Patrick sent a congratulatory email late last night after the AFC Championship game, saying that he was happy for us and that this two-week long moment is a special time. I dashed off a hurried but long & rambling response in the wee hours. Here are my disordered thoughts in reply:
This has been an unbelievable couple of weeks, absolutely unbelievable.
And oddly familiar. It reminds me, of all things, of when the Maryland basketball team of Juan Dixon - Lonny Baxter - Steve Blake (and later Chris Wilcox) started to change the narrative about what you could expect from the team, ca 1999-2000. Games that seemed like automatic losses, slowly started to be won. And it changed the horizon of expectation around the team. Fatalism about a matchup becomes excited doubt: "Maybe they can win – ?" They do things you don't expect them to do, and you revise your expectation upward a bit, and then they do more, and you revise again. Two years later they were in the National Championship game. And they were clearly great; but you still have a touch of disbelief. They really got here, from there??
The “storyline” ESPN is already selling us – and I stayed up late to watch everything on ESPN and NFL Network – glosses over what a miniscule margin the Ravens have lived on the past two weeks. That Jacoby Jones - Rahim Moore play was a miracle, and without it the Ravens don't even get to Foxboro. (The game isn't even held there.) In this game, Baltimore was doing nothing on offense, until Aqib Talib pulls his hamstring. And did Patrick Chung ever return to the game? Or did the Pats lose two starters in the secondary in the first half? Despite Ray-ray's view of God's Plan, there was nothing inevitable about a Ravens victory here.
That Jack Harbaugh living room must have been a fun place to watch some football this weekend. I found myself thinking this afternoon about all the NFL teams that were looking for coaches this carousel season. I bet every one of them wishes there were a third Harbaugh brother.
What if there were a third brother, and he's not on the same same page as the other two: the bad, unacknowledged Harbaugh. Picture "Jeb" Harbaugh, the lesser Harbaugh brother, something like Billy Carter. Maybe he payed football in college, got cut from his college team, started smoking a lot of weed, now he's bagging groceries. He gets a call from the Jags to come in for an interview. This thought cracked me up off and on before the games today.
Flacco in his last 4 playoff games: 73 of 129 for 1159 yards, 10 TDs / 1 INT, 8.98 yards per attempt, rating 109.3. Elite enough for ya? And not against tomato cans either: Indy is unimpressive, but the other 3 opponents were New England in Foxboro (twice) and the Broncos in Denver. I'm not trying to stake a position about whether he is or is not anywhere near that good: but geez, talk about making a statement at contract time! He becomes an unrestricted free agent after the Super Bowl. Has any player ever increased his stock so dramatically at so exactly the right moment?
And yet it's hard to criticize Ozzie & the front office for playing their contract cards this way. Sure, they expose themselves to having to offer Joe at the exact moment when his value is the highest it will ever be. But what if Joe's contract situation is part of what's driving him to be super extra sharp this postseason? “Please Joe, make us franchise you. Make it so we have absolutely no choice but to franchise you.” The Ravens can't exactly mind being forced over a barrel by this development. Crazy like a fox. The weakest possible bargaining position for the Ravens is if Joe delivers a Super Bowl MVP -type performance while leading them to a win. And wouldn't that be just so upsetting to the folks in the Ravens front office. I picture Bisciotti thinking to himself, “Go ahead Joe, make your case even stronger. Force my hand. Weaken my negotiating position. Please.”
The email thread about Ray Lewis a week or so ago [about the murder trial in Atlanta] was eye-opening. I meant to respond to it; there was some stuff in there I had not known. Important stuff. I don't know the whole truth of that; and it's possible that I and other Ravens fans have been guilty of willful ignorance, in not following the testimony and taking a hard look at the possible bad news about Ray. However, let us also acknowledge the – I don't want to say "other side" of the story, let me say instead: the present day reality of Ray Lewis. Whether you can stand to hear another fluff piece about that [possible criminal] and his "leadership" blah blah blah, Ray's leadership is an observable phenomenon, like Peyton Manning's intelligence. Grown men who have spent their entire lives being "motivated" and "psyched up" by everyone from Pop Warner coaches thru high school and college rah-rah guys, men who are yelled at every day of their working lives and who ought to have developed some immunity to your basic pep talk, these guys are electrified when Ray Lewis brings it.
