Let’s put this Ravens Super Bowl win in context.
The Ravens are, almost unquestionably, a great football team. They just beat what most people would have suggested to be the league’s three best teams in three consecutive games, with zero of those games played at home. They did it without ever trailing by more than a touchdown, having been in the lead for the entire second half in New England and all night on Sunday in New Orleans. These were not fluke wins; the Ravens were the better team in each of the four contests, and had they lost any of them, it would have been an unfair result with the wrong team advancing. They didn’t enjoy fumble luck or close-game luck or even floodlight luck. They were every bit as brilliant as the confetti implies they were.
Which is why it’s even more important to really put this thing in context. As recently as New Year’s Day and as early as Halloween, you could have argued that the Ravens were a mediocre football team with very little fuss from folks who don’t consider purple to be a base color of their wardrobe. In Week 11, the Ravens could only muster up a three-point win over a Steelers team that had a gimpy Byron Leftwich at quarterback in a game in which their offense — the same one that looked unstoppable in the first half of the freaking Super Bowl — couldn’t even score a single touchdown. The following week, it took a miraculous fourth-and-29 conversion to push the game into overtime and for the Ravens to eventually beat the lowly Chargers in San Diego, in a game in which that same offense scored just one touchdown. A week later, they lost to a Charlie Batch–led Steelers team in Baltimore. They blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Redskins in Washington, got embarrassed by the Broncos at home, and after finally showing up with a big win over the Giants, limped into the playoffs with a meaningless loss at Cincinnati.
If you think that tells you that the Ravens elevated their game when they needed to, I can’t agree. What it really tells us is that we know way less about teams than we really think we know. Every recent piece of information we had about the Ravens heading into the postseason suggested that they were a floundering team limping in by virtue of a successful start to the season, some lucky bounces, opposing injuries, and strong performance in close games. Baltimore started 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, with its only loss to Philadelphia, of all teams, before losing their final three such contests. We had a clear curve for Baltimore’s true level of play, and it was trending further and further downward. And yet, from that point forward, everything we thought we knew about the Ravens was wrong. For every power rankings article you read in November and every set of odds you saw in December, nobody had any idea that the Ravens were capable of putting together a four-game stretch this good. Was “play like the best team in football” really a switch they were waiting to turn on during the playoffs? Or were they capable of this all along and just hadn’t yet exhibited this level of play?
This isn’t a new argument, either, or one of “peaking” at the right time. The Ravens are the 2011 Giants, or the 2007 Giants, or the 2010 Packers. They’re the reminders that you don’t get the full picture of a team and what they can do from a 16-game sample, just as you fail to get the entire story from a 16-game sample in other sports. The only difference is that those other sports get 66 or more games to reveal more about their teams. In football, we get 20 games max.
It’s because we know so little about these teams that it’s so important to try to judge them based upon their level of play as opposed to their win-loss record (and even that’s going to be flawed). Go back to that Ravens-Broncos game three weeks ago. If Rahim Moore hadn’t blown a seemingly simple coverage, Baltimore would’ve been out of the playoffs without anybody giving a second thought to how well they played. They would’ve been the plucky team who beat an over-matched Colts squad in the emotional cauldron of Ray Lewis’s final home game before giving the Broncos a tough match-up and coming up short. The seemingly impending breakup of the veterans on this team would’ve gone off without a hitch, with Lewis retiring and the Ravens moving on from the likes of Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin as rumored.
Even more stark is how different these teams would’ve looked if the 49ers had finished their comeback and won Sunday. Let’s say that the 49ers got off their second-down quarterback counter with Colin Kaepernick without calling a timeout, since it looked like it was about to steam into the end zone, and let’s pretend that the Ravens’ drive to tie/win fell short. Do you know who the Ravens would’ve gotten compared to? The Falcons, the team who blew an enormous lead that seemed to be slipping from their grip for most of the second half. Joe Flacco would’ve drawn comparisons to Matt Ryan for beating up the 49ers defense in the first half before only briefly succeeding in the second half. And Kaepernick? Well, he would’ve been the leader of the new Kardiac Kids, a team that just doesn’t know when to quit, a squad that has led nearly unprecedented comebacks in consecutive games. That line between winning and losing is so ridiculously thin, and yet it becomes the basis for about 98 percent of the discussion surrounding a team.
Of course, just as 16 games isn’t enough to get the total picture of a team, 20 games isn’t a perfect sample. For all we know, the Ravens could really be the league’s seventh-best team if we ran this season one million times. The question the NFL season seeks to answer isn’t who is the league’s best team; it’s who is the league champion. And in answering that question, the Ravens provided us with the latest reminder of one of the few things we actually do know about the modern NFL: As long as you make it to the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how you got there. And once you’re in the playoffs, you can throw just about everything you think you know about a team out the window.
