Heading into this year's playoffs, many so called "experts" felt that the Baltimore Ravens would probably beat the Indianapolis Colts, but that's it, well if you have ever been to Charm City, you know there are always some surprises, and the Ravens surprised the NFL world by not only beating the number one seeded Denver Broncos on the road, but also took out the defending AFC Champion New England Patriots on the road as well, and now they are heading to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
So what happened in Baltimore that made this team so good so quickly? I believe there are several factors that affected the Ravens heading into the playoffs, but I have narrowed down the list to the four I believe to be the biggest and most influential.
- Jim Caldwell – Prior to week 15 of the regular season, the Ravens fired then offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and although many people wanted him gone, not many thought the time to do that would be week 15 of the season in the middle of a playoff race. I will admit that I was skeptical as well, and thought there was no way that the newly named offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell could make a difference for this offense with such little time to work with. I can admit when I am wrong, Caldwell is one of the biggest reasons for Baltimore's incredible run here over the past couple months. Did he change the playbook? No, he just threw some wrinkles into the current plays and utilized pages of the playbook that Cameron seemed to let dust settle on. Just watch the Ravens offense from their week 13 matchup with the Steelers and then watch the offense in the second half in this past Sunday's AFC Championship, you will be shocked how dissimilar the two look. Caldwell's biggest change was utilizing those pages of the playbook that Cameron seemed to forget about except for one quarter in San Diego, the pages with passes OVER THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD! Just look at the plays that have gone for big gains over the past couple of months, I would say about 75% of those were over the middle of the field and where did Anquan Boldin catch his two touchdowns in the AFC Championship? You guessed it, the middle of the field.
- Offensive Line – During the regular season, Joe Flacco was sacked 39 times, the sixth most in the NFL and averaged 2.6 sacks a game (did not count week 17 when he played two series) and the offensive line was consistently struggling with Michael Oher at LT, and Kelechi Osemele at RT. Once the playoffs came around, the Ravens coaching staff inputted Bryant McKinnie at LT, moved Oher to RT and Osemele to LG and man what a transformation. Flacco has only been sacked four times in three playoff games and has been hit exponentially less than the regular season. This offensive line's ability to give Flacco time and keep him off his back have been one of the biggest reasons for this teams playoff run.
- Health – It was no secret that Baltimore was suffering from a number of injuries throughout the regular season, especially on the defensive side of the football. The Ravens played most of the season without their best corner in Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis. Lewis and Terrell Suggs did not play a game together until the playoffs started. Haloti Ngata played at no where near 100% for most of the season, LB Dannell Ellerbe, who was playing extremely well in Ray Lewis's absence also missed multiple games, and S Bernard Pollard missed multiple games as well. Needless to say, the defense was quite banged up during the regular season, but come week 17, when Baltimore had the division clinched, they sat many of those players and got healthy. Come playoff time, this team was the healthiest it had been all season, Ngata is as close to 100% since week 2, Lewis and Suggs were on the field at the same time, Ellerbe and Pollard were back to full strength and it showed. This defense has been playing outstanding and their health is one of the biggest reasons why.
- Ray Lewis – During the week before the Ravens playoff matchup against the Colts, Ray Lewis announced that this will be his "last ride." Although it did not come as a shock, it was a surprise at the timing of it and Ravens players and fans alike became infatuated with that game against the Colts because it all of the sudden became more than a Wild Card round playoff game, it was now Lewis's final home game in Baltimore. The team responded and secured a victory in Ray's last home game, but then almost everyone in the NFL world thought that Lewis's last game was going to be in Denver, but this team used the "Mile High Miracle" to force overtime and beat the Broncos in double overtime and you saw the emotion come out of Ray Lewis when Justin Tucker's kick sailed through the uprights for the win as he hugged Ray Rice with tears in his eyes, you could tell the players didn't want that Bronco game to be Ray's last stop. Again, in New England, this team just seemed to rally around Lewis and dominated the Patriots in the second half to secure Ray's final stop of his ride to be New Orleans and the Super Bowl. Whether you agree or not with the timing of Lewis's retirement announcement, you can not argue that the announcement has not had an effect on this team's playoff run.
I know there are other factors that have contributed to the Ravens playoff success thus far, but the aforementioned four factors are the most impactful in my opinion. What do you think has contributed to Baltimore's playoff success thus far?
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