For Baltimore Ravens fans, seeing clips of Billy Cundiff's agonising miss at the death to send the New England Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI must be nigh on complete heartbreak—especially considering the fact that the Ravens have reached at least the Divisional playoff round in each of the last four years with two AFC title game appearances.
However, the complete domination by the purple and black in the season opener at home to Cincinnati instilled some genuine, albeit early, hope for the Ravens to finally take their game that one echelon higher.
For the first time in many doubters' eyes, Joe Flacco looked as comfortable and confident as any quarterback in the National Football League, calling the shots with fluidity, swiftness and poise in a no-huddle offense. Throwing 21-for-29 and for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns, Flacco's play was laced with certainty and intelligence.
Flacco may have combined with veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and second-choice tight end Dennis Pitta for his touchdown throws, but he also linked with receivers Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and rookie Deonte Thompson, as well as running back Ray Rice, tight end Ed Dickson and fullback Vonta Leach to move the Ravens downfield. This wide range of targets and weapons gives Flacco more choice and, most importantly, makes the Ravens an incredibly difficult team to cover defensively.
Last year, Rice totalled 1,364 yards rushing (surmounted only by the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew), as well as leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,068 yards, making him without doubt the focal point of the Ravens' offense. What makes the 2012 Ravens offense so potent this season is the continued use of Rice, complemented perfectly by the wider range of veritable receiving targets available to Flacco from under center.
With opposing defenses still having to focus on Rice's versatility and explosiveness as both a rusher and receiver, this leaves mismatches for receivers like Boldin, Smith and Pitta, who have been amongst Flacco's favored targets in the Ravens' first two games.
It will be the offense who will have to make the difference, then, at the M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday night when the Patriots come to town. As one of the most regular representatives of the AFC in Super Bowls of recent years, the Ravens can use the Patriots' successes as a perfect example of how to get there themselves.
While the Ravens' famously hard-nosed and stingy defense - headed by Super Bowl XXXV MVP and all-around NFL legend Ray Lewis - were tested this season against the Philadelphia Eagles, their performance against the division rival Bengals proves that they've not lost a step, especially given the absence of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs.
Certainly, last season's close matchup with the Patriots in the AFC title game will be fresh in the mind of every Ravens player and fan. Given the improvements made on offense, combined with the consistently strong and imperturbable defensive front, this weekend's game will be just as close an affair.
If Flacco can play as well as he did against New England last time around and if all the cogs in the machine are fine-tuned and firing with the grit and gusto of potential Super Bowl champions, a victory could be in the books for Baltimore. And if that happens, it would be a stretch to think Baltimore's success will be hinged on do-or-die field goal attempts.
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