The following is part of our continuing coverage of the 2012 NFL PLAYOFFS
Saturday's Divisional Round playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos might have been the greatest game I have ever seen. This isn't hyperbole; this game was the epitome of exciting, NFL football. I understand that the 2011 NFL Playoffs alone had a couple of gems, but this game is going to be impossible to match. Here are more thoughts of the game:
THE MYSTERIOUS BEARDED MAN: His name is Paul Kruger and he's had two great playoff games. After getting off to a slow start to the 2012 season due to a back injury, Kruger finished the season strong to post decent numbers. However, a recent injury to starter Albert McClellan has given Kruger a chance to shine in these playoffs, as football fans get acclimated to the 4th year veteran out of Utah. In the two playoff victories for the Ravens, Kruger could be seen constantly pressuring and flying towards Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck and disrupting their rhythm with his speed and motor. So far, Kruger has been credited with 2.5 sacks and countless hurries and pressures on the QB. The Ravens will certainly need him to continue to play at a high level against the New England Patriots next week.
COLD TEMPS, THIN AIR, BOARD GAMES: Much hype was given to the weather in Denver as the pundits were going out of their way to mention Manning's record in outdoor, sub-freezing temperature games. Much more hype was given to the fact that he would be wearing gloves on both of his hands. All of that misguided gibberish was forgotten as fans from all over were treated to a classic performance from Manning. The numbers do not support that last statement, but from an intangible standpoint, in vintage style, he was up to his old tricks, including, but not limited to:
- Getting his offense to the line of scrimmage quickly in order to give him time to see what the defense was setting up.
- Constantly going no-huddle and calling plays on the line of scrimmage (QBs who can virtually call their own plays for almost an entire game are slowly going the way of the dodo, let alone the ones who can actually do it while the defense is peeking from the other side).
- Undressing the Ravens' defense and making the necessary changes to the offense to offset the Ravens' play-calling.
- Especially when he would do quick, hard counts (Hurry! Hurry! set...) that the Ravens would often bite on, therefore showing which players on that team were about to blitz.
- Another instance was when performing a hard count, once again the Ravens' defense bit on it and showed their play. Manning noticed that legendary linebacker, Ray Lewis did not move. In a somewhat, unintentional nod to the hype surrounding this game between the so-called "chess match" between the Broncos' surgeon-like QB and the relentless, tackles-machine Lewis, Manning went up to his offensive line, pointed directly at Lewis, and exclaimed to his line "52 is the Mike! 52 is the Mike!"
- (for those that don't know, Manning was informing his offense that with all the blitzes coming from the flanks, Lewis would stay at home in his inside linebacker position and convert into a traditional middle linebacker. If I'm wrong, please share your thoughts at the comments' section of this article).
- The weird gyrations and hand gestures
- Getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately (65% on a cold day like this against a ferocious defense like the Ravens, that's not too shabby!).
- Using a hybrid of no-huddle and hurry-up offense, combined with the thin air in Denver, Manning used the game plan and the environment to gas out the Ravens' defense. By the time the Broncos had made the score 35-28 in their favor, the Ravens' defense looked completely exhausted and demoralized.
Unfortunately for Manning, despite his efforts, he was still responsible for 3 turnovers and much blame has been bestowed upon him for the Broncos' loss. Manning's legacy as one of the most cerebral, accurate, and complete Quarterbacks of all time has been considerably tainted by his shoddy playoff record. Despite winning one Super Bowl (with the Colts), he is repeatedly overshadowed by long-time rival and nemesis, Tom Brady and Manning is seen more as an accumulator of statistics and as a signal-caller that, more often than not, crumbles under pressure.
Nevertheless, as we say goodbye to one legendary defender in Ray Lewis, we as football fans must sit back and appreciate the small window we have of watching one of the greatest QBs the NFL has ever seen. It's no doubt that many of his passing records and accomplishments will be broken by the next generation of QBs, but his methodology, dedication to the craft of passing, and his unique, overall style of play will definitely be missed.
LEWIS' LAST STAND: It was 35-28 with about 3 minutes left in the game when the drained Ravens' defense, seen collectively gasping for air and trying to find that last ounce of strength, were summoned to stop the Broncos', dualistically assembled, erroneous, but efficient offense and retrieve the ball back to their offense.
After a Broncos' 1st down, the Ravens were forced to use their last timeout of the half. It looked bleak with the meticulous Manning in control looking for the kill. However, with Knowshon Moreno lost earlier in the game due to a knee injury, the Broncos' conservative answer to kill the game clock fell on the hands of super-sub, but much smaller Ronnie Hillman. Hillman did help the offense get a 1st down, but three consecutive runs up the middle were met by a wall of Ravens' defenders, led by the always reliable, run-stuffer, Ray Lewis. Lewis would get credit for 2 combined tackles on Hillman after the first down and that forced the Broncos to punt the ball back to the Ravens with about a minute left in the game. Perhaps the bigger, more explosive Moreno might have sealed the deal for the Broncos, but that's all moot.
Somehow, some way, Lewis and the Ravens found the will and way to stop the Broncos when all hope looked to be lost; when the defense looked broken; when it looked like it would be Lewis' last game of his illustrious career.
$$$CHA-CHING$$$: Joe Flacco's camp was probably jumping for joy to see the, at times, inconsistent QB come through to pull off a victory from the jaws of defeat. No doubt that Flacco had a great game and came through in the clutch. With Flacco becoming a free agent after his contract runs out this season, Flacco's agent reminded the world that Flacco deserves to be mentioned as an elite QB and, therefore, should be paid like one. That was a big joke when the idea that Flacco should be considered "elite" came out last year, but after Saturday's game, there is no doubt that teams will be throwing a lot of money at the young QB in the offseason.
SPEAKING OF LEGENDARY DEFENDERS: With Lewis retiring at the completion of the Ravens' season, Champ Bailey looked like his best days were behind him--at least against speed-burner, Torrey Smith. The 14th year Cornerback out of Georgia will no doubt be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but on Saturday, Bailey looked ordinary against Smith and the Ravens' passing attack.
Throughout his career, Bailey was the quintessential, shut-down Corner. Opposing teams game-planned to NOT throw the ball at Bailey's way. However, credit needs to go to Flacco and Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell for their aggressive attack. Aggressive is the right word as Flacco was struggling under the conservative Cam Cameron and flourishing under Caldwell.
(this marks a reunion of sorts as Caldwell was playing against Peyton Manning. Caldwell was the head coach at Indianapolis when Manning was the QB there--but we're not playing that game today...)
It is amazing how Ray Lewis played impeccable defense, as expected, in his final year in what could've been his final game. Meanwhile, Bailey who is younger than Lewis, did not play up to his reputation and could be debatable that he single-handedly cost the Broncos the game by giving up big plays to the Ravens. Then again, it is safe to say that the entire Broncos' secondary played a big role in losing this game to the Ravens.
Johnny J mentioned at the conclusion of his article that he was a Division winner in our fantasy football league. For those wondering who won the Championship this year, I now show you, Exhibit A: