When the Baltimore Ravens arrived in New Orleans on Monday night, they more than likely expected the culmination of the month-long Ray Lewis Farewell Tour that the media had been throwing him since the start of the postseason.
Instead, those Ravens have dealt with controversial comments from Bernard Pollard, even more controversial comments from Ed Reed and a whole lot of talk about deer-antler spray.
And guess what?
None of it matters.
Another team? Maybe they’d be affected by the apparent distractions from a surprisingly hectic week leading up to the Super Bowl. Another group of guys? For sure.
But these Baltimore Ravens are not like any other team in the league. If anything, all this "hate" and "work of the devil" (Ray Lewis’s words, not mine) will galvanize them. They’ll rally around this like few teams ever have gathered around adversity ever before.
I picked the Ravens to beat the Giants in Week 16 of the regular season. They’d lost three straight games, they were coming off their worst offensive effort of the year and there was a new offensive coordinator calling plays for just the second game.
The Ravens dominated the Giants that day. They did so in a fashion that was so overwhelmingly noticeable that I made a point in my Cheat Sheet column the next week: "It’s not a popular pick, but if healthy, this Ravens team could be the team that makes the wild-card-round-to-Super Bowl-parade journey this year."
The Packers did it in 2010. The Giants did it in 2011.
I rolled the dice on the team that looked like this year’s team of destiny. I said, "Why not?" with a squad that was going with a completely different offensive line for the postseason. Days before the Ravens faced the Colts in the wild-card round, John Harbaugh moved veteran Bryant McKinnie to left offensive tackle, Michael Oher to right tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard.
How’d that work out? In the three games since the shakeup, Joe Flacco has been sacked just four times. In truth, no one’s gotten to Flacco this month. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney got very little pressure in the wild-card round, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were both invisible in Denver, and we heard very little from any of the Patriots’ pass rushers in the AFC Championship Game. No one really has ruffled Flacco’s feathers.
The offensive line isn’t going to get the cover of a magazine or much national buzz, but it’s been incredible of late.
So have my Cheat Sheet picks.
I took the Ravens to beat the Colts. They did.
Then, I took the Ravens to beat the Broncos in Denver. They did.
And, of course, I wasn’t getting off the Ravens’ train before the AFC Championship Game. I took them to beat the Patriots. They did.
If you think I’m getting off the Ravens’ train now, you’re crazy.
Five reasons why I think they have the edge:
1. This Ray Lewis thing is real
You can roll your eyes all you want. You can moan and groan that there will be multiple camera angles of Lewis crying during Alicia Keys’ rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Be cynical. Be skeptical. Call him selfish for making this run all about him. But do so with the knowledge that the Ravens’ players would laugh in your face at such disdain. Having spent time with the Ravens (and being in their team hotel this week), I can assure you the Ray Lewis Factor is a real one. These players — from the youngest guys to the oldest — love Ray Lewis. They want to win this for him. They will win this for him.
2. Two weeks is more than one week
No team has faced Colin Kaepernick with two weeks to prepare for him. I am certain the Ravens’ coaching staff cooked up something very sound and very effective the past two weeks. The one team that saw Kaepernick play extensively in two games absolutely shut him down the second time they played. That team? The St. Louis Rams. Don’t be shocked if you see many of the same techniques the Rams employed in their overtime victory over the 49ers weaved into the Ravens’ defensive game plan.
3. The kicker
I don’t trust 49ers kicker David Akers at all. I’d trust Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker to kick a big field goal, baby-sit a child or just be an all-around sweet guy.
4. The Jacoby Jones factor
You know he’s due for a big play. It wouldn’t be right if he wasn’t.
5. Joe "Elite" Flacco
During this Ravens postseason run, Flacco has completed 51 of 93 passes for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.7 rating. If he throws three more touchdown passes, he ties Joe Montana’s single-postseason record for TD passes.
When it’s all said and done and the Ravens are hoisting that Lombardi Trophy, the questions will start from the press box and will begin tricking down to Twitter and so forth, soon afterwards.
You know where I’m going: "Is Joe Flacco elite?"
If he wins this one, you better believe it. Not only has Flacco been flawless on the stat sheet, but he also became the first quarterback in NFL history to beat both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in their buildings in the same postseason.
If he wins, Flacco not only gets whatever money he wants this offseason from the Ravens, but he also gets that "elite" label.
Move over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and the Manning brothers. You’ll have company after this one.
I pushed all my chips to the center of the table and went with the Ravens as our next Super Bowl champs after Week 16. There’s no way I’m switching gears now.
I won’t bore you with the X’s and O’s, any more stats, or the individual matchups that Baltimore has a distinct edge in.
I’m just really digging the Ravens’ vibe this week. It didn’t go exactly as they had planned before their plane arrived, but they rolled with the punches, stuck together and turned to football.
Now, there’s just one thing left to do. They’ve got to go out and play the game.
That, amazingly, could be the easiest part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl week.