After standing toe-to-toe with the defending World Champions for 30 minutes, the Ravens saw first-hand what is needed to take the next step.
In the Patriots’ 24-3 home victory Sunday, as Gillette Stadium was swamped in a heavy rain storm, the Patriots’ momentum overtook Baltimore like a tidal wave.
New England capitalized on good defense, a big turnover and made virtually no mistakes in the game’s final half to win for the 17th straight time at home.
“We just clearly weren’t a good enough football team today to come in and challenge the World Champions,” said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team dropped to 7-4 with the loss. “We’ve got five weeks to…improve to the point that we can come in here and play with a championship-caliber team.”
With a top-heavy AFC, the Ravens need to play at a playoff level for the next five weeks if they want to return to the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
The loss put Baltimore three full games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North with five to play, making a Wild Card berth the most likely path to the playoffs. Currently, the Ravens are tied with Denver for the conference’s 6th-best record, but only six make the playoffs.
If they do return to the postseason, they will face teams like the Patriots (10-1), who minimize their opponent’s strengths and exploit any weaknesses.
The second half of Sunday’s game was a perfect case study. By most accounts, the two teams played an even first half, but in the third quarter, New England hit on all cylinders.
The Patriots scored on three consecutive possessions – two long Adam Vinatieri field goals and a 1-yard touchdown run by Corey Dillon – to stake to a 14-point lead.
A comeback of that magnitude, against that team, in that stadium, would be difficult for any team.
But for a Ravens outfit that was without three offensive starters – including two Pro Bowlers – it was a task too tall.
Right tackle Orlando Brown was a game-day scratch due to a lingering knee injury, and so he joined running back Jamal Lewis and tight end Todd Heap, both of whom have ankle ailments, on the inactive list.
Without these players, the Ravens’ offense stalled in the sludge, generating just 29 yards and no points in the second half.
“We really couldn’t get that good drive going,” said quarterback Kyle Boller, who threw his first interception in a month and lost a fumble that resulted in a Patriots touchdown. “It was pretty much a mud fest out there, in the middle [of the field].”
The torrential rain storm – which converted Foxboro into a Woodstock-like mud pit – surely limited both teams’ ability to throw the ball, as neither Boller nor Tom Brady went over 200 yards or threw a touchdown.
When the elements are at their worst, teams rely on their running backs the most. With Lewis, the NFL’s rushing champion a year ago, sidelined, Chester Taylor filled in admirably against a stout Patriots defense. However, he was out-dueled by Dillon, who went over 100 yards against his longtime rivals for the first time in three years.
The former Bengals back churned out 123 yards and the score on 30 carries, with the bulk of his production coming in the decisive second half.
“They came out and executed their game-plan in the second half,” said defensive end Anthony Weaver. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to execute ours.
“We’ve got to play a 60-minute game if you play a team like that,” Weaver added. “We didn’t do that today.”
The Ravens’ defense had the disadvantage of fighting uphill for the first three drives of the second half.
New England took over on its own 41, 48 and Baltimore’s 48-yard line on those possessions. Thus, they had to go only 30 yards on each of those drives to move into scoring range. In a game that field goals were as valuable as touchdowns, that field position was crucial.
Conversely, the Ravens were never able to get out of their own end. New England protected its banged up secondary by giving the Ravens the short passes, but doubling up on the intermediate and long routes.
That’s what fooled Boller in the first quarter, when he threw his first interception in 124 attempts. Cornerback Randall Gay, who was thrust into action due to injuries to the Patriots’ top three corners, stepped in front of a sideline pass and made the pick.
“We’re not built to come out in three-wides and four-wides all the time to take advantage of some of those mismatches,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. “Until we turned the ball over, it was a relative close game.”
Boller’s second turnover – a fumble on a sack that was recovered by Jarvis Green in the end zone – gave the Patriots a 24-3 lead and put the game away.
With the loss, the Ravens’ margin for error the rest of the way is tiny. They have three home games against sub-.500 teams, but 10 wins will not necessarily get them into the postseason.
They might have to beat either Indianapolis or Pittsburgh on the road just to earn the conference’s sixth playoff spot.
“We’ve got five more weeks left and anything can happen,” said cornerback Gary Baxter. “Our hopes are still high. We’ve just got to take care of business."
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Monday, November 08, 2004
Ed Reed took a special game and made it unforgettable.
