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Once left for dead, Ravens a threat again thanks to bold Caldwell move

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Jim Caldwell had never called plays at any level before being promoted in December.

Everyone understood it was a bold and risky move to make at such a vital position so late in the season. But that Harbaugh guy clearly knew what he was doing, because it has quickly elevated his team's offensive production to new heights and brought a Super Bowl berth within grasp.

No, not Jim Harbaugh with his Colin Kaepernick gambit on the West Coast, though that has worked out beautifully, too, for the 49ers">49ers. The overlooked call that has greatly impacted this year's NFL playoffs? That took place in Baltimore, when the Ravens' John Harbaugh elected to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Dec. 10, handing the play-calling reins to Jim Caldwell, the team's former quarterbacks coach and the one-time Colts head coach.

Jim Harbaugh's gutsy roll of the dice at quarterback in mid-November has gotten most of the media attention, and understandably so. But no team is a bigger surprise entry in this season's final four than the Ravens, losers of three in a row in December, and Caldwell's elevation was the key impetus of Baltimore's unexpected playoff success.

If you haven't noticed, John Harbaugh's Ravens are in the AFC Championship game for the third time in five years because Caldwell's resurgent offense is getting the job done in uncharacteristically explosive fashion. Caldwell's work has been masterful so far, and if Baltimore is able to upset host New England Sunday night and earn its first Super Bowl berth in 12 years, it'll likely be because the Ravens offense was able to match the powerful Patriots offense point for point.

The facts speak for themselves and underline the effect Caldwell has had, at least since his mulligan-like first game as Baltimore's play-caller, a 34-17 home loss to Denver in Week 15, just six days after he took over for the dismissed Cameron. In the past three games in which Baltimore's starters have played the whole way (not counting a meaningless Week 17 loss at Cincinnati), here's what the Ravens have produced:

-- In Week 16 at home against the Giants, the Ravens rolled up 533 yards of offense in the 33-14 division-title-clinching win, the third-most in franchise history. Baltimore ran for a season-high 225 yards against New York, with Ray Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce both topping 100 yards.

-- In the first round of the playoffs against the Colts, Baltimore hung up a franchise-playoff-record 439 yards of offense in the 24-9 win, with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing for 282 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 completions (23.5 average), and the Pierce-led ground game contributing 170 yards.

-- And in Saturday's epic 38-35 upset of the top-seeded Broncos in Denver, the Ravens again set a franchise playoff record with 479 yards of offense, gouging a Broncos defense that during the regular season had ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points surrendered. The dagger, of course, was that 70-yard game-tying strike from Flacco to receiver Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining in regulation. Flacco wound up with 331 yards passing and touchdown passes of 32, 59 and 70 yards, and Rice added 131 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

All told, even with the 23-17 loss in Cincinnati added into the mix, the Ravens under Caldwell have averaged 450.8 yards of offense and 28 points over their past four games, with superb balance (188.8 yards rushing and 262.0 passing). Baltimore is playing the dangerous underdog role in this year's playoffs, and the change at offensive coordinator was the spark for the only team left in the postseason that didn't have a first-round bye.

Under Caldwell's steady, no-drama direction, Flacco has flourished in the past month, looking confident and comfortable as the Ravens have returned to more of the up-tempo approach that they had gotten away from as the regular season progressed.

Never completely on the same page as Cameron, whose conservative play-calling and hesitancy to fully trust his quarterback were familiar storylines in Baltimore, Flacco is playing the best football of his five-year NFL career, and his comeback win in Denver represented his finest hour as a Raven. Baltimore had lost nine consecutive games against Peyton Manning, dating to 2001. But with Caldwell, the ex-Colts head coach and former Indy QB coach, calling the shots, the Ravens ended that hex in one of the most memorable playoff games ever. Denver hadn't allowed as many as 38 points since an October 2011 loss to Detroit, early on in the team's Tim Tebow starting era.

It's a case of impeccable timing for Flacco, who is eligible for free agency this offseason, and has earned himself a new lucrative contract extension offer from the Ravens whenever Baltimore's latest playoff drive concludes. Who cares about the silly "elite quarterback'' debate at this point? Flacco and Caldwell look like a great pairing in Baltimore, and the quarterback's 7-4 career playoff record and five road postseason wins in five years leave him in a select class no matter what transpires Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

But Flacco isn't the only Ravens offensive star who has responded well to Caldwell's late-season promotion. Rice has twice topped 100 yards rushing in the past four games, after reaching that level just three times under Cameron in Baltimore's first 13 games this season. Rice's 30 carries for 131 rushing yards against the Broncos were season highs in both categories, and his 45 carries for 199 yards in the playoffs leads all still-active NFL rushers.

To upset the high-scoring Patriots (league-best 34.8 points per game in the regular season), the Ravens offense again has to lead the way, as it did in Week 3 at M&T Bank Stadium, when Baltimore rallied from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 31-30 on a last-second 27-yard Justin Tucker field goal. After getting past the likes of Eli Manning, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning in the span of four weeks, the task of beating Tom Brady on the road looms as the biggest challenge of all.

But at least the Ravens offense is on a roll and perhaps peaking at the ideal time. Caldwell may not have gotten much credit for the job he did taking over for Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, where he was largely seen as a caretaker head coach with a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback in Peyton Manning, but his credentials are being burnished by the week in Baltimore.

Let the Ravens get past New England, and Caldwell's name might quickly surface in whatever head coaching searches still remain around the league. If nothing else, his late-in-the-game emergence in Baltimore this season has served to quickly rehabilitate his reputation league-wide, after the 2-14 collapse of the Colts got him fired last year.

In Caldwell's case, it was the other coaching Harbaugh who made the risky but right call to toss him the keys to the offense. Colin Kapernick's spectacular success in San Franciso aside, the Ravens have their own bold move to point to as the needed and pivotal development to a deep playoff run. From coast to coast in these NFL playoffs, taking a big chance has paid off big so far.

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