Hang on to your hats. The Ravens are in the dance.
Disclaimer: If you are in any way a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots, you might want to look away now. This could get ugly for you.
How about them Ravens, hon?
Behind an inspired and mostly-healthy defense, and riding the big arm of quarterback Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens will be taking the Ray Lewis retirement party to the Big Easy on Feb. 3, where they will square off with the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.
This was far from an easy road for the Ravens. Injuries decimated a once-proud defense throughout the year, taking out or limiting stalwarts Lardarius Webb, Terrell Suggs, Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Jameel McClain and Bernard Pollard for extended periods of time. Flacco had an up-and-down regular season where he appeared to be an MVP candidate one week and a candidate for the unemployment line the next. Things got so insane during the season that the offensive coordinator was fired — with his team sporting a 9-4 record at the time.
And hardly anybody complained.
There were signs of life for the Ravens in their second-to-last game of the year when new coordinator Jim Caldwell appeared to introduce Flacco to the concept of throwing to the middle of the field instead of those predictable sideline patterns, and the Ravens crushed the defending champion New York Giants. But with their playoff spot secured following that win, the Ravens rested most of their stars during the last game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals, and nobody was really sure what to expect from the team during the playoffs.
And I’m pretty certain most people didn’t expect this. In fact, many predicted the Ravens would lose their playoff opener to the Indiannapolis Colts and their upstart quarterback, Andrew Luck. But Flacco and grizzled veteran receiver Anquan Boldin hooked up over and over again, and the proud defense held it together enough to limit Luck’s scoring opportunities, and the Ravens moved on to extend their league-high streak of consecutive seasons with a playoff victory to five.
And that’s where it was going to end, right? The Ravens next had to go to Denver to face off against the top-seeded Broncos and their legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, who, by the way, had defeated the Ravens nine consecutive times, dating back to his time piloting the Colts. The Broncos, lest we forget, also beat the Ravens in Baltimore 34-17 late this season, and the score actually made the game appear closer than it actually was, as the Ravens scored a couple late touchdowns when the outcome was pretty much decided.
To borrow a line from ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Flacco dropped two beautiful touchdown passes to receiver Torrey Smith, and a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones with about 30 seconds left to force the game into overtime. Following a scoreless overtime period, rookie kicker Justin Tucker belted a 47-yard field goal in double overtime to send Ravens fans across the world into delirium, and the team into the AFC Championship game, where they would face off against legendary quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
This would be a rematch of the championship game played last year, where the Ravens coughed away a sure touchdown pass and easy field goal in the waning seconds, causing the Patriots to go to the Super Bowl, and me to hide under my blanket in a dark closet for three weeks. I mean, that can be a scary place for a fan. To be that close to glory, only to see Lee Evans have that ball stolen out of his hands and ...
But I digress.
As we all know now, the Ravens got their revenge on the Patriots, as Flacco and Boldin again hooked up for the common good of all mankind, and that proud Ravens defense shut out the Patriots high-octane offense in the second half. The Ravens booked their trip to the Super Bowl, and former University of Delaware quarterback Flacco endeared himself to both skeptical fans of the team and outside observers in one magical three-game ride.
It wasn’t that long ago when Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley was asked if Flacco could ever lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl, Woodley answered, “... that’s not going to happen in this lifetime.”
How about this lifetime?
Yup, those pesky Baltimore Ravens will be playing in this year’s Super Bowl, and they will be led not only by the mercurial Lewis in his “last ride,” but also by Flacco, who has at least temporarily silenced the critics.
As legendary Baltimore announcer Chuck Thompson would say if he were around to witness this, “Ain’t the beer cold!”