The walking highlight reel of a safety made the Ravens’ biggest play at the most critical time, returning a last-second interception for a touchdown to preserve the Ravens’ 27-13 victory over Cleveland.
Don’t let the score fool you. It may have been the closest 14-point game in team history.
Down a touchdown with less than 30 seconds remaining, the Browns (3-5) had the ball on the Ravens’ (5-3) 5-yard line, facing second-and-goal.
Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia, who had rallied his team and put them in a position to win the game, saw tight end Aaron Shea streaking across the middle of the field at the goal line.
He threw a perfect pass, but Shea, who was covered closely by Ray Lewis, had it bounce off his hands and into the grasp of Reed. An NFL-record 106 yards later, Reed was celebrating in the end zone. His play saved the game, and possibly the Ravens’ playoff hopes.
“It was definitely a blessing and a miracle if you knew what happened the whole play,” said Reed. “Ray tells me where I’m supposed to [be]…to get the ball. It was a great tip by Ray, and I just caught it.”
Reed could have downed the ball and the Ravens would have won just the same, but he saw an opening on the right side, beat the Browns to the edge and outran everyone to the end zone.
According to cornerback Gary Baxter, since Reed decided to take it out, he sure had better go the whole way.
“He scared me a little bit,” Baxter said with a laugh. “I wanted him to take a knee, but he took it out. If he had dropped that ball, I would have skinned him alive.”
Thanks to a sterling special teams performance in the game’s final 59 minutes, 46 seconds, the Ravens were in position to win, even if it was by the skin of their teeth.
The unit had bad start – giving up a 93-yard return for a touchdown to Richard Alston on the game’s opening kickoff – but finished strong and kept the Ravens in the game.
Kicker Matt Stover kicked four field goals – all in the first half – and punter Dave Zastudil had the play of the game, until Reed stole the show.
With the Ravens trailing 13-12 early in the fourth quarter, Zastudil placed a punt inside the Browns’ 5-yard line. Playmaker B.J. Sams made a diving save, throwing the ball out of the end zone before he or it hit the ground, and Chad Williams downed it at the 1.
The Browns challenged the ruling, but it stood.
On the ensuing possession, the Ravens’ defense was tenacious, allowing just one yard on three plays, and the Browns had to punt from their own end zone.
Then, with the pressure of the end line behind him and the Ravens’ punt block team closing around him, Browns punter Derrick Frost had the ultimate shank – kicking it just seven yards.
Three Jamal Lewis runs later, the Ravens were in the end zone. Lewis, who was playing in his first game in nearly a month, lowered his shoulder on third-and-goal from the 2 and powered his way in.
“It was nice to get the ball three times in a row,” said Lewis, who had 81 yards on 22 carries. “It showed we have confidence in the run. We punched it in the end zone.”
After a two point conversion – in which Kyle Boller connected on a perfectly-thrown jump-ball to Clarence Moore – the Ravens put the game in the hands of their defense, which turned in another stellar game.
Entering the game, the Ravens’ defense ranked first in the NFL in scoring (14.3 points per game). They allowed 13.
They ranked seventh in the NFL in yards allowed (290). They gave up 217.
“The thing we do is trust,” Lewis said. “We really just trust each other. That’s really our philosophy. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.”
With each passing game, Boller earns more trust from his teammates. He turned in another solid game that will never get the headlines, but put his team in position to win.
Boller completed 57 percent of his passes for 142 yards, but did not throw an interception for the fifth time in eight games and led the Ravens on three consecutive scoring drives to end the first half.
“You want to score touchdowns, but to get those three points is awful huge,” Boller said. “We kind of started out a little bit slow, but as the game went, we went better.”
The same can be said about their season. Since a season-opening loss to Cleveland, the Ravens have won five of their last seven contests, even with Pro Bowlers Todd Heap and Jonathan Ogden missing multiple games.
At the halfway mark, they trail Pittsburgh (7-1) by two games, but with a head-to-head still looming next month, the Ravens want to stay within shouting distance to make a move when their principals return.
“Hopefully we just keep going,” said head coach Brian Billick. “Hopefully we don’t have to do that too much longer.”
I must say that Ed Reed and Ben Roethlisberger are should have been the first two draft picks.
Ed Reed has opened up many eyes as rookie. Weather it is on defensive or on special teams. Reed is playing with flashes of pro bowl ability.
Expect great things from this kid.