Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens Make a Statement, but What Is It, Exactly?
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Just what that statement is remains a mystery. There wasn't a single person on this planet who expected Flacco to complete a winning drive as important as this one was. But now that he has, Flacco and his teammates have an opportunity to clarify exactly which statement they want this win to be.
The series sweep is Baltimore's first since 2006, and this is the strongest they've looked since that season, in which they won 13 games before a letdown at home against Peyton Manning, the ultimate Raven killer.
Save for a dreadful 2007 campaign, Baltimore has enjoyed its most consistent run of success in franchise history. They've appeared in the playoffs each of the last three seasons, including an AFC Championship Game appearance in Flacco's rookie year 2008, and a victory in Foxborough over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Despite relatively consistent success, the Ravens have been just the opposite. Their performances throughout that stretch have ranged from brilliant to frustrating, which most assuredly led head coach John Harbaugh to dedicate the win to Ravens fans.
Unlike past Ravens teams, the 2011 edition has earned itself the type of win that can send a ripple effect through the league. How they respond after a win like this will truly define what statement the Baltimore Ravens want to make to the rest of the league. That response starts at the top.
How Will John Harbaugh Motivate His Players for an Inferior Opponent Next Week?
John Harbaugh was as emotional as his players after the Baltimore Ravens swept the Pittsburgh Steelers
After Flacco connected with Torrey Smith for the game winning touchdown in the final minute, head coach John Harbaugh was as emotional as anyone else in the Ravens locker room.
Harbaugh took a risk in the week leading up to the game by encouraging his players to be vocal about their arch rivals. It almost came back to bite them, but Baltimore was finally able to get the steel monkey off its back, winning in crunch time on the road.
Despite the importance of this win, it won't mean a thing if the Ravens put up a dud next week against the Seattle Seahawks.
Baltimore ran the Steelers out of town in Week 1, then fell the following week to an unimpressive Tennessee Titans team. The same thing happened two weeks ago at Jacksonville, when the Jaguars beat them coming off a prime time win over the New York Jets.
Harbaugh, bloody chin and all, will have to be careful not to let this win make him content, as that attitude will quickly spread throughout the locker room. The Ravens are no strangers to coming out flat after an important win, and it's the coach's responsibility to remind the players that each win is valuable.
If the Ravens lose to the Seahawks next week, they'll only confirm the popular opinion that they're an inconsistent unit. The blame usually falls on the offense, but Harbaugh's job is to make sure his team is prepared on both sides of the ball, regardless of who they're facing.
Joe Flacco Could Re-Affirm Inconsistency, or Step Closer to "Elite" Status
Joe Flacco has struggled throughout his career to establish himself. His perfomance the rest of the way could define him forever.
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To some, Joe Flacco is on the verge of being an elite quarterback. To others, he'll never be more than a game manager.
The Ravens won Superbowl XXXV with Trent Dilfer, who was widely considered to be a game manager. In 2000, that's all Baltimore needed, as their defense was so overpowering. But, the game has changed considerably in the last 11 years, and a stifling defense alone is no longer enough to win in today's NFL.
Dilfer called Flacco's game-winning drive the defining one of his career to this point. He couldn't be more right.
His 92-yard journey down the field last night could either be the beginning of a new chapter in Flacco's career, or just another ho-hum moment in what has been a generally inconsistent career for the former first-round pick. Flacco has been as successful as any of his predecessors in purple, save for the Lombardi trophy that only Dilfer has been able to bring home.
For the first time, though, Flacco looked absolutely brilliant when it mattered the most. All too often, Flacco has been the center of attention for the wrong reasons: throwing key interceptions or fumbling the ball at the absolute worst moment. Many of those blunders have come against the Steelers, especially in Pittsburgh.
As a rookie, he threw the game-ending pick to Troy Polamalu that propelled Pittsburgh to a Superbowl title. Last year in Week 13, he lost the ball and the game, again to Polamalu. That fumble came back to bite Baltimore when they left Pittsburgh empty-handed again after another playoff loss a few weeks later.
After finally overcoming Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger on the road, and for the second time this season, Flacco could finally be on his way to the elite status that many expected he'd reach by now.
All that depends on how he performs the rest of the way, though. Like the rest of his team, Flacco has proven nothing unless he comes out strong in Seattle. He has another opportunity to shine in prime time on Thanksgiving night, where the storylines will be too numerous to count with the San Francisco 49'ers in town.
Since Week 2, Flacco has had alternate games of sub-200 and 300-plus yard performances. He threw for 197 yards coming off the win over Pittsburgh in Week 1, then torched the Rams for 389 yards the following week. The peaks and valleys have continued throughout the rest of the year, but Flacco didn't have a defining moment like he did in Pittsburgh this week.
