Sun., Jan. 10: Big Rice Run Spurs Ravens' Wild-Card Win
FIRST-QUARTER BURST SETS UP RAVENS-COLTS 2ND-ROUND MATCHUP
By Joe Platania
Sunday, January 10, 2010
On the first play of the Ravens-Patriots game in October, Chris Carr fumbled the kickoff and sent his team into a midseason web of inconsistency and misery.
On the first scrimmage play of the teams' Wild Card Weekend matchup Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, Ray Rice ran 83 yards and sent Baltimore into the second round.
The sixth-seeded Ravens rode a record 24-point first quarter to a smashing 33-14 win, their first-ever victory over New England in six tries, and a date with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Playoff round Saturday night at 8:15.
Last year, Baltimore (10-7) also had to play on the road against the top seed in the Divisional Round, beating the Tennessee Titans, 13-10.
The result also means the Ravens are an NFL-best 7-2 in playoff games away from home, a record that includes their neutral-site win in Super Bowl XXXV.
Not counting the Super Bowl, it was the team's sixth road postseason win of the decade, tying an NFL record set by the 1970s Dallas Cowboys.
In turn, the Patriots lost a home postseason game for the second time in their history (vs. Houston, 1978) and the first time at Gillette, breaking an 11-game home playoff win streak in front of 68,756 stunned fans. It was also New England's biggest postseason loss since Super Bowl XX, when it lost to Chicago, 46-10.
A win against the Colts would put the Ravens into their second straight AFC Championship Game (Sunday, January 24, 3 p.m.) against the winner of next Sunday's Divisional game between the fifth-seeded New York Jets and the second-seeded San Diego Chargers.
"I'm not surprised for our football team," head coach John Harbaugh said. "The challenges that they fought through and everything that they made for themselves, I'm proud of our guys. It was a tremendous victory against a great opponent.
"That's how you win football games. That's especially how you win playoff football games."
It was appropriate that Rice, who had one of his four 100-yard games this year against New England, would strike the first blow in a near-perfect first quarter that saw the Ravens outgain the Patriots, 124-20, forcing three turnovers and sacking quarterback Tom Brady twice.
That was no small task against a Patriots offensive line that had allowed a franchise-record-low 18 sacks all year.
Rice's 159 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns was a Ravens' single-game postseason record in his first-ever playoff game.
Appropriately enough, he broke a record set by Jamal Lewis (110 yards) in his first postseason game, a New Year's Eve, 2000, Wild Card Weekend game against Denver.
Rice's low-to-the-ground style and quick-cutting ability served him well, especially on the shocking touchdown run that opened the game.
"It's a little different when teams have to play catch-up to us," Rice pointed out. "But I wanted to be the guy today, whether it was a five-yard run or an 83-yard run."
Rice had already posted the longest run against the Pats this year, a 50-yarder. But this time, his teammates double-teamed nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was back from a foot injury.
Rice cut to his left, saw the double-team and cut back to his right. He found a small crease between guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda, then dashed off to the left sideline to complete the touchdown run.
It was the second-longest scoring jaunt in NFL postseason history, topped only by current Patriot and former Jacksonville back Fred Taylor's 90-yard effort for the Jaguars against the Dolphins ten seasons ago.
"The safety was 15-20 yards deep," Rice said. "If I make the first guy miss, the rest of the way, it's a footrace."
A mere 17 seconds into the game, it seemed to be over.
GROUND CHUCK &
A CUP O'JOE
The Ravens' run-oriented attack served them well, running up a 147-39 halftime edge and a 156-61 total-yards advantage.
Trailing by 24-7 early in the third quarter, New England tried vainly to catch up behind Brady's arm and his rhythmic passing game.
Three straight completions, including the first catch of the day by 83-catch superstar Randy Moss, put the Patriots near midfield.
