The Last War Dance

Ray's Last DanceAt a luncheon after last year’s Super Bowl victory, Ravens Senior VP of Public Relations Kevin Byrne said, “There will never be another Ray Lewis.”  There will also never be another photo taken like this one.

The incredible photos in Never Easy, Never Pretty were shot by Ravens photographer Phil Hoffmann. Phil has been shooting sporting events for 35 years. I was very lucky to meet him and to be able to feature his photos in the book.

Press Box photographer Sabina Moran’s work is on the cover.  Her stadium celebration photo — a great shot in its own right– is a replacement for her amazing cover of three Ravens tackling a Colt running back out of the frame. The NFL told my publisher that it revealed too much of the team logos. smith_cover2-150x150

Phil Hoffmann’s keen photographic eye captured every major moment in the season including one of Ray Rice with his helmet turned toward the first down marker after he’s tackled on 4th & 29. He also takes us deep into the stealthy gaze of Jacoby Jones just before he returns a kick-off for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Hoffmann told me that he approaches the job thinking like a defensive player and watches the movements of the left tackle for a hint as to where the play is going. His observations of the season are also featured in the book’s prose and offer a unique insider perspective of a professional football team.

In this stunning picture of Ray Lewis, his head thrown back and cawing to the sky during his final “squirrel dance” is something that should occupy the wall of a museum.  His face is unrecognizable and partially obscured in state of ecstasy. He resembles a Native American warrior as depicted in the paintings of George Catlin or the photos of Edward Curtis. Lewis is bracketed by fire with a chunk of sod behind him and wreathed in smoke. The dance symbolized the fury inside him.

Lewis has just stepped onto the field for his final introduction as a Baltimore Raven in M&T Bank Stadium.  He had announced his retirement on the Wednesday before the game calling it his “last ride” – an interesting choice of words in that it signaled a progression with no immediate ending point. It marked the first time he had been on the field since his triceps injury against the Cowboys in October of 2012. While his Indy teammates fawned over the spectacle, Colt wide receiver Reggie Wayne seethed.  They were trying to win a game that would never be theirs. It made me ask, “What would it take to get Lewis off the field for good?”

It was a defining moment for Lewis, his teammates, the fans, and the franchise. Here was perhaps the greatest Baltimore football player of all time – at least for a generation of fans – playing his last game in the city. It had come upon us so fast and yet the timeless brilliance of Hoffmann’s photo is everlasting. The last war dance signifies the beginning of a new season, the playoffs. It also punctuates the last seventeen years of the Ravens franchise with Lewis as its face.  As Lewis prepares to exit, the 2012 Ravens are suddenly reborn.

From Never Easy, Never Pretty:

The ominous pounding chords of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” launched the introductions, and the Ravens “red eyes” appeared on the Jumbotron. Announcer Bruce Cunningham belted out the names of the defensive unit. Ed Reed strolled onto the field before Lewis, shaking his head with a finger to his lips as the crowd thundered its customary “Reed!” for several seconds. Many in the capacity crowd pondered Reed’s future with the team. Staying in the moment, he pointed back to the smoking tunnel in an attempt to quiet the crowd and keep the focus on his good friend. Lewis had fallen to his knees in prayer before his name was called. Then he appeared, his eyes blackened like Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. His famed “squirrel dance” had one more scheduled run for the hometown crowd. Dirt flew from a chunk of sod. He sashayed from side to side, thrust out his massive torso, and cawed like a Raven. The Blue Angels roared overhead at the end of the national anthem. He embraced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the Ravens’ sideline. We knew as Ravens fans that it would never be like this again. Then Lewis gathered his team around him for one last pregame war party, a ritual he popularized around the NFL. “What time is it? Game Time! What time is it? Game Time!”

Ravens Name Kubiak as Offensive Coordinator

Harbs1230“I believe in John Harbaugh,” said Gary Kubiak on the podium at the Ravens Press Conference yesterday.

In many ways, Kubiak had arrived in Baltimore in much the same way that John Harbaugh did. There were two other leading candidates for the job – Jim Hostler and Kyle Shanahan – and Kubiak came in, seemingly at the last second to land it.