In the playoffs, every story line is ex post facto, with the process graded after the fact by whatever the outcome was. You know the stories. A team with a first-round bye is refreshed and full of energy if they blow out their opponents (often as big favorites at home), but rusty and lost their timing if they lose to their opponents, who don’t have anybody believing in them but themselves. It’s one of the laziest bits of analysis you’ll see about sports.
To extend that further, there are stories about the players in this Super Bowl that totally change by virtue of what happened on that fateful fourth-down call near the Baltimore goal line in the fourth quarter. In many cases, the players weren’t even on the field for the play in question, but it’s still enough to lock in narratives surrounding those guys that may end up defining or redefining their respective careers. Again, in many cases, that’s inaccurate. It’s worth evaluating how those players and their performances look in a vacuum; or, perhaps more interestingly, if the Niners had completed their comeback and pulled out a victory with a touchdown on that spot. A quick go-around:
Ray Rice wouldn’t be the only scapegoat for a Baltimore loss, but he would get plenty of attention for his third-quarter fumble, one that gives him nearly as many fumbles in the playoffs (five) as he’s produced during the regular season (seven). The fumble furthered the San Francisco comeback and set them up for a possible game-tying touchdown opportunity, only for the defense to hold the 49ers to a field goal. Don’t think the Ravens didn’t react to it; there was a reason that Bernard Pierce got a carry on that final possession. If the Ravens had lost, Rice would’ve been lambasted and forced to answer questions about his playoff fumbling habit for the next five years. Since they won, everyone forgets about the fumble and Rice’s fourth-and-29 conversion is used as the manifestation of Baltimore’s never-say-die attitude.
Jacoby Jones is an example of how postseason labels shouldn’t stick around for very long. Last year, Jones was the goat in Houston after fumbling away a punt against these very same Ravens. This year, he was the GOAT in Baltimore’s playoff run; Jones held on to that season-changing touchdown catch against the Broncos to tie the game, and on Sunday, he had a 56-yard touchdown catch and a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.2 If the Ravens had lost, Jones’s heroic effort would’ve been an afterthought amid a crushing loss, but because the Ravens won, Jones’s MVP-caliber playoffs can overshadow his disappointing fumble last season.
Ray Lewis didn’t come up short in his retirement tour, meaning he can ride off into the (Bristol) sunset with his second ring. I suspect his final game will be remembered for his speech afterward; had the Ravens lost, we’d probably be talking about how slow and lumbering Lewis looked in the first half, when the 49ers threw at him repeatedly with crossing patterns from Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
Colin Kaepernick would have to change the meaning of “Kaepernicking” from his touchdown celebration to the idea of coming back from any sort of large deficit while making it look easy. Instead, after the 49ers lost, I saw Kaepernick criticized during the postgame shows, which seems bizarre considering that the 49ers were unstoppable for most of the second half (and not too shabby in the first half, either). Yes, he made a bad throw that led to a first-half interception, and he was late on a second throw on the subsequent series that was nearly picked. It’s hard to find a bad throw from him the rest of the way, and I can recall at least one glorious pass up the sideline to an open Vernon Davis that wasn’t caught. Kaepernick played well enough to win. Sometimes, you can play well enough to win and still lose. This was one of those times.
Randy Moss could have been a hero. There were a number of plays in which Moss was open for possibly big plays and Kaepernick either chose a different receiver or wasn’t able to get the ball to him. A scrambling Kaepernick had an open Moss in the back of the end zone in the first quarter, but didn’t see him and instead overthrew Michael Crabtree on a drive that eventually produced a field goal. Later, Moss was open on a deep post on the aforementioned Davis drop, but Kaepernick decided to throw it elsewhere. Tack an extra 50 yards and a touchdown onto his totals and Moss would’ve left this weekend with some extra respect. Instead, it’s just another failed attempt for Moss to win a title.
Donte Whitner was involved in enough blown coverages and missed tackles to choke a horse on Sunday, just as he went missing during New Orleans’s comeback against the 49ers in the divisional round last year. In that game, the 49ers were able to drive down the field and score the game-winning touchdown, absolving Whitner of his mistakes; this time, they weren’t able to come back, and people watching the tape will see a player who was targeted on many Ravens plays. You can say the same for Chris Culliver, who was the target on many of Baltimore’s routes up the sidelines.
Welp, hope this blog helps your recovery of your hangovers folks!