I don’t know whether to be mad at the Bengals or to be thankful. My mind leans toward being angry and disappointed; not just because the season of being thankful for things has mercifully come to an end, but also because the Bengals were the only shot the Ravens had at playing another game in Baltimore in these playoffs: They were only the seed lower than the Ravens who would be left in the tourney if the Ravens kept on winning and the Bengals kept on winning. Sadly, those clownish tigers didn’t muster much of a fight against the Texans this weekend, so any hope of an AFC Championship Game in Charm City has been dashed. But a more-than-tiny part of me is glad the Bengals lost. That way, I and Ravens fans everywhere had the emotional security of knowing that Sunday was absolutely, positively going to be the last time that Ray Lewis took the field at M&T Bank Stadium. Instead of being defined by some vague sadness, some longing to see him in purple again, the game was an occasion for scream-your-lungs-out adoration because we knew, without doubt, it was a swan song. I am still in awe of the fact that I got to experience any of this in person.
It was a small miracle that I was there at all. A friend of mine, Juan, a huge Packers and Redskins fan, had had two tickets fall into his lap when two good friends could no longer attend the game. Juan had kept one ticket for himself and offered the other to the biggest Ravens fan he knew, and for that I thanked him relentlessly during and after the game and will continue to thank him for some time. Now, that gratitude was compromised when Juan called me at 10:30 Sunday morning to let me know he’d fallen asleep on his way from DC to Baltimore (a 40-minute train ride!), had woken up just as the train was pulling out of Penn Station, was accidentally on his way to Wilmington, DE, and might not be able to meet me at Lexington Market until 12:45. Not that I’d cared at all about missing a small portion of the start of the game; I was DVRing it, anyway. But like everyone else in the world who is a fan of football, I was desperate to see what the Ravens organization had planned to do in honor of Ray Lewis, the driving force behind our one and only Super Bowl. Juan fortunately found a train leaving Wilmington an hour earlier than he’d thought, so we didn’t miss a thing.
We needed every ounce of that extra hour, I realized, as we walked from the Lexington subway station and passed a seasonably empty Camden Yards to get to Ravens Walk, the pathway of noise and games and loud speakers that leads to the Bank. At the stadium entrance people were crammed like sardines in a tin, shoulder to shoulder in their Ravens jackets and hats and warpaint and feathers. I had never seen it so obscenely crowded, but then again, this was my first playoff game. There was happiness and laughter and electricity, not to mention nary a (new-school) Colts jersey. Ray Lewis jerseys were everywhere: some with that unofficial, bought-it-from-the-back-of-a-truck bluish off-purple, a couple here and there with the white, blue and stars of the AFC Pro Bowl team, and the rare one that was green and orange for The U, Ray’s alma mater. Hundreds of people already inside the stadium were leaning over the railing to soak in this writhing sea of purple that waited to get in. And in between terrifying conversations I couldn’t help but overhear since we were all so packed (sorry to hear you “still have diarrhea,” “Jill,” whoever you are), spurts of our adopted war-cry, Seven Nation Army, floated up from all over. I snapped a picture of the M&T logo high above me, and the guy next to me asked how it turned out and semi-seriously said that if the offense was introduced instead of the defense, he was “done.”
(I took a ton of pictures at the game; click here to see them all!)
Juan and I hustled to our seats in Section 509 with a few minutes to spare before kickoff. We were so high up that the sun bore down at the same time wind funneled from over the rim, making for a weird chilly-hot experience–not that that bothered the shorts-wearing idiot sitting next to us, who proudly proclaimed, when someone called him on it, that legs aren’t supposed to get cold because LEG HAIR, and so he only wears pants when it’s “below freezing.” Pneumonia lovers aside, Packer fan Juan was marveling at the beauty of M&T, noting that, like Lambeau Field, it gives patrons a great look at game action no matter where they sit. We were just settling in when the unmistakable riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” flooded the PA system, which signals the start of team intros. Everyone in my section jumped not only in jubilation at this but also because the Ravens-eye-red fireworks erupted right over our heads, so close we could smell the smoke. More than 71,000 people were tense as players ran out to applause; all around me were screams for the defense (which was introduced instead of the offense, of course)—screams that were especially loud for Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. But everyone was saving energy, both emotional and physical, for The Moment.
Then The Moment came.