Back in 2008, the Ravens had offered the job to Jason Garrett and Rex Ryan was in the running.  John Harbaugh gave the defensive-minded Ravens a “Switzerland” option.  As a special teams coach, he wasn’t associated with offense or defense and he had a coaching pedigree to go along with a great personality.

Shanahan and Hostler came with baggage.

Anyone associated with the 2013 Washington Redskins was going to be problematic and Hostler’s connection to one of the worst offenses in Ravens history riled up the fan base.

Kubiak brings the experience of a head coach and a hand in three Super Bowl championships.  If the Ravens want to get back to that “special place” sooner than later then “Koobs” is the right choice for “Harbs.”

For a second there, Harbaugh looked like he was leaning toward Hostler and the radio call-in shows were licking their chops for weeks of vitriol. If there is one thing you have to love about Harbaugh as a person is his loyalty. He stayed with Cam Cameron longer than many would have. He kept Juan Castillo amidst a torrent of criticism. That’s who he is.

After an 8-8 season, keeping Castillo was Harbaugh’s one move to make.

In the end, the group came to consensus about Kubiak. While the Texans faltered in 2013, Kubiak had brought that team to the cusp of greatness.  He had gotten the most production possible out of quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub is not a Super Bowl quarterback or even a playoff one—but somehow Kubiak got him to play at a high level.  Flacco will fare far better under Kubiak’s direction.

If you think about Ozzie Newsome’s approach of drafting the best player available, Kubiak makes perfect sense.  They found the best coach available.

And like Gary Kubiak, I also believe in John Harbaugh.

2013 State of the Ravens: Are We in a State of Denial?

LombardiDJSSeveral weeks after the Super Bowl victory last year, I attended a PressBox luncheon with Ravens Senior VP of PR Kevin Byrne as one of the guest speakers.  He brought the Super Bowl trophy and talked to us about the recent losses of Bernard Pollard and Anquan Boldin. He told us his children had questioned the moves. Byrne is an NFL institution and one of the smartest and most-polished guys around. We are lucky to have him here in Baltimore. Yes, I also got my picture taken with the Lombardi.

Byrne mentioned that we should remember two names for the upcoming 2013 season: Ravens safety Christian Thompson and wide receiver Deonte Thompson.  They were the two leading candidates to fill in the the gaps left by Bernard Pollard and Anquan Boldin.  This was what we wanted to hear.  The Ravens evaluate talent better than most NFL teams.  There was a plan in place. Shortly thereafter, Christian Thompson violated the league’s substance abuse policy and was suspended for 4 games. He’s no longer a Raven. Neither player had an impact on the 2013 season.

The State of the Ravens Press Conference was held this week and no one seemed too upset by an 8-8 season coming on the heels of a Super Bowl victory. Owner Steve Bisciotti did make clear that another year like this one would not be tolerated and that they would be “combing” over every inch of the offense.  None of this is earth shattering — we’re giving ourselves a pass. Harbaugh and his staff were playing with house money in 2013. What was strange to me is the lack of accountability exhibited on the part of management. As the front office heads off to Jupiter for their annual summit this weekend, Ozzie and the gang need to look themselves in the mirror. Ultimately, they are the ones accountable for what happened on the field this year.

There was a lot written about the impact of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis on the locker room after the Super Bowl run. The Ravens played down those strong personalities as they moved forward into 2013. They stressed that Ed and Ray weren’t the only leaders.  In some ways the franchise needed to start over after 17 years and that is why their season resembled 1999 in many ways.  This was a Billick-like team with Justin Tucker playing the part of Matt Stover.  And this was always going to be the organization’s team in 2013. That was evident with the personnel they let go. They drove the point home continually. Their slogan, “Here We Are,” meant for me that we are back at the beginning.

To their credit, they patched together the defense and made it respectable. There is still work that needs to be done there but they are on the right track. We still need a player who can take over a game on that side of the ball. Terrell Suggs started off great but faded as the season progressed. I’d still like to see him in purple and black – drawing double-teams from the opposition.

An offensive unit that came alive to win a Super Bowl was one of the league’s worst in 2013. We traded the team’s most reliable and productive receiver and their best player over the last five games of the season.  We changed blocking schemes on the offensive line. What started as a work-in progress had regressed by the end of the season.  More changes are coming to the offense and I’m wondering if that is a good thing.