In just under two-and-a-half minutes, Flacco potentially began to erase some of his consistency woes. He finished the game 7-for-13, and would have had better numbers, were it not for a few dropped passes by Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
If Flacco can overcome the hangover after such a tremendous performance this week, he'll put himself and the Ravens in a position to move closer to that consistently elusive elite status.
Torrey Smith: Will He Finally Break Out?
Torrey Smith at times seems ready to open things up for the Ravens.
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Torrey Smith had about as wild a night as any player can have in the win over Pittsburgh. He opened the game with a holding penalty that called back a Ray Rice touchdown run, then dropped a few passes late, including a beauty in the endzone that looked like it might cost Baltimore the game.
But, along with his quarterback, Smith bounced back and made the biggest play of his young career. He fought off pass interference from a defensive back, gained separation and made a sure-handed grab in the back of the endzone.
If the Ravens are going to contend for a championship, they'll need Smith to keep doing more of the same. He has the speed to uncap the defense, which is an area the Ravens have always been unable to fill consistently.
This wasn't the first time Smith has pulled the spotlight in his direction. He caught three touchdowns in one quarter against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3, but failed to appear in the endzone until his big play in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, it seemed Smith spent an inordinate amount of time laid out on his stomach, watching a ball land right in front of him.
If Smith can use this opportunity to develop into the deep threat Baltimore so badly could use, he'll play a major role in the growth of the team as a whole. If he returns to relative invisibility, it will handicap the offense and make it that much harder for Joe Flacco and the rest of the unit to develop.
Ray Rice and Joe Flacco Can Help Each Other
Joe Flacco and Ray Rice need to work in tandem to improve both of their games
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Ray Rice opened up the Ravens win over the Steelers with a tremendous run that was nixed by a penalty. That would be one of the only times that he made himself noticeable during the game.
The running back is the only Ravens offensive player close to the elite status that was expected of Flacco (and Boldin). The defense has plenty of stars, but Rice is the one who shined the brightest. Still, his performance this season has been underwhelming, even though he'll likely remain invaluable as a the check-down option for Flacco.
But, if the Ravens want to truly establish themselves as a powerhouse, they'll ween Flacco off of that option, and force him to throw more down field, perhaps with Rice providing extra help in the backfield.
For a team that's historically been one-dimensional on offense, the Ravens could be on the verge of discovering their passing game, which should open up things for Rice. His most beneficial place on this team needs to be in the backfield. If Flacco can build on Sunday's big win, that will open things up more for Rice, possibly allowing him to break off big runs like the nullified one against the Steelers.
One thing that has held Baltimore back has been the balancing act between the run and the pass. Once Flacco makes the pass an always-viable threat, the running game will flourish.
The Defense Needs to Remain Tough
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The defense is probably the least of Baltimore's worries, but they're an emotional group nonetheless. The hallmark of the Ravens has for years been the tense relationship between the offensive and defensive units.
Ray Lewis said he had never been more proud of his offense after their 23-20 victory over Pittsburgh. However, they need to stay tough on opponents, and in the still possible event that the offense can't put together consistent drives, quarters and games they need to stay focused.
As the season comes into the closing weeks, the Ravens need to continue to adjust to opposing offenses and take advantage of opportunities against weaker opponents. Baltimore has been much better this year at finishing opponents, but there's still room for improvement in terms of preventing scores, especially in putting opponents away on third downs and keeping opponents out of field goal range.
The Ravens D should focus solely on getting the ball into Joe Flacco's hands, so that he has the best chance to establish himself along with the rest of the offense.
Baltimore Ravens: The Statement Is Yet to Be Complete
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If Baltimore can come out of this win strong, they'll make a statement that they're ready to take their franchise to the next level.
The Ravens have made themselves into a unique model of consistent success despite inconsistent performance. With their win and sweep over the Pittsburgh Steelers, they made the beginnings of a statement to the rest of the NFL.
Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith and the rest of the team have a chance to reverse the prevailing attitude that they're neither elite, nor true contenders among the league's best. There have been plenty of instances where Ravens fans have been left waiting at the altar by Joe Flacco, as he continually struggles to consistently play well.
But, next week against Seattle will be unlike any game following a big win. This one will be coming off of the most important win in a long time for the Ravens. It's bigger than the win in New England in 2009, advancing to the AFC Championship Game in '08, or reaching the playoffs every year since '08. It's bigger because it marks the first time that Flacco has taken over a big game, and shown what he and Baltimore are capable of.
The Ravens' win over the Steelers was undoubtedly a statement win. Time will tell exactly what that statement is.
Will the Ravens finally move into the elite tier of teams, or will they remain inconsistent?
Follow Jordan Mayblum on Twitter @JordanRMayblum