In January 2007, the Baltimore Ravens, playing at home after a bye in one of their most dominant seasons, lost to the Indianapolis Colts 15-6.
Believe it or not, I had never seen this game until this week, despite having it on video for a little while now.
I had long wondered about what this game was like and thought what an oddity it was. I could never find highlights or any analysis of it years later because it was in the pre-HD era, when few NFL videos existed.
It really epitomizes the sometimes randomness that is the NFL Playoffs and perhaps that’s why we love the NFL so much. But it also heralded the beginning of the end of an era - the Brian Billick era.
Billick’s inability to get the offense going, in his whole tenure really but especially in this game, would stand out. By this time, the Ravens had everything. An otherworldly defense, a good if not a bit older QB, a stud running back, solid receivers in Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, and home field advantage thanks to a dominating 13-3 record (only a great Chargers season would keep them from the #1 seed). The Colts by contrast were, as always, not a deep team but with enough star power in the right places to be good.
For a game in which the NFL’s best Quarterback was held to five field goals, two interceptions, with one in the 4th Quarter, and still wins, you know some unusual things had to happen.
And they did.
The first thing you need to know about this game is that the Ravens, overall, played very well. The defense especially was phenomenal, made almost no mistakes, and lived up to its hype as a rival of the legendary 2000 defense.
Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed showed up big. They made huge plays all-game long to keep the Ravens in this one until the very end. Suggs had several enormous stuffs in the run game to shut down the Colts tacky hurry-up run plays at the goal line to save touchdowns and force field goals. Ed Reed made vintage Ed Reed plays, reading Manning’s eyes and snagging clutch INTs when the team needed them desperately. He would have had more but for some tipped ball bad luck.
Even on offense, some guys played well despite only generating six points. Jamal Lewis, for instance showed exceptionally nimble feet, dodging defenders repeatedly despite his hulking frame to extend short gains into first downs. Without him, the Ravens might get shut out. Mark Clayton made several big catches in tough situations.
Even the guys who made critical mistakes played well at times. Todd Heap made one of the most amazing one-handed catches you’ll ever see. McNair made multiple huge throws to deep sidelines and in the seam to extend drives.
The number of painful, even stunningly unlucky, plays in this game almost defies understanding though. Let’s go down Bad Memory Lane:
- 1Q, 7:21, 2nd & 4, BAL 26: Todd Heap takes a hit at the first down marker which upends him and he loses the ball going to the ground. IND recovers to score a field goal. (Side note: In a weird twist of fate, the Ravens would cause an exact replica of this play against the Tennessee Titans in the 2008 AFC Divisional Playoffs, stripping Alge Crumpler at their own 1-yard line in the 4th Quarter to save a touchdown and the game).
- 1Q, 6:51, 2nd & 2, BAL 24: Terrell Suggs strips Joseph Addai and the ball bounces into three Ravens defenders. Ray Lewis puts a hand on the ball which causes it to bounce away from a sure recovery by BAL into the hands of the lone white jersey. IND kicks a FG two plays later.
- 2Q, 9:21, 3rd & 4, IND 1: McNair tries to force a pass into tight coverage to Todd Heap in the end zone to take the lead. He has him open but unfortunately stared him down, waited one second too long, giving Bethea time to get over and cut the pass off for an INT at the 1-yard line. The Colts would later kick a FG. This 10-point swing would be play on which the Ravens would lose the game in my opinion.
- 2Q, 6:16, 1st & 10, IND 27: Ray Lewis makes an impressive diving play to tip a Manning pass. Unfortunately, his tip prevents an almost sure-fire INT by Chris McAlister that would have set up incredible field position. (Side note: McAlister still should have had it).
- 2Q, 3:15, 4th & 5, BAL 34: Adam Vinatieri drops a 51-yard field goal onto the cross bar, which inexplicably bounces in.
- 3Q, 8:30, 2nd & 11, IND 49: Marvin Harrison catches a 7-yard pass, and in typical Marvin Harrison playoff form, fumbles the ball. Corey Ivy is there for the recovery, and the ball bounces towards the sideline, just out of his diving reach.
- 3Q, 5:56, 3rd & 4, BAL 44: Manning throws a dangerous pass in traffic to Wayne. The ball sails right to Ed Reed. Instead of an INT, Ray Lewis, unaware that Reed has an easy interception heading his way and a mile of wide open space to run with it, makes a great play on the ball to tip it away - and ruins the interception. Great play, bad outcome.
- 3Q, 3:44, 1st & 10, BAL 17: Mark Clayton catches a perfect pass from McNair for a 48-yard gain, then FUMBLES the ball, which the Colts return 50 yards the other way. An unrelated illegal contact penalty bails Baltimore out of total catastrophe but the fumble still costs Baltimore 43 yards of field position
- 4Q, 12:06, 3rd and 17, IND 12: Peyton Manning attempts his patented hurry to the line and throws a deep ball to Harrison hoping to catch the Ravens sleeping. They aren’t. McAlister has textbook coverage, Reed reads it perfectly and makes the Interception. Reed pirouettes, pitches the ball to McAlister and the referees blow it dead, incorrectly at the IND 39. On replay, it becomes clear that Reed got rid of the ball well before going out of bounds but the refs for whatever reason just assume he was out of bounds and the Ravens lose at least 30 yards of field position and possibly a return touchdown as a result.
- 4Q, 10:25, 3rd & 9, IND 39: This blown call would be a big deal. Six plays later, driving into Colts territory hoping to take the lead, Steve McNair throws deep down the middle, staring down Demetrius Williams, and gets easily intercepted by Nick Harper. On replay, it appears Williams rounded off his square-in route, which allows the defensive back to jump the route. Williams then fails to fight Harper for the contested ball.