Joe Flacco rarely had time to throw the ball and he made mistakes.  By the end of the season, he looked like he didn’t want to be there.  Who could blame him?  He had to throw quickly all year to inexperienced targets.  I questioned the hurry-up offense. This offensive unit seemed ill-equipped to run it. If you don’t have the right personnel, why rush things? The element of surprise has never been one of our strengths. They may have benefitted from a huddle – an extra chance to caucus on what they were seeing across the line.

Ray Rice had a down year.  He was supposed to be that leader who would replace the icons but he floundered. His work ethic and weight have come under scrutiny recently.

We’ve made some questionable personnel decisions and draft picks have not panned out.  I’m struggling with where we will be next season.  Where do we go from 8-8? Are we a few pieces away from a 12-4 season or a wholesale reinvention that will require us to slip to 4-12 in 2014?  I believe both scenarios are possible.  All too often we blame the players for lackluster seasons.  The front office needs to own this one.

Ravens Recap: The Good, the Bad, and the Never Pretty

photo-27So long 2013 Ravens – it was a blast while it lasted.  We’ll miss Purple Fridays and the anticipation of next week’s game but we witnessed many incredible moments this year. A tornado enveloped Soldier Field and a blizzard transformed M&T Bank stadium into the fabled “frozen tundra.”  Six touchdowns were scored in the 4th quarter of the Vikings game. Justin Tucker boomed a 61-yard field goal to win a game. Growing up in Baltimore, we mythologized the club-footed Tom Dempsey and his 63-yarder as though we’d seen a comet streaking across the sky. There was a breathtaking goal line stand on Thanksgiving night.  Against New York, I can still see Jacoby Jones chasing down the pigskin like it was a fluttering “golden snitch” on the way to the end zone with Ed Reed wearing a Jets uniform in hot pursuit.

You made it interesting into the final quarter of the last game in Cincinnati. No one expected you to win another Super Bowl and 8-8 is a respectable finish for this group.  I told my friend Wyck Knox, a 49ers fan at the Super Bowl in New Orleans as we watched the goal line stand that “we are least 5 years away from another chance at the Lombardi.”

It was immediately apparent, in the first half of the third pre-season game at home against the Panthers that the Ravens were going to struggle.  Carolina’s defensive line crashed through the middle of our offense and destroyed us. Our young and inexperienced receiving corps ran the wrong patterns causing interceptions.  The offensive line, learning a new scheme was manhandled that night and throughout the season. We finished .500 and didn’t block anyone all year.

For the first time in 6 years, winter is upon us and we are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Snow is blowing across Charles Street. Last year at this time, we were set to face the Indianapolis Colts and their brash young quarterback Andrew Luck. Our franchise player, Ray Lewis announced his retirement. One year removed from a Super Bowl emphasizes how special that time was to football fans in Baltimore.

We are much better off packing it in than losing in the first round of the play-offs. We will receive an earlier draft pick. The last few drafts haven’t been tremendous. We need players – a wide receiver that can stretch the field and break a game open, offensive linemen and maybe a running back.

Ray Rice didn’t make the cuts he did in 2012 and he appeared to have lost a step. I combed through thousands of photographs in choosing the cover for Never Easy, Never Pretty.  Press Box photographer, Sabina Moran chronicled the entire 2012 season including many pictures of Ray Rice, his body almost parallel to the ground as he was making cutbacks that he couldn’t execute in 2013. Was he injured the whole time? He looked bulkier and maybe a step slower. There were not many holes but he couldn’t shake defenders in the open field. I wonder if he didn’t bulk up to prevent fumbles and lost some speed and quickness in the process.

The Ravens lost 9 of 11 starters and none more important than wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Even with the season in the rearview mirror, I still can’t shake the loss of number “81.” The most disturbing thing about it was the fact that Flacco and Boldin had a found a groove. They were just getting started. Boldin had been a last resort for Cam Cameron–someone who was too slow to get open in his offense. From the second half of the Colts playoff game through to the end a quarterback and his receiver were locked in. And then he was gone.

Boldin was informed of the trade while on a relief mission in Africa.  “When I saw him for the first time in the San Francisco locker room, he looked shell-shocked,” said KPIX sports personality Vernon Glenn. “He couldn’t believe what had happened.”

Neither could we.

