As the playoffs draw near, the Ravens get set to avenge their loss in last year's AFC Championship game. The way that game ended was astonishing to Ravens players and fans, neither of whom have forgotten how close they were to Super Bowl XLVI.
After awhile, the shock turned to focus, and while 2012 hasn't been a smooth ride, Baltimore has looked like the best team in the league at times.
Their offense has a lot of potential, and more times than not has delivered. Their defense needs help, and will get it in the form of Ray Lewis' and Bernard Pollard's return from injury. Their special teams have been excellent all the way around.
Who will be the most important players in the playoffs and why? NFL playoff football is more about execution and focus than anything else. Who on the Ravens will make the key plays when they're needed?
Ray Rice drives the Ravens' offense. As he goes, so go the Ravens.
Rice is averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season, which ranks third among his five seasons. He's also averaging the least amount of yards per reception (7.8) of his career. We know that's not due to ability.
Call it play-calling if you want, but the bottom line is Rice can do a lot for the Ravens. If the idea was to keep him fresh for the playoffs, Baltimore has certainly achieved that goal.
Since he became a regular starter in 2009, Rice has averaged 346 touches per season. In three years at Rutgers, Rice carried the ball 910 times while averaging 5.4 yards per carry and one touchdown per every 18.6 carries.
In other words, Rice is a rare breed in the NFL: a durable, three-down, all-purpose running back. He's as fresh as he's going to be and has proven year after year that he's able to carry a full workload and then some.
The only thing that may worry Ravens fans is that in six career playoff games (besides at Pittsburgh in his rookie year when he had just one carry), Rice has carried an average of just 17.7 times per game. This is the year that number can and should increase.
Neck and neck with Rice in terms of importance to the Ravens offense is Joe Flacco, not only because of the importance of the quarterback position, but also because of Flacco's talent is he so important to the Ravens.
While many people hate on him, Flacco is set to finish the year tying or surpassing his career marks in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions.
Most importantly, Flacco has never missed a start in his career and has a NFL win/loss record of 54-25 (68.4 percent).
Additionally, only five other active quarterbacks have a postseason record that's equal to or better than his own.
|Player||Postseason W/L record|
|Tom Brady||16-6 (72.7 percent)|
|Eli Manning||8-3 (72.7 percent)|
|Ben Roethlisberger||10-4 (71.4 percent)|
Aaron Rodgers ||5-2 (71.4 percent)
|Drew Brees||5-4 (55.6 percent)|
|Joe Flacco||5-4 (55.6 percent)|
While his playoff career got off to a shaky start (2008-09: 1 touchdown, 6 interceptions), it's gotten much better in recent years (2010-11: 7 touchdowns, 2 interceptions).
But this is a league where the most important stats are wins and losses. Not since 2008 has Flacco won two straight playoff games. Especially in a contract year, that's the lack of consistency he needs to rectify in a hurry.
When the playoffs start, the speed gets faster and the margin for error gets smaller.
It certainly helps to have the AFC Pro Bowl kick returner on your team, which is just the case for the Ravens.
Jacoby Jones has given a tremendous lift to the Ravens after signing with the team on May 8, 2012. Since then, he's caught 27 passes for 370 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, Jones has become the best return man in the league.
Jones' kick return average of 32.1 yards is the highest among players who have returned at least 12 kicks. He's fourth in punt return yardage (335). Most importantly, Jones leads the NFL in returns for touchdowns (three).
The 27 passes he's caught is a good sign, because it shows Joe Flacco can depend on him, but doesn't have to, which allows Jones to focus on his dynamic, game-changing returns.
When the quality of your opponent increases, that generally means the quality of the quarterback you face increases as well.
Obviously, in playoff football, the teams are much better and the games are more tense than any regular season game you may have played.
Although Ed Reed's tackling hasn't been good this year, his forte isn't tackling; his forte is pass coverage. In 11 career playoff games, Reed has made eight interceptions, and has made at least one interception in every postseason he's played in (except for 2010).
Put it this way: the very best quarterbacks in the league will not take Reed lightly. They know he's still one play away from completely changing the game.
In the playoffs, sometimes one play is all it takes.
Justin Tucker had to earn the kicking job in training camp, and since training camp Tucker has done just about everything right. What a find he was for the Ravens.
Coming to Baltimore from the University of Texas as an undrafted rookie, all Tucker has done is lead the league in field-goal percentage (among kickers who have attempted at least 30 field goals) with a mark of 93.5 percent.
The only two field goals Tucker has missed this year were a 47-yard attempt in Week 4 versus Cleveland and a 41-yard attempt in Week 11 at Pittsburgh. He's also converted every one of his 40 extra-point attempts this season.
Speaking from experience of watching him up close and personal, Tucker is a calm, confident and very capable kicker. He has a very strong and accurate leg.
Ravens fans should be extremely happy with Tucker. I see no reason why he won't be their kicker for the next 15-20 years.