- 4Q, 8:43: The Ravens would get what would ultimately be their final meaningful possession, promptly going a pathetic three and out.
- 4Q, 3:57, 3rd & 5, BAL 45: Getting close to desperation mode, the Ravens needed a stop here to get the ball back with time for a nice four minute drive to win. However, making the second of three 3rd down conversions, Manning would complete one of the most perfect touch passes you’ll ever see. Corey Ivy has blanket coverage on Dallas Clark, but the ball sails in, sinking like a rock, grazing Ivy's fingertips to Clark behind him. Clark would not even make a good catch – the ball would sail through his hands, slam off his thigh pads, back into his hands, and he would come up with the ball for a first down. Clark is so surprised himself that he holds the ball up like "see? I got it!" When Ray Lewis did Manning's "NFL Top 100 Greatest Players" segment a few years ago, he cited this exact play as the one he remembered most about what made Manning so good. Knowing what I know now about this game, I can see why.
- 4Q, 2:18, 3rd & 4, BAL 25: Now desperately needing a stop to get a final possession, the Colts convert a five-yard run on the back of Dominic Rhodes, who had a great day relatively, thus putting the dagger into Baltimore.
- 4Q, 0:23, 1st & 10, BAL 33: In a final act of unfortunate events, Mathis strip sacks McNair to end the game.
The Colts would go on to win the Super Bowl in the next three weeks. For a team that has seen their playoff hopes end in dramatic fashion, it was a matter of time before everything came together to go their way once (and if you doubt that, watch them inexplicably comeback from 18 down against NE with some more insanely good fortune). When you have one touchdown and five interceptions over two games, and you win both, you know it’s your year (or you're about to be blown out in the next game, but mostly, its probably your year).
The Ravens played very well, overall, as well as the Colts even. It was one of the finest defensive performances you’ll ever see. While they failed to secure a stop in the final drive, late in the game all defenses tire out and it’s hard to blame them for what the offense couldn’t do – which is score anything or keep the Colts on the sidelines. They played magnificently for the bulk of the game and well enough for even a mediocre offense to win that one. Ultimately, the Ravens would make one more mistake though than the Colts and they would be devastating ones that would cost them the deciding points. Alas, in the playoffs when teams are more evenly matched than most people think, turnovers are often the lone decider.
The Ravens definitely had the goods to battle New England and would have played them at home in Baltimore before potentially facing their mirror match in Chicago (and Rex Grossman being who he is, I like their chances there too).
Offensively for the season, it was one of their better passing offenses, with a net YPA of 6.3, tied for second with several of their other best offenses. It was one of their poorer rushing seasons however.
Defensively, Baltimore owned a ridiculous number of #1 rankings in 2006.
- #1 in Points Allowed (201 - second in team history only to the 2000 Ravens Defense, also is best correlating stat to winning)
- #1 in Yards Allowed (4,225)
- #1 Yards per Play (4.5)
- #1 in Interceptions (28 - an absolutely ridiculous 5.50% of passes against the Ravens were intercepted. I.e. they were averaging nearly two interceptions a game)
- #1 in First Downs allowed (236)
- #1 in Rushing Touchdowns allowed (5)
- #1 in Turnover % (20.5% - approx. every fifth Ravens Defensive drive would end in a turnover for Baltimore).
- #1 in Average Time of drive (2:14)
- #1 in Plays per Drive (4.9)
- #1 in Yards per Drive (21.6)
- #1 in Points per Drive (1.02, second in team history only to the 2000 Ravens at 0.79)
- #1 in Expected Points Contributed by Defense (217.06)
The Ravens team was also #1 in the NFL in Pythagorean Wins (12.57). This is a bit complicated to explain so read about it here. Basically it indicates that the Ravens as a whole were every bit as good as 13-3 says they were and the best team in the NFL, even better than San Diego (Chicago was 2nd with 12.36 and San Diego/New England approximately tied for 3rd with 12.15. The Colts were 9.6, meaning they were sort of like the 2012 Colts: lucky to even be there).
The last Ravens team to lead the NFL in Pythagorean Wins: The 2000 Ravens (13.25)
So the 2006 Ravens were pretty damn good and it ended brutally against IND. But before we feel sorry for ourselves, two years later, the near opposite of this game would happen in Tennessee. That day, a subject for a future TBT, seemingly everything would go wrong for the #1 seeded Titans to lose a tight, low scoring contest that would send the Ravens to the AFC Championship.
Such is life in the NFL Playoffs where the cruel whims of Fate sometimes conspire against you before deciding to shower good fortune on you the next time.
In any event, less than a year later from this game, Brian Billick would be fired, paving the way for John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco who are definite upgrades (and who would endure their own comically unfortunate playoff game against the Colts in 2009)
Billick did not necessarily get outcoached by Dungy (who rarely outcoached anyone) in this playoff game, but he did not do anything to put the Ravens in a position to win either. For a so-called offensive mastermind, it was a damning performance and without a doubt has to be the moment that firing him had to become a real possibility in Bisciotti's mind. The team simply had too much talent to have these results. Its not unlike the recent Bengals teams that keep floundering when they clearly have the talent to do better (except of course at one particular position).
I think Bisciotti fires Billick after 2007 barring anything but a deep playoff run, but the blown loss to New England made it a no-brainer. Another game in which the Ravens thoroughly outplayed elite competition, their hallmark often as not, only to blow it would be the final straw.
Its a tough break, because truly so many things went wrong that Billick could not control in this particular playoff game. However, that's the price of being one of 32 head coaches.
It worked out well for us fans in the long term, as 2008 marked the start of a five-year domination run as an elite team that is likely to keep going for awhile. But it’s impossible to watch this 2006 AFC Divisional playoff game and not wonder what could have been but for a series of many incredibly unfortunate events.