Boldin led the 49ers with 85 receptions and 1179 yards this season. Other ex-Ravens played roles in helping their teams this year. Carey Williams stopped Dez Bryant on a two-point conversion to keep the Cowboys from tying the score in a winner-take-all final game of the season. Dannell Ellerbe helped return the Dolphins to respectability. Even Ed Reed intercepted a Ryan Tannehill pass to help his former teammates.

Center Matt Birk may have been the biggest loss of all.

When you look at our performance in the last two games of the season, you have to think about leadership.  You can’t underestimate the impact that Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and Ed Reed had on the locker room last year. Who was that leader this year? It’s difficult to say.

The Ravens defense played well in stretches. The secondary improved with each game. The offense struggled without a definitive playmaker. Marlon Brown had a great rookie season with seven touchdowns. Joe Flacco had no time to throw the ball and an injury slowed him in the final two games.

These are all excuses. We need to play better.

10 Reasons Why We Will Beat the Bengals

photo1227There was an odd feeling around town last weekend. The weather was warm and the holiday distractions were upon us.  The town seemed empty by Sunday — devoid of its usual purple hysteria. It felt like we were going through the motions and had calmed ourselves with the notion that we had tamed the Patriots in the past.  Their record 10-4, kept nagging at me. At times this year we had looked like the Broadway musical version of last year’s Super Bowl team – a kind of Ravens Lite with regular stand-ins trying to keep the show running for as long as we could. We had lulled ourselves to sleep. Something bad was in the air.  This feeling was immediately confirmed by Referee Ron Winter – looking like a spokesperson for the California Raisins – who set the tone from the opening kick-off and sucked the life out of the game by escorting the Patriots to the end zone on their first possession. The game had no flow to it – except for the flurry of yellow hankies — and the Ravens and their quarterback are very much a “rhythm” team.  We didn’t bring much to the field last Sunday to counteract the Patriots – and they exacted revenge for the last two defeats. In many ways, this season is set up for everyone’s dream AFC Championship – Peyton vs. Brady. It was supposed to happen last year until a purple haze enveloped the Rockies and those two teams now appear to be playing the best football in the AFC. In the 17th week, we are still a work in progress. On the offensive side of the ball, we haven’t produced very much all season–and could record a franchise low for rushing yards.  To be honest, if we finish 8-8 – that’s a moral victory.  That’s what the NFL wants us to do. At times, we’ve not been very good. Frankly, we don’t have a lot to work with this year. It was evident against the Packers — a few years removed from their Super Bowl victory who have 4 or 5 more players than we do who can change a game.  Our recent draft picks have not delivered to expectations: Cody, Upshaw and Kindle. We haven’t blocked anyone all year. And yet, in the fourth quarter against the Pats we’re at midfield driving to be within a touchdown.  It didn’t happen but I still believe we’re better than we have shown and we will leave it all on the field on Sunday. We will beat the Bengals and here’s why.

1.      Nothing makes any sense this season

It’s been a strange year—and the last week of the season is shaping up for a bizarre finish. The Ravens play well when they are counted out, and when their backs are against the wall. There is nothing new about the Bengals—we know them very well. I was surprised that Cincinnati’s new look, weapon-rich offense didn’t do more damage in Baltimore. Giovanni Bernard must be stopped from making big plays– but winning in Cincinnati is doable.

2.      The Red Rifle is not an elite QB

Andy Dalton is not a Ravens “killer” by any stretch.  All the pressure is on him to take this team to the next level and get to an AFC Championship game. His receivers are a talented lot and he has many options.  This is a playoff game for the Ravens but it’s not for the Bengals. They’re playing for a seed that won’t materialize in the end.  Dalton is not Peyton or Brady or even Joe Flacco. He throws a nice ball when he’s comfortable in the pocket. Rattle him and he’ll make mistakes.

3.      Several Ravens will be fighting for their jobs

This is the last chance for Ravens that are “on the bubble” and there are plenty of them. Ray Rice needs to perform well. Michael Oher needs to play a great game. Torrey Smith needs to catch some meaningful balls. Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley need to eat nails for breakfast.  Dennis Pitta needs to make a major difference. The offense has yet to play two quarters of decent football. Over the last two games, we’ve scored one touchdown. Sunday would be a really good time to light up the scoreboard. On defense, you also have several players that may not be back next year including Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones. You can’t keep them all but you will keep those guys who have delivered playoff appearances.

