Maybe we should start referring to the Baltimore Ravens as “The Giants of the AFC.” Not for some gargantuan prowess they possess, but for their Eli Manning-like ability to float through the shadows of great teams during the regular season, only to show up at the last second and win the Super Bowl, leaving us wondering, “What the hell just happened?” Nobody is talking about the Ravens, and yet they could quietly be lining up their third championship in the 2000s.
It turns out that Baltimore is still really damn good at building a team.
Far from intimidating upon first glance at their 7-5 record in a weak AFC North division, and no more fearsome when Joe Flacco steps onto the field, whose height in inches (78) nearly matches his passer rating (84.1), the Ravens are no favorite to win Super Bowl LI. That’s perfectly fine with owner Steve Bisciotti, because he’s used to that by now.
The 2000 Ravens are well-noted for their historical defense, but that also serves as some distraction from the fact that Baltimore had an offense that went five straight games without scoring a touchdown. They were six-point underdogs to both the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship, but went on to win the Super Bowl by 27 points.
Just four seasons ago, the Ravens lost four of their last five regular season games to fall backwards into the playoffs at 10-6. A team as bland and average as plain tart frozen yogurt, Baltimore went on to deliver pure satisfaction, well, just like plain tart frozen yogurt; they were nine-point underdogs to the Denver Broncos in the divisional round, 7.5-point underdogs to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship, and went on to win the Super Bowl 34-31 over the San Francisco 49ers.
Is it happening again? There are a lot of reasons to believe that it is, and the secret might be let out of the bag on Monday night against the Patriots.
There’s a lot of attention paid to the defenses in Denver and Seattle, but Baltimore’s ranks first in yards allowed, second in points, and first in points per drive. They also have the number one rushing defense by nearly any metric you can find and that’s something that will come in handy against Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, or dare we say, Ezekiel Elliott. So why isn’t anyone talking about this defense in the way they talked about the 2000 team or some of the more recent iterations? Because there is no boisterous star like Ray Lewis anymore. They’re still infusing talent on that side of the ball, but there are few “name” players.
That will change soon.
Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan can’t fly under the radar for much longer. The third-year pro is tied with Ndamukong Suh for the third-most sacks by a defensive tackle this season with five, trailing only All-Pros Gerald McCoy and Aaron Donald. With one year left on his rookie contract, more people will know his name after he signs a record extension next offseason. But perhaps even on the same level of importance, if not ahead of Jernigan, is Brandon Williams, the tackle by his side who eats space as well as any run-stopper in the NFL.
That may be where the defense starts, but definitely not where it ends.
Linebacker Zach Orr, undrafted out of North Texas in 2014, is sixth in the league in tackles with 110, while 2014 first round pick C.J. Mosley has gotten less attention since making the Pro Bowl as a rookie but has 54 tackles and three interceptions. Not that it hurts for either to play alongside six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has eight sacks, or four-time Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil, who just returned from a foot injury. The cornerback situation has been a collective effort between veteran Jimmy Smith and an admirable performance by rookie Tavon Young, but it all pretty much revolves around the new guy who gives the Ravens defense the legitimacy they’ve lacked since losing Lewis and Ed Reed after their last Super Bowl win.
Safety Eric Weddle was discarded by the San Diego Chargers after nine seasons (“You’re dead to me,” as Weddle put it following incidents with head coach Mike McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco) and Baltimore wasted no time in signing him to a four-year, $26 million contract. Less expired than the Chargers believed, Weddle has 61 tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes defensed, as the Ravens have improved from dead last in interceptions a year ago (six total) to second this season (14). So satisfied is Weddle after every win that he eats an entire gallon of ice cream with Oreos and caramel mixed in.
He may need to sign an endorsement deal with Haagen-Dazs if things keep going this way, as the Ravens have now won four of their last five games and are back in first place.
Another big reason why – and a significant connection to the championship teams of 2000 and 2012 – is special teams. Per FootballOutsiders, Baltimore has the sixth-best all-around special teams unit in the NFL, including marks so high on field goals and extra points that kicker Justin Tucker could get some MVP votes; Tucker has hit all 28 field goal attempts, including eight beyond 50 yards, and a long of 57. The 2000 Ravens were third on special teams, with kicker Matt Stover being named an All-Pro that season, while the 2012 edition was first in special teams and of course, had Tucker.
The main reason they’re so good with that unit is John Harbaugh, one of the few NFL head coaches who got promoted from being a special teams coordinator rather than offense or defense. When he held that position with the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid in the early 2000s, they often ranked in the top five in special teams and ended up going to four straight NFC Championships. It’s the same consistency he helped build in Baltimore, having won a playoff game in six of seven seasons between 2008 and 2014, and now they’re back on track after an injury-plagued 2015. It’s the same type of postseason consistency that got Flacco paid, as over his last 10 playoff games, the QB has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Sound familiar? Over Manning’s last nine playoff games, the Giants are 8-1 and he’s thrown 15 touchdowns against four picks. Why do these two quarterbacks choose to harness their “eliteness” only in January and February? Who knows, but the rest of the league might not want to let them find out if they’ve still got it.
If the Ravens lose to New England on Monday and to the Pittsburgh Steelers in two weeks, there’s a good chance they won’t be in the playoffs. That would be great news for everyone else, because if they allow Baltimore to sneak in, there may be no way to stop them.