But on a deep pass near the right side for tight end Ben Watson, cornerback Frank Walker collided with Watson as the ball arrived. It hung in the air and was picked off by safety Dawan Landry, the Ravens' third interception and fourth takeaway of the day.
Landry ran the ball back 67 yards to the New England 22, setting up Billy Cundiff's 23-yard field goal and a 27-7 lead. Twenty of the Ravens' points had come off Pats' miscues.
Brady answered with the Pats' best-balanced drive of the day, a ten-play, 53-yard possession that featured four runs and six passes.
It ended when Brady found Julian Edelman (44 yards, six catches, two TDs) for his second touchdown catch of the day, a one-yard toss that cut the Ravens' lead to 13 points late in the third quarter.
To that point, the Ravens had prospered without really needing a strong performance from quarterback Joe Flacco, running the ball 34 times and passing it only seven.
In fact, Baltimore would end up running the ball 52 times for 234 yards and four touchdowns, all team postseason records. The 52 attempts were the second-highest total in a postseason game since 1980.
But to stem the Pats' nascent rally, it was time for Flacco -- who turns 25 years old on game day in Indianapolis -- to shine.
As the third quarter ended, Flacco (4-for-10, 34 yards, INT, 10 rating), who still has a Brady poster hanging in his New Jersey childhood bedroom, found Derrick Mason on a key third-down pass that was the first catch by a wideout all day.
From there, Mark Clayton leaped high along the right sideline -- not far from his infamous fourth-down drop in October -- to gain 17 yards to the Patriots' 16.
Two Rice runs left the Ravens with a third-and-7, after which Flacco scrambled around left end -- a painful proposition, to be sure (see "24-Skiddoo", below) -- and extended the ball past the first-down marker to gain first-and-goal at the Pats' 6, a call confirmed by replay.
On third-and-goal, the Ravens overloaded the left side and Willis McGahee ran through it for the team's fourth rushing score of the day -- a team single-game postseason record; the Ravens had never had more than two -- that boosted the lead to 33-14 and capped the victory with 10:32 to go.
The Patriots' mountain was too high to climb, and not even Brady and his 29 career comebacks would be good enough.
But Rice, the defense and the Ravens' running game had a lot to do with that.
Rice's run was just the opening salvo as the Ravens, who ran the ball just 17 times in the October loss at New England, made up their mind to deploy a ground-based attack.
In fact, Baltimore has averaged 36 rushes per game the last four weeks as they finished an inconsistent regular season with a 3-1 flourish.
However, a factor in the decision may have been Flacco's sore hip and quadriceps; the latter injury was reportedly incurred during pre-game warmups. Another key was the fact that New England had scored 282 first-half points this year, most in the NFL.
It turns out it was the right approach. Flacco was a mere 2-for-6 for nine yards at halftime.
But New England had something of its own to repair: its postseason psyche, despite having lost just one home postseason game in franchise history (1978 vs. Houston).
Sunday's game was the Pats' first playoff game since their unbeaten 2007 squad was foiled in their quest for an unbeaten season by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. It was a loss even a poised quarterback such as Brady has admitted still lingered within the team.
And in their quest to recover from Rice's score, things got even worse.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs nearly intercepted Brady's second-down hitch pass, but he made up for the near-miss by beating veteran left tackle Matt Light and stripping Brady on the next play and recovering the fumble at the Patriots' 17.
It was Brady's third lost fumble of the year, second against the Ravens and Suggs. In October, the strip led to a Dwan Edwards touchdown.
The result would be similar this time.
Five plays later, the Ravens sent defensive tackle Haloti Ngata on the field as part of its "heavy" goal-line package. Ngata, a former rugby player, has been calling for the ball, but he wouldn't get it this time.
Fullback Le'Ron McClain, just selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, bulled over from one yard out, and the Ravens had a 14-0 lead barely four and a half minutes into the game.
Carr, perhaps recalling his faux pas in the earlier meeting, then came up with two big plays.