4.       For more than a decade, the Bengals have failed to establish an identity

Cincinnati is not a real football city; they never sell out for home games. You can get in for $40 on Sunday if you are driving out this weekend. They were Chad Ochocinco’s team. Terrell Owens — the Broadway Show –played for them.  This is the most talented group they’ve ever put on the field — but they are always prone to lapses and bone-head plays. And they aren’t going very far this year either – regardless of whether or not they win on Sunday.

5.      John Harbaugh always finishes strong

Rest assured that coach is doing everything he can to wrest a “W” from the Bengals on Sunday.  He’s pulling out all the stops to come out victorious.  He’s playing in the state where he played college football.  Trust me, the Ohio football tradition is what matters most in this one. This is his ancestral turf and he wants to win badly. You can bet he has canvassed every possible source to find their weaknesses.

6.       The Ravens will be the more physical team.

Remember what the Steelers did to the Bengals on a cold night along the Allegheny a couple of weeks ago?  I’m not sure how mentally tough the Bengals are. The frigid air will not be an issue with temps in the 40s and rain expected. If we bring the heat, they will get out of the kitchen.

7.      Always bet the underdogs on the last weekend

All players on teams that are not yet in the playoffs will be giving their all on Sunday. Even players on bad teams are playing for their future.  Guys in contract years need to leave it all on the field and make one last impression on the front office. The Ravens have a bad taste in their mouth from the Patriots game and they have a chance to redeem themselves. The franchise prides itself on redemption.

8.       This is a Divisional battle

The Ravens have the chance to be the only blemish on the Bengals home record in addition to keeping their playoff hopes alive.  This will be a smash-mouth affair and I like our chances. When bodies start flying, the Bengals will cover up. They have more to lose than we do at this point. We can play loose and relaxed. They haven’t won anything yet—not a Super Bowl, not a meaningful playoff game—nada.  They are not champions. They’ve won the division during an off year for Baltimore and Pittsburgh and will lose interest by halftime if we can stay close.

9.       We will win 3 road games

I can’t see us turning in a two-spot for road wins. We did what some thought would be impossible in Detroit. We contained Calvin Johnson and didn’t let Matthew Stafford beat us with his feet. Dalton plays more conservatively than Stafford and he won’t be looking to run as much. He isn’t a gambler though, and we will need to pressure him.

10.    The Ravens are playing a version of themselves

The Bengals play a similar style of football as the Ravens. They were built according to the Ravens model of “best player available.” There are no mysteries when it comes to these two teams.  Marvin Lewis led the Ravens defense into the Super Bowl.  I watched the HBO Hard Knocks show  last summer that chronicled the Bengals training camp.  Lewis is Gunther-Gebel Williams, a lion-tamer and ring leader and to his credit he has kept some volatile personalities in check.  He’s a very good coach but he’s no Belichick. The Bengals have James Harrison who has terrorized Joe Flacco in the past – but he’s well past his prime.  The Ravens and Bengals are built the same way and the games are usually close. I see this happening again on Sunday—another close game won by Justin Tucker.

Baltimore 31 – Cincinnati 28

Ravens Ready for Showdown with Pats

BradyI’m never comfortable going into a game against New England. It’s like my dad always used to say about Don Shula in the early 70s, “Never bet against ‘Shoes.’” I spend a lot of time projecting what schemes and strategies Coach Belichick will devise. There has been little “chirping” this week aside from Devin McCourty’s comment that the Patriots would like nothing more than to ruin our season. There’s also the fact that New England hasn’t lost two games in a row in 4 years. None of that matters. Coach Harbaugh sent me a note two weeks ago after receiving my book that said, “We’re really grinding in the office.”

This is why we will win this game. There is no better coach in the NFL in readying a team.

When Belichick, Tom Brady and their ever-evolving cast of Peking Acrobats take the field on Sunday, the Ravens secondary will be tested again. Even without Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Petri dish that produces New England receivers has subdivided Welker into Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and they could pose problems. Expect Belichick to try things he wouldn’t have when Ed Reed was playing centerfield but our talented and athletic secondary will harass them and cause drops.

