"I look in the eyes of all my victims before I take their lunch money."
That was Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith speaking to the ESPN crew Monday after his team beat the New Orleans Saints, 34-27, to move to 7-4 on the season. Smith caught four passes for 89 yards, and he's proven to be a major free-agent signing for the Ravens, who picked him up off the scrap heap after the Carolina Panthers let him go in a rather rancorous divorce.
And it's not just Smith who has found professional redemption in Baltimore. The same franchise that faceplanted in several ways during the Ray Rice scandal, interestingly enough, has been a great place to get one's NFL life together in new ways. Smith, running back Justin Forsett and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak were all thought to be on the wrong side of done, and all three have made great strides in 2014. Thus the Ravens stand in second place in the AFC North and are poised for possible postseason action.
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As are the 4-7 Saints, crazily enough, because they play in the NFC South, and just about anything is good enough to win that division. The Saints are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the division, and just to amplify how nuts that is ... well, the New York Jets were eliminated from playoff contention after getting steamrolled by the Buffalo Bills in Monday night's rescheduled game. The Jets are 2-9. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the basement of the NFC South ... and they're two games out of first place. In the end, it's quite possible that a 10-12-win team will have to travel to the home stadium of an NFC South team that has half as many wins. That's a compelling argument for playoff re-seeding, but while what ails the Saints could take up its own article, let's take a look at the unexpected winners who have powered the Ravens to a resurgent season.
1. Justin Forsett is no fluke
Forsett was another afterthought picked up by the Ravens. He's on his fifth NFL team, and the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him in March. Yes, the Jaguars. Forsett signed a one-year veteran minimum contract with the Ravens based on the suggestion of Kubiak, who had him in Houston. Forsett wasn't expected to do too much, but when Rice did what he did and Bernard Pierce couldn't stay healthy, the seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2008 got an opportunity he'd never really been given before -- to be the lead back in an offense that perfectly fit his talents.
Against the Saints' undermanned and undisciplined defense, Forsett rushed for a career-high 182 yards on 22 carries, adding two rushing touchdowns for good measure. And that Baltimore offensive line, which didn't look like much last season, opened alley after alley for the veteran on his biggest prime-time moment.
"They were big. The offensive line did a great job," Forsett told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game, when she asked him how big the running lanes looked for him on the night. "Keeping those lanes open for me, and I just tried to seize the moment."
What's come out as Forsett has excelled through this season is that after the Jags cut him, he thought he might be out of the league sooner than later.
"I prayed for an opportunity; that's all I could do. Just me and God, training and working out and praying, hoping I would get that chance," he said. "I'm just trying to run with it. It's special -- God is faithful. I've put a lot of work in throughout my whole career, being in the shadows. Just coming out here tonight and showing what I can do. [Coach] Harbaugh and the Ravens giving me the chance to do what I do. It's a blessing."
That said, Forsett hasn't forgotten how close he was to the end of his NFL career.
"If it wasn't for Coach Kubiak standing on the table for me and giving me the opportunity, I'd probably be in player development somewhere, working a regular 9-to-5."
Forsett did manage to enter player development in a manner of speaking; he's currently guiding the career of the league's most unexpected running back success.
2. Gary Kubiak has found the right home
At the end of his tenure as the Houston Texans' head coach, Gary Kubiak's former team lost its last 14 games to end a horrid 2013 season. He had lost his team. His offensive playcalls were so transparent that opposing defenses practiced against what they thought he was going to call before he called it, and they were correct far too often. Cue Kubiak's situation a year later: he was fired last December 6 and things are looking very, very different. Kubiak came to Baltimore before the 2014 season to run Baltimore's offense, and it's safe to say that things have worked out wonderfully. The Ravens' rushing attack was one of the league's worst last season, but under Kubiak's zone blocking concepts, the team has been great most of the season and dominant at times on the ground. Kubiak has also set Joe Flacco on the move a bit more often, shortening his drops and allowing him a flexible pocket and more open reads. As a result, receivers Torrey Smith and new addition Steve Smith have enjoyed outstanding opportunities. Smith took over in the first quarter when he grabbed this 15-yard touchdown pass from Flacco.
3. Steve Smith is angry and that's a good thing for the Ravens
Smith got into a fight with Saints safety Kenny Vacarro after a catch on Monday night, and he said after the game that the last time he played in the Superdome, Vacarro went after him in a way he did not appreciate. Smith never forgets, and he certainly didn't forget that the Panthers cut him loose in a move that was sold as a salary cap issue, but was more a statement about what his old team thought he had left in the tank.
Put simply, this was a major miscalculation by Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman. Not only was Smith a key man in Flacco's aerial show, he also blocked effectively to help Forsett get free on more than one of his big runs. The 35-year-old Smith is still a complete player, and as he told ESPN's Ray Lewis after the game, he's combining wisdom with just enough skill to be a big pain for every opponent.
"I love being physical. I love going after guys. I love blocking safeties." Smith said. "Coach says, 'Be yourself, because everyone else is taken.' And I love that. When they brought me here, they said, 'If you can't be yourself, we don't want you.'
"I said, 'You know what? I can do that.'"
More importantly, Kubiak's offense allows Smith to be himself on the field -- in all the right ways.
"It's challenging. It's an old West Coast offense, and I haven't done a West Coast offense in my rookie year. But it's challenged me in a good way. We're all helping each other. And I love it, because it shows my football I.Q. I'm able to learn ... this is my fourth offense in my career. I'm able to learn and be great in it. We have some things where we question each other. It's new for us. Am I supposed to run the slant? Are you gonna run the slant? That's how it is."
And how is it for the Ravens right now? It's pretty good, as they find themselves back in the victory track, winning two in a row after a 2-5 midseason stumble. And they're doing it with several individuals who had to wonder if they'd ever see that again.