First, he returned a Patriots punt 35 yards to the New England 42. After a Ravens punt put New England deep in its own territory, Carr took advantage of Jarret Johnson's pressure on Brady and intercepted a pass over the middle intended for Chris Baker. Carr ran the pickoff back to the Pats' 25.
Willis McGahee (62 yards, 20 carries, TD), the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week after a 167-yard, three-TD game at Oakland, joined the fun by catching a right-flat pass and running for 12 yards to the Patriots' 2.
Two plays later, Rice was in the end zone again, smashing in over the left side thanks to a block from pulling right guard Yanda.
Amazingly, the three rushing touchdowns allowed by New England accounted for half their regular-season total on defense.
A beleaguered Brady (8-for-17, 38 yards at the half) then tried a deep right sideline pass, but cornerback Domonique Foxworth tipped it to safety Ed Reed, who made his sixth interception in as many career playoff games.
Like all the Ravens, linebacker Ray Lewis was aware that the team had had little success against elite quarterbacks.
"If you look at the way we played, we just had fun," Lewis said, 'Grab hold of these moments, have fun with these moments'... If you can get to Brady, you can rattle him early.
"This is one of the top-notch programs in football, three championships in the last ten years. You just have to come play football."
While running down the left sideline, Reed -- playing only his second game after missing four weeks with a groin problem -- lateraled the ball to Landry, who continued to the Patriots' 9.
The Ravens could not cash this turnover into a touchdown, but Cundiff's 27-yard field goal and 24-0 lead capped off the best first quarter in Ravens' history, either regular- or postseason. The Ravens had scored 14 in the opening period six times in the last 14 years.
But this time around, Baltimore put together a quarter that was just four points short of the best first period in NFL playoff history (Oakland-Houston, 1969). It was also the most points allowed in the first by a Bill Belichick-coached team.
BUT NOT ENOUGH
New England finally got a break of its own when Carr collided with Tom Zbikowski when trying to make a fair catch on a punt. The ball grazed off Zbikowski, was gathered up by New England's Kyle Arrington and caromed out of bounds at the Ravens' 16.
Replay showed that Arrington did not control the ball all the way to the ground, as the rules state a receiver must. However, the Ravens did not challenge.
League Comeback Player of the Year Brady (23-for-42, 154 yards, two TDs, three INTs, three sacks, career-postseason-low 49.1 rating) took advantage and, with fast rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe closing in on him, soon found Edelman for a third-down, six-yard touchdown pass, the 16th consecutive postseason game in which Brady has a scoring toss.
Edelman, a seventh-round pick and former quarterback from Kent State, was tapped to replace invaluable receiver Wes Welker, whose NFL-leading 123 catches would be absent from the team due to a multi-ligament injury suffered in Week 17 at Houston.
The 6-foot-1 Edelman, dubbed "Mini Wes" by the Boston-area media, gathered in ten catches in the loss to the Texans and seemed comfortable in the lineup.
He was also dubbed to take Welker's place on punt returns, which was a big task considering Welker's AFC-best 12-yard return average.
After a second interception of Flacco gave the Pats more momentum, Edelman took a short Sam Koch punt and returned it 28 yards to the Ravens' 44 with under six minutes to go before halftime.
But even with a Foxworth offsides penalty that gave the Patriots another first down, New England could not get any points off that opportunity.
That's because wideout Randy Moss (48 yards, five catches), reportedly hobbled with knee problems late last week, was called for pushing off on Carr, a ten-yard interference call that killed New England's drive.
It negated a pass to Kevin Faulk (52 yards; 14 carries; 37 yards, six catches), who got behind Ellerbe, that went for a first down inside the Ravens' red zone.
"We had Domonique Foxworth on Moss almost the whole game," Harbaugh pointed out. "Chris Carr was on Edelman and did a great job on the underneath routes."
