Chargers. And that'd be weird, since they actually beat the Chargers in Week 2 in San Diego, so the revenge shoe might be on the other foot. But if they could muster enough motivation to win that game as well, they could find themselves in the Super Bowl against the Vikings, who beat them by two points in Minnesota on Oct. 18. This team made a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game a year ago, doesn't mind being the underdog and seems to bring a level of mental toughness that could conceivably swing games in their favor this time of year.
"The playoffs are simple," Ravens running back Ray Rice said Sunday afternoon. "It's our will against the other team's will. Xs and Os are only going to count for so much. We're going to be ready."
A Good Loss?
The Patriots may find that Sunday's first-round loss to the Ravens benefits them this off-season. If the NFL and the players union don't get together on a new collective bargaining agreement by March (and it seems inconceivable at this point that they would), the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap. And if that happens, there will be some rules that the Pats will suddenly find favorable.
First, players with four years of service time, who would otherwise be unrestricted free agents, will instead be restricted free agents. The Patriots have only two players who fall into this category, but they're important ones -- offensive lineman Logan Mankins and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Assuming there's no cap, the new rules will require New England to spend less to keep those two free agents than it otherwise might have needed to spend.
That would have been true whether they'd won or lost Sunday. But in an uncapped year the NFL has a "final eight" rule, which prohibits teams among the final eight in the postseason from signing a free agent unless they lose one. By losing Sunday, the Patriots stayed out of the "final eight" and will be free to sign free agents as they wish. New England has a ton of cap room and could, if it wants to, be one of the most free-spending teams of the off-season going into an uncapped 2010.
On the Receiving End
We've kind of heard this before, but this offseason is shaping up to be a fascinating one for potential movement of big-name wide receivers. It seems clear the Broncos and Brandon Marshall didn't end their season on great terms, and people around the league expect Denver to trade Marshall before the draft. There's also a feeling that's been expressed in several places that this will be the year Arizona trades Anquan Boldin, in part because of the emergence of receiver Steve Breaston (and, last Sunday, of Early Doucet).
Add to that a list of potential WR free agents that includes Vincent Jackson, Braylon Edwards, Antonio Bryant and yes, once again, Terrell Owens. And add to that a list of WR-hungry teams that includes Baltimore, Miami, Washington, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, New England, the Jets and others. All of a sudden you have the makings of a very fertile market for receivers.
But again, it seems like everybody was saying the same thing a year ago. So we'll have to see. If Marshall and Boldin get dealt in March, that could trigger a lot of WR movement.
The NFL continues to insist that the American Needle case that went before the Supreme Court on Wednesday is a simple licensing matter and not about labor or broadening the NFL's antitrust exemptions to frightening levels. The NFLPA continues to fear that the Court could award the league a broad enough interpretation of the antitrust exemption to effectively cripple the collective bargaining process and make the union irrelevant. The truth, as it so often does, likely lies somewhere in between, and we'll know sometime in the next few months when the Court issues its ruling.
When I spoke with union head DeMaurice Smith about this case a few months ago, Smith (a Washington attorney) said the Court could (and likely would) issue a piecemeal ruling, specifying in which matters the NFL can operate as a single entity free from antitrust restrictions and in which matters it cannot. The union's fear, of course, is that the court could rule that the league may operate as a single entity in all matters, which could conceivably allow teams to legally conspire to determine franchise prices and player salaries.
When I spoke with NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash a month or so later, he said the league was not seeking such a broad ruling. But it's clear they're seeking at least some expansion of their antitrust protection, which at this point applies only when they negotiate broadcast deals. Because why else would the NFL have joined in American Needle's appeal of this case to the Supreme Court after actually winning in the lower court?
Pash's answer to that question was that the league thought it would be helpful to have a national ruling on the antitrust protection as it pertained to licensing matters, so the league wouldn't end up fighting this same battle 50 times in 50 states. But it's suspicious, let's just put it that way. And there was at least one moment during Wednesday's hearing when it appeared as if the league is seeking the broadest possible ruling.
So again, we'll see. It's in the hands of the Supreme Court now. Which means pretty soon, we'll have a very final decision.
Three (Actually, Four (Actually, None)) for the Road
Road teams went 2-2 in the first week of the NFL playoffs. I correctly picked one of them (the Jets) to win, but I didn't pick the Ravens. I thought only one road team would win last week, and this week I am picking ... none of them. Oh sure, you can make the case for any of the four. But I'm going chalk, and I say all four bye teams advance to the Conference Championship Games.
However, since this section of Thursday-and-Long only exists because I used it to pick three road winners each week during the regular season, it makes sense to give the road teams some sort of nod. So, as I did last week, I'm going to list the games in order of which road team I think is most likely to pull the upset this week. Enjoy:
1. Ravens over Colts. Hey, I had Baltimore winning the Super Bowl before the season started, so this may be the last time I can sorta/kinda appear to stand behind that pick. Plus, there's something about them. Mentally, there may not be a better team left in the field. Their problem is, there are teams with better quarterbacks, receivers, defensive secondaries ...
2. Cardinals over Saints. There's only one team left in the field that's played in the Super Bowl in either of the past two seasons. It's the team with the ageless Kurt Warner. And sure, while the idea of the Saints throwing against the same defense that gave up 45 to the Packers last week is terrifying, the Cardinals look like a tough out.
3. Cowboys over Vikings. I know Dallas is the hot pick, but this isn't as good a matchup for them as those two Eagles games were. Minnesota is a power running team that will force Dallas to focus some of that relentless pressure inside. And while the Dallas WRs might get open against the Minnesota DBs, they're not going to break tackles as easily.
4. Jets over Chargers. Repeat after me, Jets fans: No matter what happens from this point on, the Jets have had a great season. A great one. The future looks bright, and how often can you say that? But these Chargers ... there may be nobody left to stop them.
This week's travels take me to Minnesota, where I'll be hanging out with the Vikings for a few days this week and covering the game Sunday. Fascinated to see whether Vikings DE Jared Allen can steal the pass-rushing spotlight from the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.