The Baltimore Ravens went from AFC fourth-seeded underdogs to Super Bowl-bound in three short weeks, thanks to both their offense and defense playing at a level higher than we saw throughout much of the regular season.
They outmaneuvered one of the league's best defenses and three of the top quarterbacks to earn the right to face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. We've seen the games and read the recaps, so we know how it happened. But let's dive deeper into some of the Ravens' numbers over the past three weeks to build a more well-rounded picture of just what they accomplished on their path to New Orleans.
Time of Possession
The Ravens weren't a particularly dominant team when it came to time of possession in the regular season and that continued into the playoffs, with the clock tipping in the Ravens' favor in just one of their three postseason games. The Indianapolis Colts held the ball for 37:32 in the Wild Card Round, to just 22:28 for the Ravens and in the following week, the Denver Broncos had it for 40:06 to the Ravens' 36:36 with the game stretching to double overtime, and 17:43 to 12:17 at the end of the first half.
Only against the New England Patriots did the Ravens come out on top in time of possession, with 31:06 of offense to the Patriots' 28:54, and even then, most of that came in the second half. After the first 30 minutes of play, the Patriots had the ball for 18:12 to just 11:48 for Baltimore.
The reason for this is simple—the Ravens had trouble extending drives, with their third-down conversions being dangerously low. In the first half of each of those three games, the Ravens had a combined two third-down conversions—two!—but still managed to go into halftime with the lead or tied in two of their three games.
Though the repeated three-and-outs, especially in the first halves of games, aren't particularly confidence-inducing, how the Ravens handled the drives they did manage to continue—by not even getting into third-down situations to begin with and scoring points once they got past midfield—teaches us an important lesson: In football, as in life, it's not about how much time you have, but what you do with the time you're afforded.
Red Zone Scoring
That principle is best illustrated by the Ravens' red zone scoring percentage in their three playoff games. Over those three games, the Ravens averaged 3.3 red zone scoring attempts per game and scored touchdowns 80 percent of the time. Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, that number increased to 100 percent—all four trips within the Patriots' 20-yard line resulted in a touchdown.
That's a huge increase over their average for the year (including playoffs) of 61.02 percent and an even bigger leap than their 50 percent average in 2011.
Red Zone Defense
Also impressive is how effective the Ravens defense has been in keeping opposing offenses from scoring touchdowns. In the playoffs, the Ravens allowed 3.3 red zone scoring attempts per game, the same as they did in the regular season.
And just as they did in their first 16 games, the Ravens kept their opponents from scoring touchdowns when they got there. Baltimore's opponents this year have scored touchdowns on just 42.86 percent of their red zone appearances, and that number fell to 40 percent in the postseason and 25 percent last week.
That's why the time of possession disparity doesn't appear to matter much, or at least, it hasn't in the playoffs in particular. The Ravens defense has had to adapt to the aging of their defense as well as myriad injuries throughout the course of the season, and the bend-but-don't-break philosophy that has evolved out of that has paid off.
Obviously, the ideal situation is to keep opponents out of scoring position as much as possible, but it's no less advantageous to have a defense capable of preventing touchdowns when they do get there.
Winning the turnover battle is one way to win a football game, and the Ravens certainly came out victorious in that area over the last three weeks. Though the Ravens ranked just 19th in interceptions during the regular season, with 13, and 24th in forced fumbles, with 14, in the postseason they had at least two takeaways per game.
Against the Colts, Ravens cornerback Cary Williams picked off Andrew Luck once, and Luck's lost fumble was recovered by Baltimore defensive end Pernell McPhee. Cornerback Corey Graham picked off Peyton Manning twice in the following week, one for a score. Manning also fumbled twice, with one recovered by Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger. And against the Patriots, Williams and Dannell Ellerbe each picked off quarterback Tom Brady once while Arthur Jones recovered Stevan Ridley's fumble, which came after he was knocked unconscious from a hard hit.
As a whole, the Ravens offense turned the ball over just three times during the postseason, and all were fumbles. Lawrence Guy and Pat Angerer each picked up fumbles lost by Ravens running back Ray Rice while quarterback Joe Flacco fumbled the ball away once himself, against the Denver Broncos.
More importantly, including Graham's pick-six, four of the Ravens' takeaways resulted in points, while none of their three lost fumbles ended in scoring drives for their opponents. It's one thing to generate turnovers, of course, but another, better one altogether to get three or seven points out of the ensuing drives.
For all of Flacco's strong passing performances in the playoffs, it didn't come from him completing more of this throws. In fact, his completion percentages over the past three weeks were each below his season average of 59.7—52.2 against the Colts, 52.9 against the Broncos and 58.3 against the Patriots.
Flacco didn't throw any more than usual, either, with no more than 36 passes thrown in any given postseason game. His success simply relates back to the Ravens managing to do more on offense with the limited opportunities they had. His completions simply meant more—they yielded more touchdowns than their opponents, even though the Ravens had fewer passing first downs than either the Patriots, Broncos or Colts.
Completions also dipped for the opposing quarterbacks. Luck, who had one of the worst completion percentages in the league in the regular season (and ranked in the top five in attempts) dropped from 54.1 percent to 51.9 percent against the Ravens. Manning averaged a 68.6 completion rate in the regular season and 65.1 against the Ravens and Brady dipped from 62.9 percent to 53.7, his worst of the season.
With Flacco's completion percentage taking a hit in the postseason and the Ravens overall time of possession generally lacking, it's not surprising that much of his success in passing the ball came from deep throws. In fact, with 24 total attempts of 20 or more yards in the playoffs, no quarterback went as deep as often as Flacco.
A benefit for the Ravens offense in the past three weeks was how generally weak each opposing secondary has been in the passing game. Only the Broncos defense ranked in the top tier of the league when it came to average passing yards allowed this season, with the Patriots and Colts in the bottom third.
And the Broncos' prowess against the pass primarily was a result of their front seven's ability to bring pressure on quarterbacks; with Baltimore's offensive line holding up against them, however, Flacco was able to exploit mismatches in the secondary that allowed him to complete much-needed deep balls and get into scoring range.
Flacco completed 12 of those 24 deep passes in the playoffs, for a total of 416 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. He went five-of-seven for 157 yards and a touchdown versus the Colts, four-of-six for 185 yards and three scores against the Broncos and three-of-11 for 74 yards against the Patriots.
In contrast, Baltimore's defense wasn't as generous in the deep passing game. Luck completed only one of his seven deep attempts, for just 20 yards, Manning completed one of his two deep throws for a 15-yard score and Brady had just one completion on his five attempts, for 24 yards, along with an interception.
One of Flacco's biggest strengths is his ability to get the ball down the field in one fluid heave; clearly, that's been a major component of their offense's success in the playoffs. And on defense, it appears Baltimore has found the right combination of cornerbacks (Corey Graham, Cary Williams) and safeties (Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard) to keep the deep end of the field off-limits to opposing quarterbacks, limiting their explosiveness.
When Jim Caldwell took over the offensive coordinator job after Cam Cameron was fired prior to the Ravens' Week 15 meeting with the Broncos, the prevalent opinion was that finally the Ravens would run the ball more. With the offense apparently being built around Ray Rice—considering his lucrative contract extension—it was baffling how little Rice was being asked to carry the ball and how quick Cameron was to abandon the run game altogether.
While running didn't necessarily increase with Caldwell calling the shots, what did occur was a better balance between running and passing the ball, as well as a better strategic approach to the choice to do one instead of the other.
Against the Colts, the Ravens ran the ball 32 times to 23 passes; against the Broncos, they ran 39 times and passed 34; against the Patriots, they ran 33 times and passed 36. Clearly, the goal was balance, but that doesn't exactly tell the whole story.
Think to the Championship win over the Patriots—in the first half, in particular, the Ravens repeatedly ran the ball on first downs. It became predictable, and the Patriots were prepared for it. However, all that first-half, first-down running lulled New England's defense into a false sense of security. When the Ravens came out in the second half passing the ball more often, they had to re-adjust on the fly and the result wasn't in their favor.
Against the Colts, the reliance on the run in the second half in particular made sense. The Ravens went into the second half with a 10-6 lead and scored again in the middle of the third quarter. They were still behind in the time of possession game, however, so the best way to protect the lead and eat time off the clock was to run the ball. As such, they ran just nine times in the first half and 30 times in the second.
In the Broncos game, the Ravens stayed dedicated to a balanced run-pass ratio throughout. They rushed 14 times in the first half, to 12 passes, and stayed close to that mark until the game ended in the second overtime period. The strategy here was to pick the ideal spot in the passing game—for example, exploiting the mismatch between receiver Torrey Smith and cornerback Champ Bailey—while also chewing up yards (and time) on the ground to keep Manning off the field as much as possible.
It's been said that defense wins championships, or that a top-level quarterback does. But that's not really the case; rather, sound strategy and, even more importantly, balance wins championships. Both were on display for the Ravens in the past three weeks when it came to when they'd run the ball and when they'd choose to pass it.