PITTSBURGH — The Patriots are probably feeling a little bit like Indiana Jones this morning.
“Ravens. Why’d it have to be the Ravens?”
Of the four AFC teams still alive in the playoffs, three don’t scare the Patriots.
The Colts and Bengals certainly don’t — New England took care of business against both this season. The Broncos don’t scare the Patriots much, either, at least in terms of coming to Foxborough and pulling off an upset.
But guess who is coming to Foxborough Saturday night for a date with the Patriots after knocking off the Steelers in an AFC wild-card game, 30-17?
Hark, the Ravens.
“We’re going to enjoy this plane ride home,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said not long after his interception sealed the Ravens’ win. “But we all know who we’re dealing with next.”
Forget the Ravens’ shaky finish to the regular season, or their depleted secondary, or that only 18 players remain from their Super Bowl team two years ago. The Steelers beat the Ravens by 20 points at home during the regular season, then got blown out Saturday night.
The sixth-seeded Ravens are the team that could march into Gillette Stadium and spoil the Patriots’ Super Bowl plans.
They’ve done it before — twice, as you know.
The Ravens did it in 2009, whooping up on the Patriots in the wild-card round. And you probably don’t need to be reminded of the beatdown they put on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game two years ago.
Now, here they come again.
To be fair, this isn’t the same Ravens team. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice, and Anquan Boldin aren’t walking through that door.
But Joe Flacco, John Harbaugh, and the Ravens proved again they come to play in the postseason, and they’re not afraid to come into your building and push you around.
On paper, the Patriots shouldn’t be too afraid. The Ravens’ secondary is decimated, with safety Matt Elam forced to play cornerback because five others are on injured reserve. And their linebackers are average at best. Who, exactly, is going to cover Rob Gronkowski?
The Ravens also were wildly inconsistent on offense down the stretch, losing badly to the Texans and squeaking past the Jaguars and the Browns to sneak into the playoffs. And the Patriots beat the Ravens, 41-7, just last season. That game was in Baltimore, and this one is in Foxborough, where the Patriots have lost just once since 2012.
This Patriots team has a healthy Gronk now, plus a championship-caliber defense with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Vince Wilfork.
But throw all of that out the window for Saturday’s showdown. None of it matters. The Ravens, clearly, are a different team come playoff time.
They lost four out of their last five games in 2012, then went on to win the Super Bowl. And this year’s team has a lot of similarities to that one.
The Ravens certainly can run the football — journeyman Justin Forsett had 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns this year as Rice’s replacement, though he wasn’t needed on Saturday. They also still have big-play ability with Flacco’s strong arm and the speed from the Smith Bros. — Torrey and Steve. Flacco hit a big 40-yard jump ball to Steve Smith in the third quarter, and later, on third and 2, went for another jump ball that resulted in a 32-yard pass interference call. Think Flacco might try that once or twice against Browner, whose league-high 15 penalties this season came in only nine games?
The Ravens’ defensive line is downright nasty. They had five sacks Saturday, and that is nothing new. Elvis Dumervil had 17 sacks and Terrell Suggs added 12. Pernell McPhee had an impressive 7.5 from the interior. Dumervil, who had two sacks Saturday, will likely be matched up on Sebastian Vollmer. Suggs will likely line up across Nate Solder.
Feeling good about those matchups? Didn’t think so.
Meanwhile, Haloti Ngata returned to the lineup Saturday night after sitting out a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, and was back clogging running lanes and picking up a sack like he always does.
The Ravens still have defensive coordinator Dean Pees — the former Patriots defensive coordinator – pulling the levers and dialing up exotic blitzes. You know all those communication issues the Patriots have been having on the offensive line? Have fun dealing with the Ravens’ overloaded blitzes and zone pressures.
But in the end, it comes down to the Ravens’ coach and quarterback, the two constants in the Ravens’ almost-decade-long stretch of success. Flacco and Harbaugh just aren’t intimidated about going on the road in the playoffs. Saturday’s win improved them to 7-4 on the road in the postseason since both joined the Ravens in 2008.
Flacco isn’t afraid of bad weather, as he showed once again Saturday on a wet, cold night in Pittsburgh. He’s not afraid of the crowd noise, ignoring 62,000 terrible towels to turn in a flawless performance — 18 of 29 for 259 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Peyton Manning might get spooked by the mystique of Gillette Stadium, but Flacco is nails.
Against the Steelers, Flacco and the Ravens scored points on 7 of 8 drives until the last couple of drives to wind down the clock. He stretched the Pittsburgh defense vertically until it fell apart, and showed off his best Ben Roethlisberger impression, escaping the grasp of two defenders before circling left and throwing a dart against his body for a touchdown to Torrey Smith.
“He’s unbelievable,” said offensive lineman Gino Gradkowski, one of the 18 leftovers from 2012. “He definitely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and yeah, he isn’t fazed by anything. He’s the same no matter what the situation is, and we feed off of that.”
It was a performance that reminded football fans that Flacco is a championship-caliber quarterback.
And it left Patriots fans shaking their heads and wondering, “Why’d it have to be the Ravens?”