OAKLAND, Calif. – The Baltimore Ravens had just barged their way into the playoffs, manhandling an overmatched opponent on the final Sunday of the regular season. In a game that reduced football to its raw elements, the Ravens ran all over the Raiders, knocked out Oakland's starting quarterback and abused his replacement in a 21-13 victory.
It was about as complex as an arm-wrestling match, and you knew the victors wouldn't resist the urge to flex.
As Terrell Suggs(notes), Baltimore's pass-rushing linebacker extraordinaire, would soon declare, "You know how this team is in the playoffs. We are the one team they didn't want to get in. Nobody did. We're playing our style of football, and we're gonna be trouble."
Yet even when the Ravens ramped up their rhetoric, their body language was strangely subdued. After a brief celebration, they sat in the visitors' locker room of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and projected the demeanor of a 9-7 team that had expended every available ounce of energy just to sneak into the postseason as a wild-card team.
"It was a grind," Baltimore players kept saying of their up-and-down season, over and over again.
Yep, it was a grind. And now, naturally, Ray Lewis(notes) and friends expect to grind everyone they face into submission, beginning with the AFC East champion New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium next Sunday.
Sure, Baltimore lost to the Pats in Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 4 and is an early four-point underdog. But if you think the Pats were excited to draw the sixth-seeded Ravens in the opening round, you've been spending too much time poring over fantasy stats and ignoring reality.
"I don't think anybody looks forward to playing us," veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce(notes) said. "When they're looking at the draw of possible playoff opponents, nobody goes, 'Oh yeah, give us the Ravens.' Yeah, we're a dangerous team. And when you play us, you know it's gonna hurt."
In other words, even if the Patriots prevail over Baltimore, the big winner may end up being the second-seeded San Diego Chargers, which would be New England's next opponent.
The Pats are already beat up as it is: Quarterback Tom Brady(notes) reportedly has three broken ribs and a broken finger, and his top target, NFL receptions leader Wes Welker(notes), appeared to blow out his knee in Sunday's 34-27 defeat to the Houston Texans.
Nor, in fairness, was Sunday's news particularly cheery for the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals: After getting absolutely annihilated, 37-0, by the New York Jets, who clinched the conference's other wild-card spot, Cincy can look forward to a rematch on Saturday. Whoopee!
It's as though the '08 Ravens, who parlayed the sixth seed into a surprising AFC championship game appearance, have multiplied to inject a dose of double-trouble into next weekend's games: First-year Jets coach Rex Ryan was formerly Baltimore's defensive coordinator, while another ex-Raven, inside linebacker Bart Scott(notes), was a high-profile free-agent acquisition.
While many fans are aware that Ryan's Jets boast the NFL's No. 1 defense in yards and points allowed, it might surprise them to learn that the Ravens rank third in both categories.
And while I tried to make a convincing case that none of the seven teams who went into Sunday's action with a shot at earning one of the AFC's wild-card berths was particularly deserving, Baltimore's season, upon further review, provided little cause for embarrassment: Each of the Ravens' seven defeats came to teams that finished with winning records – all but the Steelers made the playoffs – and only two of those were by more than six points.
"People say we were struggling?" coach John Harbaugh asked after Sunday's victory. "Struggling in what sense? Struggling in the fact that we lost close games to really good teams, a lot of those on the road?
"A lot of the teams trying to make the playoffs had some really bad losses. You never see this team go out and get blown out. They give their very best effort every time out. It hasn't always been perfect, but you know what? We're in the playoffs. And we've got hearts of lions."
The Raiders (5-11) weren't necessarily lambs on Sunday, but they were destined to be losers in this game of dominance and submission. While Oakland's players, commendably, resisted the urge to have their cars revved up by team attendants in the Coliseum's F Lot for a quick escape into the offseason, the odds of them matching the Ravens' intensity weren't good.
Lewis, one of the great motivators in the history of his sport, simply wasn't going to allow that.
"Ray was unbelievable," Harbaugh said of the 34-year-old middle linebacker. "When he spoke in here before the game, it was off the charts. The theme was, 'Be the team we can be. Leave the penalties in their pockets. Hit everything in sight. Don't let up. Be the Ravens.' "
One man who got the message was halfback Willis McGahee(notes). A fairly forgotten runner with the emergence of Pro Bowler Ray Rice(notes) (14 carries, 70 yards) as a dual-purpose threat, McGahee toted the mail with a mean streak on Sunday. He carried 16 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns, including a 77-yard burst four minutes before halftime that was the game's signature play – and the weekend's quintessential "C'mon, Man!" moment.
