Monday, January 28, 2013

The AFC Championship Game Timeline: Part 1

"Throw the ball . . . throw the ball! Why
doesn't he throw the damn ball?!?"
I've been having a really hard time getting my mind around the notion that THIS Ravens team is going to the Super Bowl. Let's face it, after week 15 even the staunchest supporter of the purple and black was having a hard time thinking this wasn't a lost season. A major coaching change, a slew of injuries to key players and the apparent regression of Joe Flacco didn't provide much reason for optimism.

I personally thought rock bottom had been reached when they followed-up a pathetic home loss to a Steeler team quarterbacked by Charlie Batch by blowing a late lead in the Redskins game and ultimately losing to a second string quarterback. There was, however, still digging to be done as they came back to Baltimore the following week and were dominated by the Broncos in a game where Joe Flacco threw a backbreaking pick six on the Denver 2 yard line and the new look offense under Jim Caldwell yielded 56 total rushing yards and a combined stat line for Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin of one catch for 14 yards. If this was Raising Arizona, then the doctor had just told us that "the 2012 season was a rocky place where the Ravens' seed could find no purchase."  

But fortunately they had an NFC counterpart that was imploding faster than they were and with the Giants next-up on the schedule, there was still slight hope for a turnaround. When the Ravens blew them out to clinch a playoff berth, I distinctly remember thinking how ironic it would be if the 2012 team went to the Super Bowl where much more highly regarded teams (2006 and 2011) had failed. Then they handled the Colts in the first round, winning by 15 in a game that wasn't that close. We all know what happened the following week in Denver but lost in the focus on the game tying bomb and the two Bronco special teams touchdowns was the fact that the Ravens held Peyton Manning to one touchdown from the middle of the second quarter to the end of the game. Combine that defensive effort with Flacco's three touchdown passes and Ray Rice's 130 yards and it was becoming clear that they had found a winning identity.

Meet the new boss mutherfucker!
Then they rolled into Foxborough and manhandled the Patriots. It's been a week and I'm still having a hard time coming-up with a writing angle on that second half because I watched it in a state of stunned euphoria. Kind of like that first time you see your favorite band in concert and you catch yourself being mesmerized for long stretches by things like the drummers crazy fast hands or the sheer force of the sound being emitted by the lead guitar.* So I'm going with the writing equivalent of slamming a couple of beers at the turn and making use of the crutch that led to my first published article back in 2001 - the always popular timeline.**

Thanks to one of the five greatest inventions of our lifetime (TiVo) and a fogged-out third round in La Jolla, I found myself with a couple hours to kill and the pleasure of re-watching the AFC Championship Game with the benefit of hindsight and without the anxiety that I was going to be left with that cold empty feeling after last year's debacle.*** Let's go to the tape.

The First Half 

The first half was pretty uneventful with Flacco getting off to a shaky start, the Patriots dinking and dunking their way to 13 points and one cheesy fourth down play where they put their back-up quarterback under center out of the punt formation forcing the Ravens to burn a timeout before eventually punting the ball anyway. I didn't write down what high praise Jim Nantz and Phil Simms had for that little gimmick but I'm sure it was annoying. Little did we know at the time that this would foreshadow the fact that the Patriots were going to be all sizzle and no steak for most of the day.

Probably not the way you want
to establish your "leg"acy. 
One thing worth noting is that they completely botched the clock management at the end of the first half by not using their last timeout on second down which would have stopped the clock with 17 seconds left and given them two shots at the endzone before kicking the field goal. My theory is that even Tom Brady himself couldn't believe that he had just pulled the most bush league championship game move since A-Rod slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove while running to first base. The kick to Ed Reed's knee during his slide and the thought of how that would forever tarnish his image rattled him.

3rd Quarter

(We're switching to the present tense here so we can really go back and relive the moment. It might be a good idea for Patriot fans to leave early . . . just like they did with over two minutes left in the game).

14:35 - Steve Tasker reports that Bill Belichik told him that they need to do a better job of converting their redzone opportunities (plural) in the second half which of course assumed that they would get more than one . . . which they didn't. There is an old saying about people who "assume." I think it goes something like, "Bill Belichik is an asshole."

14:15 - Jim Nantz comments that it's been a silent game for Anquan Boldin and Flacco promptly hits him for 26 yards. Keep talking Nantzy.

12:55 - After what looked like the start of a solid drive, Flacco throws one of his classic half-hearted "this play is hopeless" passes on 3rd and 12 that lands in the middle of nowhere causing every Raven fan to grumble, murmur or sigh. At least they finally shifted the field position.

11:14 - Bernard Pollard just rocked Wes Welker's world and drew the inevitable flag that starts coming-out anytime he gets within 10 yards of the ball. Pollard gets more personal foul penalties than guys driving red Lamborghinis get speeding tickets.

10:11 - Welker drops an easy first down catch. I wrote it last week and I'll write it again. The degree of difficulty goes way up on those catches when you know Pollard is lurking somewhere behind you.