“Lose Yourself” was replaced suddenly by “Hot in Herre” by Nelly. Two dramatic notes, and a pause; two more notes, another pause; then … … “Oh!” Normally quick to disappear, the bursts of flame near the team entrance got big, orange and forceful. Number 52 bounced onto the field with the love and appreciation of one whole city raining down on him—feelings that had been bottled and bubbling for a week, but expected with bated breath for years. With his teammates encircling him and looking on just as starry-eyed as the rest of us, Ray held a piece of field turf in his purple-gloved hand and smelled it before breaking into his ferocious Squirrel dance. After 17 years of practice, the pyrotechnics next to him blazed in perfect sync. Mass cheering ensued. Mass frenzy. I jumped up and down like a little girl, surprised at myself that, in the surreality of it all, I was not stifling tears but was overcome with joy. Although this ritual annoys opposing teams and fan bases, and despite perpetual Ravens hater Tony Kornheiser’s channeling of Chuckles the Clown to claim it’s just “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants,” what Ray has done before each home game was never pointless. Sure, it’s showmanship, but with the vaunted enthusiasm of the Baltimore home crowd and with our great home winning percentage this past decade, how can you argue with it? It evidently does something. It’s magic.
For the rest of the game, whenever Ray made a play—and he made plenty, finishing with a team-leading 13 tackles and very nearly getting a pick—the stadium erupted. Here and there echoing between our Seven Nation Army war-cries were chants of, “Thank you Ray.” At the final whistle, the scoreboard flashed a montage of Ray’s greatest plays, including this one that launched us toward the Super Bowl 12 years ago, and Ray took a victory lap around the entire length and width the stadium, waving to every corner as the PA boomed “Black Betty” and The Beatles’ “Revolution.”
Perhaps forgotten in all the Ray Lewis hullaballoo is that there was an actual football game played on Sunday. Although the win came against the only team of any of the 12 in the playoffs to have surrendered more points than it scored, the Ravens have tons to be proud of after beating the Colts (who, by the way, who were not addressed as the Indianapolis Professional Football Team on our scoreboard, a move that signals we have perhaps finally let go of some of the historic Mayflower bitterness). The Ravens executed well in all three phases of the game, en route to making Flacco the first quarterback to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons and to getting Harbaugh tied for most playoff wins (6) by a head coach in as much time. Special teams continued its dominance from the regular season; I sensed something explosive was missing from Indy’s game plan, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this: The Ravens’ special teams allowed ZERO return yards in five kickoffs and four punts, which is incredible. Meanwhile, both offense and defense swerved from popular narrative just enough to get the job done.
Our defense is not its old self, but in the last few games this unit has been quietly finding its groove. That showed Sunday afternoon. Some caveats, or praise for the visitors: The Colts were operating behind a makeshift offensive line that included even some third-stringers, but they still managed to march down the field several times thanks to solid play by Andrew Luck, who stayed heady in the face of a crowd that reminded Juan, a huge soccer fan, of the rowdy, seething audiences of fútbol. But the Ravens countered the Colts’ few slow and steady marches down the field—there were four impressive ones—by, say it with me, bending but not breaking. The defense was on the field for a whopping 87 plays against an offense ranked 7th in passing yards and 10th in total yards, and it held the opposition to three field goals. It did this by generating great pressure against the Colts’ hobbled line, which forced Luck into scrambles, two turnovers and short passes. A few people around me said Luck was “playing scared,” and perhaps he was intimidated by the occasion (Luck was in kindergarten when Ray Lewis entered the NFL), but I was impressed. Put it this way: If Flacco had played in his first couple playoffs the way Luck played on Sunday—when Luck had almost no defensive help—I salivate to think what the Ravens could have done in years past.
On the subject of Flacco, now is the time to kill the notion that he has sleptwalk to a great postseason record solely because he always has a good defense and running game to complement him. Rightfully maligned all season, the defense did its fair share on Sunday, but the game would have been far less comfortable had the offense laid an egg, as it seemed it might in the first half thanks to, of all people, Ray Rice. In spite of a glorious 47-yard scamper that set up our go-ahead touchdown, Rice fumbled the ball twice, killing two different promising drives. Folks around me were stunned into silence for a few moments, and the turnovers—our only ones of the day—sapped life out of M&T. Oddly enough, though, this is par for the course in the Ravens’ recent playoff games. As noted here in an excellent analysis by callahan09, since 2010 Rice has carried the ball 86 times in the postseason for 286 yards, one touchdown and three fumbles lost (he has fumbled five times total, but the Ravens have recovered twice.) But Flacco in the same timeframe has gone 89/150 passing for 1154 yards, nine TDs and two INTs, good for a 98.0 quarterback rating. Flip the script: In the postseason, it is Flacco who bails out Rice. And he did it again against the Colts, throwing for two touchdowns and many clutch conversions to Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin (who had a monster game).
I’ll conclude with a great quote from Harbs, who had this to say about the game in his presser: “It was one of those historic moments that none of us is ever going to forget. I felt … so pleased that we all have something that we will be able to talk to our kids and our grandkids about. A Baltimore football moment that’s going just to live on. That’s why you do this. That’s why you’re a fan. To be a part of moments like this.”