With the Ravens up 7-3, McGahee took an inside handoff, broke to his right and rambled to midfield, where Oakland safety Hiram Eugene(notes) closed in for the tackle. Without breaking stride, McGahee threw a left-handed stiff-arm that redirected Eugene's momentum and buckled his legs. The next thing the 38,400 fans at the Coliseum knew, Eugene was embarrassingly on the ground before bouncing up, watching McGahee get smaller and smaller and giving thanks that there'd be no film to break down in the presence of teammates on Monday.
While the Ravens prevented the Raiders from running, quarterback Charlie Frye(notes) (18-of-25, 180 yards, one TD) kept Oakland in the game, finding tight end Zach Miller on a 12-yard scoring play to cut the deficit to 14-10 with 47 seconds left in the half. Yet Lewis and friends managed to inflict so much punishment in the first 30 minutes that Frye sat out the second half with back and ankle injuries.
"We got to Frye a lot," Pryce said. "We knocked him down a lot. At one point, I ran over him – it was a legal hit – and rolled off the top of him, and the ref looked at me and said, 'That quarterback's not real big, is he?' I said, 'No, he's not.' I think he'd had enough."
That meant that Oakland's second-half fortunes would be entrusted to deposed starter JaMarcus Russell(notes), and the inevitable followed: Raiders fans booed him mercilessly, and Russell (9 of 14, 102 yards) lived down to billing with two unconscionable turnovers. His ugly pass over the middle at the end of the third quarter was intercepted by rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe(notes), who returned it to the Oakland 22-yard line, setting up a short McGahee touchdown run.
Now trailing 21-13, Russell drove Oakland to the Baltimore 25 before dropping back to pass and holding the ball longer than an Al Davis news conference. Eventually linebacker Antwan Barnes(notes) swooped in from behind and forced a fumble, which Ellerbe alertly recovered, and it was "Gentlemen, start your engines" in the F Lot.
Lewis was thrilled that a pair of backups factored in the game-clinching play. "It's always 'Next man up' around here," he said as he exited the Coliseum and walked to the team bus. "Those guys have been doing it week after week. It's the story of our season."
It's a season that had its share of disappointments – remember how Lewis, after Baltimore's 27-21 defeat to the Pats in October, grumbled about the "embarrassing" roughing-the-passer calls that helped New England's cause? – but none of that mattered now.
"It's always been a grind," Lewis continued. "Every season's a grind. But there's nothing better than having that grind and getting in the dance. Once you get in that dance, anything goes. We've been through so much, so many little ups and downs. There's nothing that affects us. And the bottom line is, once you get in, it's a whole new game."
Thanks to an old-school combination of will and brute force, the Ravens have another game to play on Sunday. If they don't beat the Patriots, you can bet they'll beat them up – and that, if nothing else, should be cause for concern in New England.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Two weeks ago, after his team blew a late lead and lost 10-7 to the Atlanta Falcons to fall to 7-7, Ryan glumly declared that the Jets had been eliminated from playoff contention. Fortunately for his players, Ryan is a better motivator than mathematician. In New York's most impressive performance of the season, the Jets held the Bengals to 72 total yards – just seven in the first half – and zero yards passing while rushing for 257 of their own. And now Ryan, who in his first regular season finished 9-7 – the same record that got Eric Mangini fired a year ago – is the toast of the Big Apple. Only in the NFL, right?
• I still think it's too early to declare definitively that Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' job is safe – if Dallas suffers a disheartening playoff defeat to the Eagles at home on Saturday, who knows how owner Jerry Jones will react? But Phillips took another huge step toward job security on Sunday as the Cowboys crushed the Eagles 24-0 to deprive Philly of a first-round bye and capture their second NFC East title in three years. Phillips' best offseason move was to install himself as the defensive coordinator; the Cowboys finished the season with back-to-back shutouts for the first time in team history on the heels of an impressive victory over the previously undefeated Saints on Dec. 19. That triumph in New Orleans proved that Phillips' team could win a big game in December; now the Cowboys will take aim at the can't-win-in-January stigma that has dogged them since their last playoff victory 13 seasons ago. And if he leads Dallas to victory Saturday, quarterback Tony Romo(notes) (11 touchdown passes, two interceptions during his last six games) will finally be able to overcome his Bobble Boy and Cabo Wabo labels.
