Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Just another fan who's going to miss Ray Lewis
As a football fan, I was looking forward to seeing Peyton Manning versus the Colts next weekend. I was also caught up in Chuckstrong. So leading up to kickoff, it was all about Indianapolis.
But then the CBS broadcast decided to show the defensive player introductions.
Once number 52 came out to Nelly’s “Hot in Here” and Ray Lewis did his patented dance, it was all about Baltimore.
My predictions of a Colts upset were squashed. There was no way Lewis was going to lose in his return from injury - which just happened to be the last home game of his career.
Lewis’ retirement announcement came earlier this week and gave the Ravens something to rally around.
While his was obviously an emotional lift - someone who inspired his teammates on both sides of the ball - but Lewis came to play at a high level as well. Now the Ravens are heading into the second round of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Here’s what transpired on Sunday:
1. Baltimore’s defense turned back the clock and kept up its “bend but don’t break” philosophy
It was a battle of young versus old - and on this day the old won out. Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis offense will be good for a long time, but Baltimore’s defense - riddled with all-star thirty-somethings - showed the kids that they can still be the kings of the playground. Much was made of Ray Lewis’ return, in what will be the final home game of his career, but Baltimore was led by more than just their embattled Hall-of-Fame linebacker.
This was the first game of the season in which Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs - the four corners of Baltimore’s defense - were on the field at the same time. They helped the Ravens keep the Indianapolis offense out of the end zone. It was the third time the unit didn’t give up a score this season, but the first against a team with any kind of offensive capabilities.
In he regular season, the Ravens were eighth in the league in Bendability, and they showed why on Sunday. The Colts got close to the end zone and they put compiled 419 yards of total offense, but despite Luck’s best efforts, the Colts couldn’t pass the goal line.
Part of Baltimore’s success was its ability to stop the Colts when it mattered. Indianapolis converted nine out of 20 third downs and zero of two fourth downs.
The biggest moment came near the end of the third quarter when the Colts formulated a strong drive and looked like they were going into the end zone for the first time. On third down and four, the Baltimore defense stiffened and forced another field goal. Indianapolis never got closer.
2. Ray Lewis won his final 13 games in Baltimore
The last time Lewis walked off his home field as a loser was December 5, 2010. He did not play in Baltimore's home losses this year to Pittsburgh or Denver.
Now, he’ll never have to experience that feeling again. Regardless of where the Ravens go from here, Lewis can know he left the only city he called his professional home as a winner. Nothing can take that away from him.
And it’s not like Lewis was a small part of today’s victory. In addition to providing an emotional lift, he played like he was a guy in his mid-20s winning Defensive Player of the Year again. He turned back his own biological clock for one final moment of glory. Everything from his intro on the field to his post-game interviews was filled with the utmost level of intensity - a staple of Lewis’ storied career. The legendary linebacker had 13 tackles on Sunday, leading the team.
As the Ravens head into Denver this week the story may be different, but this is Lewis’ day.
3. Joe Flacco has won at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
Want to know how many playoff games Peyton Manning won in his first five seasons? That would be zero. Matt Ryan - drafted the same year as Flacco and the recipient of far more praise - will need to win next weekend to finally enter the postseason winner’s circle. Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, poster-boys of early career success (they’ve won a combined five Super Bowls in their first five seasons) only won playoff games in three of their first five years.
The fact is, no quarterback has matched Flacco’s ability to both make the playoffs and win once getting there this early in his career. No, Flacco has not taken the next step toward elite status like he predicted, but no one wins this many playoff games by accident.
In a league in which winning has become increasingly contingent on quarterback play, any signal caller who wins six playoff games in five seasons deserves a tremendous amount of credit. He’s slowly creeping up the list of all-time playoff win leaders.
4. Ray Rice will have to recover from fumblitis in order for Baltimore to keep it going
Ray Rice didn’t lose a fumble all regular season long. On Sunday, he lost two. The first was subsequently followed by an Indianapolis fumble and the second was followed by a missed Adam Vinatieri field goal, so neither turnover technically hurt the Ravens, but they can’t count on being as lucky in the future.
The Ravens will likely have to play Peyton Manning and the Broncos and Tom Brady and the Patriots in the next two weeks, if they even make it that far. As good as Andrew Luck has been, the Ravens know that the two future Hall-of-Famers will do a better job at capitalizing off of Baltimore’s mistakes.
Fortunately for the Ravens, Denver only recovered eight fumbles this year, good for 22nd in the league. Then again, the Colts were last in the league in recovering fumbles and still managed two snag two on Sunday. The Ravens are going to have to ensure they don’t put the ball on the ground next weekend.
5. Looking ahead to next Saturday
The Ravens will have a short week to prepare as they head to Denver next Saturday afternoon. They will need to optimize their practice time, as the team has infamously struggled against Peyton Manning. Including a 34-17 loss in week 15, the Ravens have lost nine straight to the Denver quarterback. Two of those losses came in the postseason.
As a matter of fact, as much as I have praised Joe Flacco’s six playoff wins, five have come against Chad Pennington, Kerry Collins, Matt Cassel, TJ Yates and Andrew Luck. Two were aging quarterbacks past their primes and three were making their first career postseason start. Only Baltimore’s win against Tom Brady in New England gave the Ravens a playoff win against an elite quarterback.
That shows that the Ravens’ playoff success hasn’t come against the best in the league, but winning against Brady on the road proves the Broncos can beat elite QBs. They’ll need to get another throwback performance from the defense and keep Rice and Flacco from turning the ball over to neutralize Manning’s effectiveness.