BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 24: Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates during the closing moments of the Ravens 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Not many fans knew what to expect from the 2011 Baltimore Ravens. After over-hauling the offense shortly before the season started and giving Joe Flacco and the defense a new approach from a coaching stand point, anything could have happened. Before the season some ESPN NFL analysts were predicting the Ravens would finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. Some said we would win the north with ease.
With the season starting against the teams biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, most fans had no idea what they were going to see out of this group of players. I think the term cautiously optimistic sums it up pretty well. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Baltimore laid the wood to the Steelers and handed them one of the most lopsided defeats in team history. Talks of the Lombardi Trophy were already springing up all over the city. Over night everyone created lofty expectations for this young team that didn't even know who they were yet.
That inexperience and lack of chemistry that a team can only get by going through crushing defeats and exhilarating come back wins together shined through in week two The Ravens traveled to Tennessee for the Titans home opener as heavy favorites. Baltimore got out-played all over the field. The Titans were pumped up and emotionally charged. After a lack luster performance in their week one loss to Jacksonville, Matt Hasselbeck had his team hungry for a home win. I don't think too many teams would have been able to beat them that day but Baltimore drew the short straw. After the Ravens played such inspired football in week one, the team could not muster such inspiration in Tennessee.
Fans in Baltimore were left wondering just what kind of a football team they really had this year. Had they played above themselves week one or below themselves in week two?
The play continued this way all season. Baltimore would get up and play like champions in big games against the toughest of opponents. Then, when they seemingly had a week in which they should win easily, they would let up and allow themselves to be beaten by inferior teams. Fans , who have grown accustom to having winning teams here in Charm City, would find anyone to blame. Week in and week out there was always someone who blew the game for us.
This is Chuck Paganos first year as an NFL defensive coordinator. He had had a damn good season but he has made his mistakes. There have been plenty of games in which the defense failed to get us the stops we needed in order to give Joe Flacco and the offense a chance to win the game. No one really talks about that though because we are too busy blasting Cam Cameron for throwing the ball too much when we are behind. Weather it was Cam, Joe Flacco, David Reed or missed field goals from kicker Billy Cundiff there was always someone to be the scape goat.The truth is, this team has won and lost as a team every week. That is how you become a team.There is not a player wearing a purple jersey that has not had a hand in one our losses... Or one of our wins.
Looking back on the season as a whole I see a team that needed time to figure out how all the new pieces fit together. After Torrey Smith showed himself to be a legitimate deep threat, the team had to figure out just what that meant for the rest of them and how to best exploit the weaknesses that would expose for their opponents. Players like Ed Dickson and Tom Zbikowski were starting for the first time and needed time to find their niche. Anquan Boldin was the only wide receiver with any NFL experience on the roster after, Mr. Invisible, Lee Evans went down with an injury.
Joe Flacco had to learn about these guys on the fly and still concentrate on not turning the ball over. That can only leave him with a certain amount of plays that he felt comfortable running with certain players. Then when the rest of the league has tape on that he would have to start all over again. No wonder the guy was slipping with his completion percentage. Little by little Joe has found ways to get quality play from most of the new guys. The Ravens have been trying to work the new guys in while trying to stay true to form as a run first team centered around all-star Ray Rice. It's never a smooth ride but here we are at 11-4 in the last game of the season fighting for the division and perhaps conference. What more can we ask for from these guys? Really?
So, no matter if we win or lose today against the Bengals, I think the Ravens are on the right track. The difference between this team and the one that started the season for Baltimore is that they know who they are. They know each other, they know what they can and can't do and the coaches have learned what works for this team and what doesn't. They will be charging into Paul Brown stadium today as a team with an identity. Something they fought so hard all year to find and hopefully it has found them. This is the first day of the playoffs for this team but if we lose, we get a second chance...