The Ravens were punted inside their own five-yard line, but their power running game picked up a pair of first downs and was able to run out the first-half clock even though New England still had a timeout on the board.
That rather-innocuous sequence summed up the day: the Ravens took care of business and left the Patriots in a daze in the process.
And the Ravens didn't let up, continuing to pound New England with a full-team, four-quarter effort. For now, you could say it was a championship-level effort.
They will need another one at Indianapolis... from the very first play.
NOTES: The Ravens will play another regular-season game in Foxborough next year, per the NFL's schedule formula. Baltimore will take on the entire AFC East Division, with Buffalo and Miami coming to town... McGahee's futile effort to score on a two-point conversion run early in the fourth quarter was the Ravens' first two-point try in a postseason game in team history...
Tight end Todd Heap was helped off in the fourth quarter after he suffered a back stinger as a result of a push from the Patriots' Tully Banta-Cain... Ray Lewis led the Ravens with 13 tackles and his first postseason sack. Foxworth paced the Ravens with eight solo tackles and Edwards had six... Harbaugh did a victory lap, high-fiving Ravens fans in the front row of the stands...
The teams wore the same color schemes they did in the October matchup. The Ravens wore their white road jerseys with black pants. The Patriots donned their usual dark blue tops with silver pants... The Patriots won the toss and chose to defer... This year's Ravens were the only team in the entire league to score more than 45 touchdowns and allow fewer than 30...
Before Sunday's outburst, the Ravens had scored ten or more points in a postseason quarter six times. However, five were during the team's Super Bowl run; the other was in Miami last year... The Ravens went 10-for-16 on third-down plays in the game, giving them 19 conversions in 30 tries in two games against New England... The Ravens had just three penalties...
CBS has already assigned its number-two team of Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf to call the Ravens-Colts game... If the reports are accurate and former New England coach Pete Carroll is returning to the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, it's ironic that it happens nearly ten years to the day after Carroll's last NFL game: in Foxborough with the Patriots against the Ravens...
The Ravens' inactives included third-string quarterback John Beck, defensive end Paul Kruger, defensive tackle Kelly Talavou, defensive backs Marcus Paschal and Keith Fitzhugh, guard David Hale, tackle Tony Moll and former practice-squad wide receiver Justin Harper... The team's nine missed field goals this year, five of them by Cundiff, set a new team record...
The Patriots did not dress guard Dan Connolly due to an ankle injury that kept him from practicing. Besides Connolly, the Pats sat down receiver/third quarterback Isaiah Stanback, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, linebacker Thomas Williams, cornerback Terrence Wheatley, tackle Mark LeVoir, defensive tackle Ron Brace and guard Rich Ohrnberger...
Despite the Patriots' many playoff appearances, this year marked only the second time that New England had been the third seed. In 1997, after New England had beaten Miami on Wild Card Weekend, Pittsburgh eliminated the Patriots in the divisional round, 7-6... New England came into Sunday's game with 25 active-roster players with no postseason experience...
Linebacker Adalius Thomas drew a penalty for shoving Mason backwards before a fourth-quarter two-point conversion. Thomas, who left the Ravens for New England as a free agent, had seven tackles... Kicker Steven Gostkowski, who had missed five field goals all year, pushed a 44-yarder wide right with 7:19 to go. It would have made it a two-score margin...
Welker came out on the field on crutches for the pregame coin toss... New England had four Pro Bowl picks: Brady, Welker, Wilfork and guard Logan Mankins... Brady has now thrown 12 interceptions in his last eight postseason games... It was the Pats' second straight postseason loss -- after Super Bowl XLII -- the first time since 1998-1999 that had happened...
The officiating crew was led by referee Gene Steratore, one of the league's younger referees who is only in his fourth season after being promoted from field judge in 2003. Steratore worked the Ravens' opener against Kansas City in September and called eight accepted penalties on the Ravens... Gametime temperature was 20 degrees with a wind chill of 8.