Finally, a game where it all came together.
After the big win at Pittsburgh last week, ESPN's James Walker pointed out that in their last nine contests against the Steelers, the Ravens were an uninspiring 3-6 overall, raising concerns about whether the Ravens would be in danger of a serious letdown in a game in which they were heavily favored at home. To be honest, when Baltimore was stuffed on a strong goal line stand by the Bronco defense on the Ravens' first drive, I definitely got a little bit antsy.
However, my suspicions proved unfounded- the Ravens answered the adversity by putting up 17 straight points. Even when Dawan Landry was beaten for a long touchdown pass immediately prior to halftime and Denver closed within ten points, you got the sense that if Baltimore could just come out and establish the run game again in the second half, they had this game in their clutches.
That's exactly what happened- Denver was in desperation mode after Ray Rice's second touchdown run of the day, and produced a field goal to pull back within 14 points. But nine straight touches by Rice wore down a tiring Denver defense, and Willis McGahee's fresh legs crushed the life out of Denver's hopes for victory on this day once and for all- he ran for a 30-yard TD that put the Ravens up 31-10.
Denver eventually scored a meaningless touchdown with less than a minute to go in the game on a second spectacular catch by emerging star WR Brandon Lloyd to arrive at the game's final score of 31-17.
All in all, it was a complete effort by the Ravens in all three phases- offense, defense, and special teams. Here are Sunday's heroes and goats.
Ray Rice was a top pick in fantasy football leagues this season, but to this point he had been falling short of the lofty expectations set for him by fantasy owners- Rice had yet to score a touchdown this season.
No more- Rice was the Ravens' offensive workhorse today, with a whopping 133 yards on 27 carries and 2 TDs, not only churning out lots of yards on the ground himself but doing a great job setting up other players off of play action (or just softening up the defense for McGahee's long touchdown run to seal the game).
Rice has repeatedly stated that he doesn't care about his personal stats as long as the Ravens are winning, but it was clear during the post game press conference that he was excited for his breakout day today in front of the home crowd.
With Rice running this effectively, the Ravens offense is downright scary- let's hope he keeps it up.
When the Ravens got stuffed early in the game, Cameron decided to switch away from Willis McGahee inside the five yard line- a move that paid off handsomely with two 1-yard touchdown runs by the aforementioned Ray Rice. It was a great adjustment by the Ravens' offensive coordinator after a disappointing opening to the game, and Cameron should get a lot of credit for sticking with Ray Rice this week when it was clear that the Broncos had no answer for him.
Honorable mention to the offensive line here, when the big guys up front are playing well it makes running the football much easier- but I got them last week, sorry guys- gotta spread the wealth around, like Cameron does.
The Ravens' secondary has been much better than some pundits had believed and some Ravens fans had feared during the preseason, and early in Sunday's game the Broncos clearly felt like their receivers could get open against Ravens CB Fabian Washington; I'd even go so far as to say the Broncos thought they had a mismatch against the former first round pick.
Washington, however, was having none of that, with 4 passes defended in the first half alone. Washington was not called for any penalties and blanketed whichever of Denver's talented receivers he was covering all day long, and if you noticed, Denver's long pass plays came at the expense of other members of the Ravens' secondary.
With Domonique Foxworth gone for the season, Washington spent the entire day in the hip pockets of Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal, a big reason for Baltimore's success stopping Kyle Orton today.
After being generous with the game balls last week and even with the offense this week, the streak had to be broken eventually: there was indeed a defensive goat in today's game. That player was Ravens SS Dawan Landry, the man who was burned for Brandon Lloyd's first touchdown catch, the one that came immediately before the end of the first half.
To that point, the Ravens had amassed a hefty 17 point lead and were shutting out the formidable Denver passing attack. The Broncos even helped the Ravens with two successive penalties: with less than a minute to go in the half, Denver was faced with a 1st & 25 from inside Baltimore territory.
Rather than play it safe and try to cut into the deficit, Denver proceeded to simply run Lloyd up the sideline and over the top of the retreating Landry, who froze for a second when Lloyd faked a post pattern before continuing his streak to the back of the end zone.
To his credit, Lloyd made a great catch, but there is no way that Landry should be getting beaten over the top on a 1st & 25 play. Momentum was squarely with the Ravens prior to that play, and going into halftime, instead of a 17-point lead, Baltimore had only a 10-point lead and had diminished its momentum advantage. Against a better team, in a closer game, that play could really have come back to hurt the Ravens.
No big field goal kicks for Cundiff today, but he hit on the one he attempted and he continues to do an absolutely fantastic job getting his kickoffs deep and forcing opposing teams' kick returners to settle for touch backs. Cundiff was again ridiculously proficient at this in Baltimore today, putting 4 of his 6 kicks in the end zone. One of the other kicks resulted in a Demaryius Thomas fumble when he got crushed by reserve Ravens LB Jason Phillips, and so partially Cundiff is getting the nod for the kick coverage unit as a whole- but again, Cundiff did everything that was asked of him today.
So far, Ravens head man John Harbaugh looks like a genius for sticking with Cundiff over former Bengals Pro Bowl kicker Shayne Graham at the end of the preseason.
Yes, the Ravens didn't necessarily do it in the prettiest way possible, but they had over 230 yards rushing as a team today and Joe Flacco was efficient with the football. The Ravens turned it over on downs on their first possession, but did not have another turnover for the remainder of the game. With the kind of talent the Ravens have on offense- up front and at the skill positions- that will usually be a recipe for winning games, and today was no exception.
After a couple of good, winning performances primarily gotten through the air on offense, I think it is safe to say that the Ravens have one of the most balanced attacks in the league and are capable- finally, after so many years- of being teams in every conceivable way. A big rushing performance like this where the Ravens were simply more physical than their opponent doesn't come along very often, but it shows the disparity between Baltimore and some of the league's less physical teams.
The big rushing performance, paired with a couple of good games by Flacco, means that the Ravens probably won't have anybody competing for individual single-season records. However, as an offense, they are good enough to blow teams out because they can grind out the tough yards on the ground or throw for those same tough yards.
That's a scary thought for defensive coordinators around the league, and a performance like this makes you suspect that the Ravens have a strong chance to repeat that performance in New England as they did last year in the playoffs.
New Ravens CB Josh Wilson (pictured), who served as the team's primary kick returner today, was also the guy that got burned on Brandon Lloyd's garbage time TD, another sensational catch. Still, the former Maryland Terrapin was out of position on the play and again, against another team a big play like that could come back to bite the Ravens.
Without the two long touchdowns to Lloyd, Orton threw for very pedestrian totals, and with the Ravens given the opportunity on 1st & 25 to end the second quarter and playing prevent defense to end the fourth quarter, you'd like to see the Ravens eliminate these long pass plays.
Still, on the whole the Ravens secondary played well, and ultimately in a convincing win like this I'm nitpicking. But until such time as the Ravens do play a legitimately perfect game, I'll continue to nitpick, because hey, if you aren't improving, you're regressing.
Bottom line: one of the marks of a good team is winning the games you are supposed to win, and the Ravens definitely accomplished that today in convincing fashion.
Next week, the Baltimore Ravens travel to play the New England Patriots on the road in a rematch of last year's playoff game in New England where the Ravens blew out the Patriots with an overpowering rushing attack combined with a ferocious pass rush.
While today's game might point to a similar result, you'd better believe that New England remembers that game- and they will be at home, coming off a bye. Oh yeah, one more thing- Tom Brady is still their quarterback, so this game is definitely not a sure win. Having said, that, it is definitely a winnable game, and I'm expecting a good one!