December 8, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Do not lament if you picked the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. For, in the immortal words of Dennis Green, "The Baltimore Ravens are not who we thought they were."
Many weeks ago, I picked the Ravens to beat the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Then I bet against them the rest of the way. I thought they would lose to Denver because Peyton Manning was back in a big way. I thought they would be defeated by New England because of the brilliance of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Then last week I wrote how the youthful exuberance of the 49ers would surely overwhelm the cagey veterans of Baltimore. That mistake was the most costly of all, but it's not entirely our fault.
Those of us that have been watching NFL football for the better part of Ray Lewis's career, do not recognize these Ravens. While it's no surprise they do not resemble the team that won the Super Bowl 12 years ago, they don't even remind us of who they were a few short years ago.
It seems a number of us had a self-fulfilling prophecy when it came to Baltimore. We thought we figured them out seasons ago, understood their strengths and weaknesses and then refused to acknowledge their evolution and stopped processing information about them. They had the same makeup and DNA for so long, it was cumbersome to think of them in any other frame of reference.
When I think of the Baltimore Ravens, I think of defence. I think of a team that used to go weeks without allowing a touchdown. I think of a front seven that hadn't surrendered a 100-yard rusher in multiple seasons and a safety (Ed Reed) that could not be looked off by a quarterback. When a team has the same attributes and characteristics for as long as the Ravens had, it's hard to perceive them any other way.
Outside of a game-ending flashback to their dominant years, if defence was still the best component of this team they would have been done weeks ago. For, not only is this defence not capable of hanging its hat on benchmarks of the past, they have almost completely deferred to the other side of the ball.
The Ravens are now an offensive football team, and it doesn't exactly roll off of the tongue. Even though they were a middle-of-the-pack offence in the regular season, Joe Flacco evolved to win games for the Ravens instead of managing them, and they are a metric mile away from the one-dimensional running team we all knew them to be. Super Bowl Sunday was a back-handed slap in the face for those of us who hadn't yet accepted what was transpiring in Maryland.
Things pretty much went the way I thought they would on first and second down on Sunday. The 49ers are a top-five team against the run and did a stout job of putting Baltimore in third-and-medium or long for most of the night. The rude awakening came when Flacco, in a definitive passing situation, evaded the rush, moved the pocket and threw strike after strike, first down after first down, to the likes of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Coming to terms with the fact the Ravens are a deep-ball football team that can stretch the field and exploit the middle was like believing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are on the precipice of becoming a CFL dynasty.
Super Bowl XLVII may have been Lewis's swan song, but it was the emergence of this passing game and QB play that shined brightest on this day. The superstars of this team are now the likes of Rice, Flacco, Boldin and Smith. Though he went out a champion and his resumé and exploits speak for themselves, Ray Lewis now knows what it was like to be Trent Dilfer in 2002: Lucky to be along for the ride on a team that is not defined by his play.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 C6