The most revealing thing to me this week, was Joe Flacco's postgame last night. He was his usual monotone self; but he suddenly got animated when talking about Ray, and how he thinks Ray really wants to get back to the Super Bowl because he knows what it feels like, and he wants “US”, meaning Joe and Ray Rice and Suggs etc, to have that same feeling. And how neat it was for Ray to feel that way. If you were graphing Flacco's level of animation during the press conference, as revealed by his rate of speech (words per second) and the pitch of his voice, it would be his normal flatline for most of it, and then a spike up for the minute or so he spent talking about Ray Lewis, and then a slope back down to the flat line. Joe Flacco gets excited about Ray Lewis?? (or as excited as Flacco gets)
Ray Lewis has an impact on the team members around him, and it defies explanation how much of an impact.
I can't believe how effectively Ray is playing. The early-season Ray was not capable of making double-digit tackles vs playoff-caliber offenses. I have to assume that the time off due to injury really helped him get his legs back. It makes sense, actually: rest the old guy midseason, bring him back for the playoff run.
Ray pointed out that he & Suggs & Ed Reed had not played together all season, until the playoffs started. Also Haloti Ngata has been struggling with an undisclosed leg injury all season, with people around the team saying he's been around 80%. The Ravens were bad on D this season; but is it possible they are a much better defensive team right now than they've been thru the season? Shades of the recent Giants teams? That would be indescribably awesome. Whatever the case, the Ravens will really, really benefit from having a week off before the next game. They will benefit more than the Niners will; and they may benefit enough to change the outcome. The game might go one way if played next week, but another way because the old banged-up Ravens get an extra week to recuperate.
John Harbaugh's team has made him look like a friggin genius. His high-stakes moves for the postseason really paid off. First he goes to the bullpen for Jim Caldwell in relief of Cam Cameron with 3 games left in the season. Who fires the offensive coordinator when sitting at 9-4 and in first place??? But three games proved a nice shakedown timeframe for the new playcalling mechanics (Caldwell in the booth, relayed from the sideline). And Caldwell has shown himself to be flexible and aggressive, while simultaneously patient with sticking to the run. I've had a couple of tug-at-my-hair moments the last two games: too much conservative running in the OT at Denver, thus punting the ball back to Peyton Manning; forgetting Ray Rice at one stretch in the second half, and then a couple incomplete passes on a 3-and-out with a big lead in the 4th today, rather than trying to milk the clock. But just a couple: on the whole, the play-calling and the offensive personnel groupings have been great. Flacco looks renewed. Bernard Pierce has been exceptional as a change-of-pace back. You sure can't argue with the results.
Then Harbaugh scrambles the O-line for the start of the playoffs. Who voluntarily changes personnel at 3 positions on the O-line for the start of the playoffs? And with no bye week! "Ok we'll play one way all season to gain experience, then when the rea games start we'll switch over to the line we expect to win with." WTF? Critics, esp Preston of the Balt Sun, have been calling for this O-line configuration (McKinney at LT, Oher at RT, rookie Osemele at LG) for months, maybe even all season long. (I think Preston may have called it before week 1.) And Harbaugh says yep you're right at the start of the playoffs?!?? It is mind-boggling. Supposedly McKinney agitated to play, and Harbaugh said "Then show me in practice." McKinney has wasted a good part of his career by not bothering to show other coaches in practice; but somehow for Harbaugh he takes the challenge and gets himself ready to play. However it happened, the revamped O-line has been tremendous. They've averaged 35 rushing attempts in the postseason, and Flacco has been sacked once a game. It's the best O-line play Baltimore has had in the last two years; maybe longer, maybe since they heyday of Jared Gaither.
The boldness of those moves is breathtaking; and their success is – unusual. Both Harbaugh boys, really: the Kaepernick move looks inspired.
John Harbaugh also did not hesitate to go to the emotion well. Ray Lewis timed his retirement announcement exceptionally well, to counter the Chuck Strong tide of emotion: I wonder if Ray received counselling on when to break the news. Then they have OJ Briggance come out for the coin toss last night. That is hard core.
What a thrill ride. Amazing. Unbelievable.