What a marvelous present to find underneath my nondenominational holiday tree—a Ravens victory, and an emphatic one over someone whose last name is Manning! I must admit, I didn’t see this bludgeoning—this merciless, chest-thumping, war paint-smearing, rebel yell-crying annihilation—coming at all. This is evidenced not only by the pessimism I expressed at the thought of our beating the Giants about three months ago when I made predictions for all 16 games (a stupid idea, by the way, mostly because injuries change everything), but also by my general glumness when questioned by Ravens fans and Giants fans this past week. Last Sunday, after Flacco and his elite (see: gasp-worthily poor) decision-making led to a pick-six against Denver, I did what a lot of Ravens fans seemed to do: divested emotionally. If that is how we play with our backs to the wall, fighting to make the playoffs, I stewed, and if that is how Flacco plays when he is supposed to be leading his team at home, and when he’s doing it against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, and when’s he’s doing it while kvetching for an elite-type contract, and when he’s doing it after his supposed Great Nemesis has been fired, I thought, then I QUIT, RAVENS. YOU WILL NOT PLAY TIDDLYWINKS WITH MY HEART. Now, however, I’ve managed to catch up to the bandwagon. And while I’m not sitting inside of it all cushy-like—not yet—I do have one hand gripped on the edge, and I’m jogging alongside as it plods toward the postseason, Where Anything Can Happen (TM).
It’s possible that Joe Flacco played the greatest game of his career yesterday, on Christmas Eve Eve 2012. He has had games that were statistically similar or better, but when contextualized for all the monumental, essence-draining pressure he was under after the exit of Cam Cameron (who diverted pressure by nature of being a constant scapegoat), and after his last horrific game, this is the most admirably I’ve seen Flacco perform. Last week I went on a bit of a soul-searching journey with my words, stopping in poppy fields to cry on my girl-blanket for how “embarrassed” I felt for Flacco after he threw The Interception against Denver. I’m not going back on that, because I will very oddly always remember what I felt during that game and it was indeed embarrassment for Joe—who is, yes, a total stranger, but who is also kind of like a brother (I just happen to never talk to) for how much I want him to succeed. This week I feel whatever the opposite of embarrassment is. I guess the easiest word to pluck from my egg nog-addled brain is pride. Ecstatic pride.
For all of his memorable moments, this is the first time Flacco has lorded over a game from start to finish, oozing confidence—just beaming with it—and using his intelligence and athleticism to manipulate, disorient and abuse a defense. It was so new and eye-popping that it inspired his receivers, in return, to do things I have rarely seen Ravens receivers do, which is to fight, dive and leap for balls, to scramble when Flacco scrambles, to be epic because their quarterback is being epic. A lot of this relates to the offensive line, which gave Flacco an eternity to scan the field from a good pocket (relative to the time he usually gets, anyway). But Flacco is the hero. In response to getting humiliated and being snickered at, to outright having his talent questioned, Flacco went SCORCHED EARTH on the Giants, throat-punching people with how good he can be, dazzling his naysayers (like me) and his defenders (like me) with darts through triple coverage, with feathery drops in the basket to convert third and longs, with Roethlisberger-like moves to extend plays. Again, he had help: The running game was superb, with both Rice and Pierce rushing for over 100 yards. Boldin, Pitta and Torrey Smith were catch-snaring beasts. And the Ravens defense put on its best show of the season, forcing endless three-and-outs and smashing Eli to bits. But, to channel my inner teenage broseph, Flacco looked like he put the GameShark in. Audibles, hard counts, slants, timing routes, designed QB roll-outs: finally, unleashed! If these obvious, necessary and modern elements of offense are all it takes for Joe Flacco to look like Aaron Rodgers Lite, then there is actually no reason the Ravens can’t win the Super Bowl, this year or any year, with this team.
Three cheers to the Ravens, AFC North Champions for the second year in a row! It’s a great achievement, given ours is the winningest division in football. Congratulations, also, to the up-and-coming Bengals, who have made it to the postseason for the second straight year and who did so in a way we can all appreciate: by keeping Pittsburgh out. Next week, fittingly, the Ravens and Bengals play their final game of the season against each other, in a match-up that got way less interesting when the Ravens beat the G-Men on Sunday. (AFC North ownership would have been up for grabs, winner take all in Cincinnati, if we had lost. But we didn’t, so.) Since there is no scenario in which the Bengals can be anything but a sixth seed, this game will technically be meaningless for them, which puts head coach Marvin Lewis in the weird position of choosing between resting his starters to avoid injury or playing them to keep momentum. But the Ravens will have something definitive to play for: If we beat the Bengals and the Dolphins beat the Patriots in New England (fat chance, I know, but let me dream), then we move from fourth seed to third seed … and will play the Bengals, in Baltimore, in Round One. Because why not? And life is funny that way. Happy Holidays, everyone!