With so much to discuss leading up to this one, we went to Kevin Van Valkenburg of the Baltimore Sun, and we talked about the big rematch, Randy Moss and Bill Belichick‘s Baltimore binky.
NESN: This is a pretty significant game in the Patriots’ eyes due to the way last season ended. Is there a heightened sense of importance from the Baltimore camp, at least in comparison to their 2009 regular-season meeting?
Kevin Van Valkenburg: Even though they have a reputation for trash-talking and swagger, under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have become religiously devoted to the football cliché we’re all familiar with by now: No game is more important than the next; it’s one step in a larger journey, etc.
But if you could slip a little truth serum in their Powerade this week, I suspect a few Ravens would admit this game carries a bit more emotional weight because of the way, at least in Baltimore’s opinion, the referees affected the outcome of the regular-season contest in Foxboro last year. The Ravens dislike it tremendously when opposing quarterbacks receive what they consider star treatment, and Ray Lewis was quick to voice those opinions last year after Tom Brady pointed in the direction of his knee, then pumped his fist when the referee called a personal foul on Terrell Suggs. If you recall, Rodney Harrison even sided with the Ravens, saying on NBC that it was time for Brady to “take off his skirt, put on some slacks and toughen up.”
When neither Lewis nor Ed Reed were fined by the league for their comments, I think it’s fair to say the Ravens saw it as validation that they were correct, that the league was acknowledging the calls were suspect. So I think there is definitely a little extra motivation when these two teams get together.
The Ravens certainly understand what this game means to New England because of what happened in the playoff game. They know they dominated that contest and made the Patriots look pretty meek in the process, so they’re certainly aware that New England wants to prove that game was a fluke.
NESN: Has Joe Flacco caught much flack for a slower start than what might have been anticipated?
K.V.V.: At least for the fan base, Flacco is one of the most polarizing players the Ravens have. It’s actually fascinating to watch the two camps clash with one another on a weekly basis.
I’m not sure Baltimore fans anticipated he’d play considerably better this year as much as they hoped he would. For more than a decade, the city has been so starved for great play from their quarterback, and disappointed so many times, they’ve learned to not anticipate much. But they were certainly hopeful.
When Flacco didn’t look great initially — especially when he threw four interceptions in a dreadful loss to the Bengals — a deep divide quickly formed. His supporters dug their heels in and pointed to his entire body of work, and his detractors vented over his poor mechanics, his detached personality and his inability to thrive against certain defenses like the Cover 2.
The game-winning touchdown pass he threw on the road against the Steelers quieted most of his critics. That was the big moment Ravens fans had been yearning for. But it’s definitely fair to say that even his most ardent fans still wonder if he’s good enough to lead the team to a Super Bowl. All the tools are there for him to be very good, but he’s still a work in progress. It’s unlikely he’ll flip a switch one day and be consistently great, and Harbaugh has tried to point this out to an uneasy fan base. It’s more likely, if he gets there, that his progress will be like climbing a staircase. He’ll look good some weeks, level off for a bit, maybe even stumble back a few steps, but most likely he’ll continue to climb and progress.
NESN: How different is the Baltimore defense without Ed Reed?
K.V.V.: There was some speculation that the Ravens might actually be more consistent defensively in Reed’s absence, in part because of the perception that Reed takes too many risks and freelances in an attempt to make big plays. But that line of thinking was dead and buried after the Ravens forced just one turnover through the first three games.
Reed is one of the smartest players in the NFL, and what I think people don’t realize is the Ravens put him in difficult situations on purpose because they know he’s good enough to recover, or force the other team into mistakes, more often than he’ll get beat.
Belichick understands how valuable Reed is. There aren’t many players he showers with effusive praise, but Reed is one of them. I’m sure he’s privately thrilled to face Tom Zbikowski, Dawan Landry and Haruki Nakamura instead of Reed.
The Ravens are still strong up front on defense, but they’re also a bit more conservative with their coverages because Reed isn’t there to wipe away their mistakes.
NESN: Has there been any reaction from the Ravens regarding the Randy Moss trade?
K.V.V.: Ray Lewis admitted he was somewhat relieved the Ravens wouldn’t have to face Moss. It was a rare moment of candor from him. He said the toughest thing about preparing for Moss is it occasionally doesn’t matter if you have the right coverage, or if you have a cornerback running with him stride for stride. He’ll still go up and catch the ball sometimes.
Fabian Washington said he doesn’t anticipate the Patriots will go deep as much, and that he’ll sleep a little better this week knowing that Moss won’t be lined up across from him Sunday. One of the Ravens’ biggest weaknesses a year ago was the deep ball, and though they haven’t been burned much this year on plays like that (except for in garbage time against the Broncos), I’m not sure those ghosts have been totally forgotten. It will be interesting to see if Brandon Tate can surprise them and get behind their defense as a result.
NESN: Has Anquan Boldin changed the way opposing defenses treat Baltimore’s downfield passing game?
K.V.V.: The addition of Boldin has been a huge factor in their success this year. In 2009, especially late in the year, Flacco essentially stopped throwing the ball over the middle of the field because no one could get open. The Ravens’ passing attack rarely attempted throws other than to the sidelines (the one exception being check downs to Ray Rice), and as a result, they became much easier to game plan.
Boldin changed that. He’s as good as any receiver in the game at getting open in the area between the linebackers and safeties. He’s not a guy with straight-line speed like Moss or Tate, but he comes out of his break quickly and has strong hands, which allows him to catch the ball consistently in traffic. Those catches, in turn, have opened up some opportunities downfield for Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
You have to put the Ravens’ downfield passing game in context, though. They’re not a team that can go vertical on every play. But for a number of years, a seven-yard completion was a big deal around here, especially during the Kyle Boller/Steve McNair era, when long touchdown throws were as rare as a visit from Halley’s Comet. So a 15-yard catch by Boldin probably feels like a much bigger deal in Baltimore than it might in New England or Indianapolis, where those happen a bit more frequently.