Mrs. Welker's husband
took quite a pounding.
10:03 - Ed Reed calls for a fair catch on a punt, goes to his knees and then takes a helmet-to-helmet shot from the Patriots cover man. Reed is clearly shaken-up. Nantz describes it as "a little contact" and notes that there is no flag on the play. I can't decide whether the refs in this game remind me more of the ones from The Longest Yard or the ones from Remember the Titans but, when you add the Nantz/Simms announcing team, it becomes pretty clear that the whole package is a tribute to the German ref/announcer combo from Victory.

9:48 - Flacco hits Dennis Pitta with a perfect pass in stride that goes for 22 yards to the 50. Somewhere on the sidelines, Terrell Suggs just stuck his face in a camera and compared Pitta to a Volvo, frozen yogurt, Dockers pants or some other product associated with white people.

9:11 - Flacco finds Rice on the same inside screen play that turned the Colts game around. Pretty sure if you designed the prototypical receiver for the inside screen, he would look an awful lot like Ray Rice. But maybe we could also give him a mustache like those cool old-school running backs like Chuck Foreman and Rocky Bleier.

8:15 - Bernard Pierce jukes his way for 9 yards dispelling the notion that your second running back needs to be a change of pace back or have a different running style than your starter which I never quite understood because what if your starter is great? Wouldn't you want two of him? And imagine how cool it would be if they both had mustaches.

"Yeah . . . get 'em a body b. . . .
wait, what just happened?"
6:50 - Pitta gets rocked the moment he catches the ball and there's no flag? Simms calls it "a good clean hit" which it would have been if not for the rule that you can't crush "a receiver who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner." I have watched a lot of football this season and that is the first time I have not seen a flag on a play where the receiver gets blown-up immediately after catching the ball.**** You can picture Belichik and Brady snickering on the sidelines until . . .  

6:14 - Pitta scores on the next play. There are going to be more big plays in this game but that may have been the turning point because if there is one team that has been built to play f-ck you football, it's the Ravens and that was a f-ck you play by Pitta. Suggs just stuck his face in a camera and compared Pitta to an albino tiger.

5:24 - Brady bounces one to Brandon Loyd and then follows that up with a flinchy pass that lands on the ground a yard behind Aaron Hernandez. And here comes Brady's pouty face as Nantz somberly tells us he's one out of his last five as if he's describing a Tom Watson 4-putt at Augusta.

4:05 - Flacco throws a 23 yard strike to Torrey Smith on 2nd and 12 (his fourth 20+ yard completion of the 3rd quarter). Phil Simms points out on the replay that "they got the perfect play on for that defense." Somewhere Cam Cameron is saying, "yeah, that's what I would have called too."

More impressive play this year,
"Kick Slide" or "Butt Fumble?" It's
got to be "Butt Fumble" right?
3:00 - The commercial for the Pro Bowl features highlights of Peyton Manning (arguably the greatest Pro Bowl quarterback of all-time) and Cameron Wake stripping the ball from Mark Sanchez. It's probably the funniest ad I've seen since CareerBuilders.com was using monkeys in suits.

2:20 - Pierce makes a sweet move at the line of scrimmage and bounces around right end for 11 yards on 3rd and 2. Great play but let's face it, he's no Danny Woodhead. If only the Ravens had as many offensive weapons at their disposal as the Patriots, they might actually have a shot in this game.

0:00 - Four plays later and the Ravens have the ball 2nd and goal at the Patriot 3 yard line with an 8 point lead. No Ravens fan wants to say it out loud but, with the way the defense is playing . . . shhhhhhhh.....

(To Be Continued)

Endnotes

* I was going to go with a different comparison there having to do with a certain genre of video that one might choose to watch on the internet while sitting alone at home with the family possibly on vacation but I'm already walking a fine line every week with the FGW considering the pictures that I need to include in an effort to build my Eastern European readership.

** OK, I probably need to qualify just about every part of that sentence. First, the writing equivalent of slamming two beers at the turn would really be slamming two beers at your desk but I'm currently in no position to do that as it's 8:50 a.m., all I have in my office is a bottle of red wine and I don't have a corkscrew. Second, the 2001 article to which I am referring was not just the first thing I've ever had published, it was the only thing I've ever had published (unless you count the FGR) but I never waste a self-promotional opportunity so here is a link to the remastered version of How Not to Have a Baby complete with a photo of me and FGK1 holding the Ravens' Lombardi Trophy.

Do you mean pictures
like this one?
*** I love the word "debacle." It's fun to say and also has one of the greatest definitions of any word in the English language - "a total, often ludicrous failure." I'm surprised writers don't use it more often. Then again, I don't spend a lot of time reading about Cleveland sports. BOOM!

**** I wanted to get Mike Pereira's take on that play so I checked his Twitter feed and, in the middle of the conference championship games he wrote, "in my hotel room with no TiVo or DVR." What in the hell is the leading pseudo-objective authority on determining the quality of NFL officiating doing in a hotel room during the conference championship games? And please don't tell me we have another Marv Albert situation on our hands because if we can't rely on the credibility of Mike Pereira, then who can we trust?

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