Like Old Times

January 18, 2010

A bruising defense and a battering ground game have the Ravens looking very familiar—and very dangerous. Hear that, Indy?

In the week leading to his team's wild-card playoff game at New England, Ravens safety Ed Reed sought out middle linebacker Ray Lewis. The two men have much in common: Both are Miami Hurricanes to their marrow (Lewis played for the U from 1993 to '95; Reed, from '98 to 2001), both are among the best in history at their positions, both have played only for the Ravens and both are nearer the end of their careers than the beginning (Lewis, 34, is in his 14th season; Reed, 31, in his eighth).

Most important, both appreciate the urgency of another passing January. "We don't have many of these left," Reed told Lewis. "We're in the playoffs. How many more chances are we going to have? We've got to seize this moment." Added Lewis, "That was kind of my message all week—have fun, grab those moments."

The modern NFL, by its very construction—the inverted draft, a salary cap, balanced schedules and free agency—vigorously challenges prolonged success. Enduring greatness is a delicate function of balancing the old and the new. Veterans must be milked slightly past their primes while new bodies are integrated into the system. Holes must constantly be plugged so that a complete rebuilding is never necessary.

When such balancing is done right, a team can look like the Ravens did last Sunday in Foxborough, dismantling the Patriots 33--14 to earn a shot at the AFC's top-seeded Colts on Saturday in Indianapolis. Lewis played like he was a decade younger, with 13 tackles and a freelancing first-quarter sack—"That was Ray, on his own," said defensive tackle Trevor Pryce—in which he delivered a hit that seemed to affect the battered Tom Brady for the rest of the game. Reed had an interception and four tackles.

At the other end of the time line, second-year back Ray Rice ran 83 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. He was sprung by a sensational double-team zone block by center Matt Birk, who's in his 12th year, and right guard Marshal Yanda, in his third. "A pretty good block and then a pretty good finish," said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Old and new, blended together.

This replenishment process is vital, yet few NFL teams do it consistently well. "The Ravens, the Patriots, the Steelers—those are the teams that come to mind," says Bill Kuharich, former Saints and Chiefs personnel director. "Owners are very quick to pull the trigger and change things. But those franchises have a consistent vision of what they want in a player at each position, and they stay the course. That consistency pays off. With the Patriots it comes from Bill Belichick. With the Ravens it's Ozzie Newsome."

Newsome has been with the organization since he was an NFL rookie in 1978, and became the Ravens' general manager in 2002. Two years ago he used the team's first two draft picks to select quarterback Joe Flacco from Delaware (18th overall) and Rice from Rutgers (55th). Flacco immediately became the team's starter, and Rice slipped perfectly into the reliable, every-down role filled by Jamal Lewis from 2000 to '06. Rice's attempts jumped from 107 in his rookie year to 254 in '09 as he supplanted Willis McGahee as Baltimore's featured back; his 5.3 yards per carry ranked third in the league among the 15 backs who gained 1,000 yards. "He's been playing that way all year," said Ray Lewis.

The Ravens now look to complete an improbable doubleheader takedown of the decade's two preeminent AFC franchises. Their domination on Sunday was so thorough that Brady and Belichick were left to answer questions about whether the Pats' dynasty—three Super Bowl wins, and a 16--0 record in 2007—was finished. "I don't think because we lose a couple of games this year," said Brady, "that all of a sudden everything is over." The Patriots were booed on their home field, and Gillette Stadium was nearly empty at the end. It felt distinctly as if something was over.

The Ravens do not disguise their methods. "We're conservative," said Birk. And brutal. They prefer to run the ball and stop opponents from doing likewise. On Sunday they rushed for 234 yards and held New England to 64, forcing Brady into a desperation passing game that led to three sacks and three interceptions. They will surely attack Peyton Manning similarly. "Different quarterbacks, both great," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the 345-pound backbone of the run defense. "But the same idea. And we'll be trying to carry momentum from this week into that game."

Flacco threw just 10 passes. "That was a combination of the score and the [20°] weather," said Cameron. The Ravens ran the ball on 84% of their snaps, including four times with a monster, short-yardage alignment of three offensive tackles, plus Ngata as an H-back and Le'Ron McClain at fullback. On McGahee's clinching touchdown with 10:32 to play, he followed 1,573 pounds of blockers into the end zone. "That's a lot of weight coming at you," said offensive lineman Chris Chester, 315 of those pounds.

There is one more layer to this week's matchup: The Ravens nearly ended the Colts' unbeaten streak on Nov. 22. Trailing 17--15, Flacco threw a red-zone pick with 2:49 to play, and Reed fumbled on a punt return with 11 seconds left. The Ravens held the Colts to 76 rushing yards and intercepted Manning twice yet came away beaten, much as they had in an October loss to the Patriots.

But January is different. Ask Reed. Ask Lewis. Urgency sells.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by AL TIELEMANSPOWER PLAY Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Chris Carr beat up on the Pats, while workhorse back Ray Rice (27) blew through them. PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSTHE FIRE THIS TIME Veterans of many postseason wars, Reed and his fellow Baltimore long-timers know they must seize this moment.

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