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Spitballin’

Spitballin’

Super Bowl, Baby!

How about that Orioles FanFest, am I right? Kidding. What I meant to say was SUPER BOWL! F-Bombing Super Bowl, baby! I asked my editor if my column could just be those last two sentences repeated two hundred times, but he didn’t see the beauty in bringing Dada to sports writing.

The thing is, though, that victory was tough to wrap my brain around. This season, the Baltimore Ravens have had hey-diddle-diddle Ray Rice up the middle, the Ray Lewis retirement bowl, and the F-Bomb; they suffered a shocking late loss to the Redskins and pulled out a startling final drive win over New England; they had Terrell Suggs’ remarkable comeback from a devastating injury that defied the medical odds; they even lost four out of five in December and still made the playoffs. Every step along the way, this season has been remarkable. Until the AFC Championship game. There was nothing remarkable about it, just the Ravens going up to New England and delivering a good, old-fashioned beatdown, and it couldn’t make for a better fit to this roller-coaster season.

I’m not going to lie, there is a certain kind of joy that only comes from beating the New England Patriots. When the Lions lose, there’s no Mr. Gisele Bündchen pouty face that just sets hearts aflutter. And the joy of watching Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sneak off the field and hear former Ravens’ tight end and CBS Sports talking head Shannon Sharpe call him out for being a sore loser can swell the heart of the grinchiest sports grinch. (Though in Belichick’s defense, 10 minutes after a loss, the hobo magic that makes him the sweatshirted troll we all know and don’t love wears off and he turns back into a handsome prince, so you could see why he’d want to hurry off the field and quickly bathe in punter blood to preserve the spell.)

But this game lacked fireworks. The Broncos game had drama—the immediacy of the win grabbed your heart and shook it—but this game was a slow burn, a steady building of Ravens dominance. Last year, the Ravens were a force: Suggs was Defensive Player of the Year, Lardarius Webb was leading a new generation of young studs on defense, Ray Rice was leading an offense that was ascending, and Baltimore swept the AFC North for the first time in the team’s history on the way to a stellar 12-4 record. But they came up short against the same Patriots when victory fell through the fingers of Lee Evans (or off the foot of Billy Cundiff). This season, the Ravens never looked like a juggernaut. They had so many injuries, I think in week seven they were playing with second-string fans and beer vendors pulled up off the practice squad.

Until the playoffs, that is. That regular-season one-point victory over the Pats hinted at it, and Ray Rice’s hey-diddle-diddle 4th-and-29 wizardry made you wonder about this being a team of destiny (I wrote as much in this very space), but after the Ravens’ late-season collapse, you had to wonder how it was all going to end. But this team is putting it all together at just the right time.

No one is going to confuse this defense with the 2000 unit, but Haloti Ngata was all over the field and looking like he did early in the season, before his injuries mounted. (And two weeks’ rest leading up to the Super Bowl will only help more on that front.) Suggs wasn’t playing at Defensive Player of the Year levels, but he had his best game since he came back from the disabled list. Bernard Pollard was a human wrecking ball. And Dannell Ellerbe was a monster who played like the heir apparent to Ray Lewis. They put together a few huge plays, with Pollard’s fumble-forcing atomic blast on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley and Ellerbe’s interception of a ball tipped by Pernell McPhee. Other than that, it’s hard to say exactly what the Ravens did on defense. They didn’t look like world-beaters, but somehow they held Mr. Gisele Bündchen and the No. 1 ranked Patriots offense—who averaged nearly 35 points a game in the regular season—to a measly 13 and shut them out in the second half.

And on offense, things have come together beautifully. Ray Rice has been his brilliant self all season, but the late development of rookie running back Bernard Pierce has turned the duo into the best one-two punch in the NFL, and human sledgehammer Vonta Leach getting the rock in short-yardage situations is the cherry atop the Ravens’ ground-pounding Sunday. The offensive line, which had been in turmoil all year, has come into its own for the playoffs. Starting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moving Kelechi Osemele to guard, and sliding Michael Oher out of the blind side and over to right tackle has turned this unit into a powerhouse that dominated the Patriots. The switch at offensive coordinator late in the season from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell was a masterstroke. Caldwell stuck to the run against Denver and it paid off late; in New England, he knew when to pull the plug and trust his cannon-armed QB.

And how about that QB? Joe Flacco has more road playoff wins than any quarterback in history, and with a Super Bowl win, he will tie Peyton Manning’s number of postseason wins. Speaking of Manning, Flacco defeated a pair of future Hall of Famers in Manning and Brady on the way to the Super Bowl. Not bad for a guy who’s not elite, huh? And the way he did it was stunning. In the 3rd quarter, Caldwell and head coach John Harbaugh took the gloves off and let Flacco go to work. Despite some early drops, Flacco completed passes to seven different receivers, threw three touchdowns and no picks, and while Tom Brady’s passes were pushed around by the gusting winds at Gillette Stadium, Flacco’s strong-armed passes seemed unaffected. Flacco changed a lot of minds and made himself a lot of money up in New England.

People will call them a team of destiny (I did), but that’s shorthand for what’s really going on. These Baltimore Ravens are a very talented, well-coached team that’s putting all the pieces together, and they are fiercely determined to win. The Wild-Card-round crushing of the Colts was a matter of expediency, the thrilling victory in Denver was to remind us this squad is still packing some magic, but this win in New England served notice: These Ravens are for real.

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