• Before the season, when I picked the Chiefs to win the AFC West, I was clearly delusional. By October I had adjusted my expectations: By the end of the year, I was convinced, Kansas City would be a team on the rise that would pull some big upsets. Well, it took until Week 17, but I finally got at least a tiny bit of validation. Facing a still-in-playoff-contention Broncos team that had humiliated them four weeks earlier in K.C. 44-13, the Chiefs (4-12) strutted into Denver and rolled to a 44-24 victory. With second-year halfback Jamaal Charles rushing for a franchise-record 259 yards (K.C.'s 317 yards on the ground was its most since 1966) and linebacker Derrick Johnson returning two Kyle Orton interceptions for touchdowns, this was the type of breakthrough effort that can create some excitement for general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley as they enter their second offseason in Kansas City. "This will help us tremendously moving forward," Haley said Sunday night after returning home. "We're a young team in transition, and we're making progress. Guys played hard throughout the year. We've developed Jamaal. We're moving in the right direction. [Johnson] has grown up a lot this year. He has become more disciplined. [Matt] Cassel played good again. Everyone was fired up to keep [the Broncos] scrambling." I have a feeling I'll have more to say about the promise of the Chiefs in the months to come, if only because I consider persistence a virtue. In the meantime, as we close the book on the '09 regular season, some additional congratulations are in order: To the Falcons, whose 20-10 victory over the Bucs gave them back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history … to the 49ers (8-8), whose 28-6 victory over the Rams ended a six-year streak of losing campaigns … and to Titans halfback Chris Johnson, who led Tennessee (8-8) to a 17-13 victory over the Seahawks – its eighth in 10 games following an 0-6 start – with 134 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 4:33 remaining. Among other feats, Johnson became the sixth NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, broke Marshall Faulk's 10-year-old single-season record for most yards from scrimmage (he finished with 2,509) and ensured that Y! Sports fantasy guru Brad Evans will get nice and cozy with a certain bear on a future webcast. And please, for the love of God, try to remember the fact that I saw Johnson's breakout season coming when you understandably mock me for having picked the Chiefs to win their division.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• When Welker pulled up in the first quarter after attempting to make a cut against the Texans, it cast a pall upon the season's final Sunday, and not just because of how the elusive wideout's absence might impact the Pats in the playoffs. "Damn," Steelers wideout Hines Ward(notes) wrote via text message. "It's his contract year." Ward agreed that Welker's injury underscored the dilemma faced by playoff teams that are already locked into a certain seed (or, like New England on Sunday, have little incentive to improve its position). Either the coach rests his key starters and risks getting out of rhythm, or he subjects them to potential injury with nothing to gain. Bill Belichick, one of the great coaches of the modern era, was obviously struggling with this on Sunday: Even with Brady's ailments, the quarterback started against the desperate Texans and stayed in the game after Welker went down. With the Pats up 10-7 and 4:45 left in the second quarter, Belichick replaced Brady with backup Brian Hoyer(notes). Yet Brady started the second half and stayed in the game until just 1:47 remained and New England took over at its own 34 trailing by seven. Hoyer got the ball to the Houston 34 before turning it over on downs. The fact is that there's no obvious blueprint for such a scenario. And late-season games featuring teams like the Pats (who didn't really care whether they got the third or fourth seed) on Sunday are excruciating for fans. Commissioner Roger Goodell recognizes this and, to his credit, is trying to figure out a way to remedy the situation; he might even provide incentives for teams to go hard when circumstances dictate otherwise. Good for Goodell – listening to his customers and pondering creative solutions are among the reasons he's a great commissioner. But would an extra draft pick or two make up for the loss of a key player like Welker? I don't think so. This is a very tricky situation, and I'm not sure there's an easy remedy.
• As injured Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce(notes) sat in his Southern California home watching his team finish out a disappointing season, the images on his TV screen provoked feelings of disgust. Pierce, placed on injured reserve in late November after doctors discovered a bulging disc in his neck, saw a listless team going through the motions in New York's 44-7 road defeat to the Vikings, a week after the Giants were officially eliminated from contention in an equally humiliating 41-9 home drubbing by the Panthers. "It's one thing to lose," Pierce wrote via text Sunday night. "It's another to play the game with no passion or desire. One thing I know I have is heart and pride. … It's just not the same when you are not in, and you see and know the problem but can't do anything about it." After the Giants rolled to a 44-7 victory (yep, same score) over the Raiders in October to improve to 5-0, Pierce said the game "felt like a scrimmage." Now the Vikings can relate.
• In an unfortunate scheduling coincidence, three of next weekend's four first-round playoff contests will feature rematches of games from Sunday – all of which ended in blowouts. It's an uncomfortable position for all parties concerned, and I expect the three teams that lost on Sunday (Cardinals, Bengals, Eagles) to be far more formidable foes the second time around. The Cardinals, especially, should be able to step up their game in dramatic fashion, if only because we saw them do it in last year's playoffs en route to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. "I think you'll [see that]," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said Sunday night. "Our team responds pretty well in this type of situation. Playing our starters and running some of the stuff we held back will also hopefully make it different next week." As for the Bengals' Chad Ochocinco(notes), who became the latest star wideout to be shut down by Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes)? While acknowledging that he hurt his left knee in the third quarter of Sunday night's game – "I fell on it hard as hell" – he insisted that come Saturday, "I'll be fine." My sense is that the Bengals will be, too.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That three sets of parents I know and respect have allowed their kids (aged 10, 11 and 13, respectively) to see "The Hangover." It seems like a pretty steep transition from believing in the tooth fairy to processing the madness behind Ed Helms' missing tooth – but maybe it's just me.
2. How Tom Cable can say, with a straight face, that he expects to return as the Raiders' coach next season. Really? Along with his well-documented off-the-field behavior that brought embarrassment to the organization, Cable just presided over Oakland's seventh consecutive season with 11 defeats or more – the worst stretch in league history. He was in charge of a staggeringly inept offense (31st in yards, 31st in points) that managed to make a non-person out of the theoretically dangerous Darren McFadden(notes), and he basically blamed it all on Russell, which is not likely to sit well with owner Al Davis. What do you think is more likely: Davis taking the blame for having drafted non-productive top-10 picks Russell, McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) in successive years, or him blaming the coach for not developing his high-priced investments in the least? Cable is constantly insisting that the team is about to turn to the corner, when any sane observer would conclude the Raiders are careening toward a dead end. As one member of the organization said on Sunday, "Watching Cable turn the corner reminds me of watching a hamster run inside a wheel." It's time to clean out the cage.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Last year's Broncos were among the NFL's biggest all-time chokers, becoming the first team to blow a three-game division lead with three games to play. I can't believe I'm writing this, but the '09 Broncos are even more reprehensible. After winning its first six games under rookie coach Josh McDaniels, Denver lost eight of its final 10, becoming the third team since 1970 to miss the playoffs after a 6-0 start. And whereas last year's embarrassing blowout in the final game came on the road against a team (the Chargers) fighting for a playoff spot, Sunday's debacle took place at Invesco Field against one of the worst teams in the league. In a game they needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, how could the Broncos have been so flat? Well, I'm not sure there was a direct correlation, but the week leading up to Sunday's game was filled with turmoil: Two players, Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) and starting tight end Tony Scheffler(notes), were deactivated by McDaniels because of perceived attitude issues and weren't even at the stadium on game day. I don't know whether the coach's actions were justified, and I have no direct knowledge that the benchings affected the motivation of any other Denver players. But I am convinced that the Broncos were, in the words of two members of the organization with whom I communicated Sunday night, "an embarrassment." Among the other observations relayed to me: "That was terrible … half the guys didn't show up … Nobody on defense would tackle … We turned [Jamaal] Charles into Jim Brown … No discipline or accountability … We need to find more guys who will stay the course through adversity." Other than that, everything's looking up in the Mile High city.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Sorry and congrats"
– Text Sunday night from Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, jokingly apologizing for the Bengals' miserable performance after I'd picked them to win and acknowledging my momentous victory in the Y! Sports picks contest
- the Ravens