The 2013 version of the Patriots is a far cry from the talented squads they’ve fielded in the past but the Ravens defense still needs to get to Brady and disrupt his rhythm for us to win. Dean Pees knows this and that is his forte. It’s late in the season—a time when our physicality prevails.  The Patriots better brace themselves.  It will be a war—and one that Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush wanted no parts of in Detroit. We will dismantle New England in the second half.

A resurgent Haloti Ngata will collapse the pocket onto Brady. Daryl Smith will own the middle of the field. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will terrorize the Patriot QB.  I have never forgotten the pre-game words of my neighbor Liz Trotter from last year’s playoff game.  In Never Easy, Never Pretty, she said, “I bet Sizzle can’t wait until he gets his hands on Pretty Boy.”

We need touchdowns to win this game–not field goals. The Ravens offense has been searching for a break out game and this one needs to be it. There’s reason to believe that we can run the ball given that the Patriot defense ranks 31st in that category. The offensive line played well against the vaunted Lions defensive front and they need to build on that. We’re 8-6 and we haven’t blocked anybody all year.  I’ve been saying for weeks that Ray Rice is ready to explode.  This time we need him to help keep Brady off the field for long stretches.  The check down has been there as well.

Another concerning factor for me is New England cornerback Aqib Talib. He was injured early against us last year in the AFC Championship while covering Anquan Boldin.  I can imagine a scenario where he shuts down one of our receivers – most likely Torrey Smith — so the others will need to step up.  On the other hand, the Patriots may not have an answer for Jacoby Jones. The Steelers didn’t.

Joe Flacco’s knee could also play a role in the outcome. He’ll be wearing a brace and that could affect his accuracy. He has outplayed Brady in the last four meetings with 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions.  He will do again.

This is a must-win game for the Ravens. If they win, they will be playing for the Division title. If they win, they will ensure a 6th straight playoff appearance and a winning record. The weather is warm and Festivus season is upon us. It’s been an incredible year and we have a bright future. This game is about more than a return trip to the playoffs. Tomorrow afternoon, we will send a message to the league that we are the team to beat in the AFC.

10 Reasons Why the Ravens Will Beat the Lions

lionsIn the locker room after a stunning win last weekend, John Harbaugh told his team, “I can’t wait to see where we go from here.”  The Vikings game will be remembered for decades for its incredible finale and let’s hope it is also spoken about in the future as the moment that this team caught fire. I have to agree with coach. I can barely wait until kickoff tomorrow evening. I have a good feeling about this game. Here are ten reasons why we will win.

1.       We’re due for an offensive explosion

The offense came out firing in Chicago and put 10 points on the board with 4 minutes left in the 1st quarter before a twister enveloped the stadium. That gave the Bears nearly two hours to adjust and they did. I see us doing the same thing with pristine conditions in Detroit and this time we don’t look back. Torrey Smith will have a great game and Dennis Pitta will give them match-up problems. Joe Flacco  will need to be nimble and quick to avoid their mighty pass rush. He will have to run the ball himself to avoid Suh and Fairley. Handling the Lions defensive line could salvage the dismal season Oher & Company have had.

2.       Weather will not be a problem

We’ve played tough games in perilous conditions this year including tornadoes and blizzards. Conditions will be ideal at Ford Field.  It’s the perfect place to continue a run to the postseason. We will go through the same preparation for indoor stadium noise that we underwent for the Super Bowl. The players who are still here will remember that and it will inspire them. Every game from this point on is a Super Bowl for the Ravens.

3.       Our secondary will pick up Matt Elam

The Ravens defensive secondary improves every week. They are the key to making the post season.  Their play will determine it. Jimmy Smith and James Ihedigbo are in the best position to have the final say against Calvin Johnson. I don’t usually like when players unnecessarily rile up the opposition and I talk about this in Never Easy, Never Pretty. In this case, and as badly as Elam struggled against the Vikings, I’m all for the rookie trying to elevate his game. He said that Calvin Johnson, at 28 years of age, was old. “Megatron” is having one of his best years ever – so the comment that Elam made doesn’t make any sense.  Elam needs to focusing on tackling the guy with the ball — whether they are “old” or not.

4.       We’re overdue for a road win

We’re 1-5 outside of M&T Bank Stadium this year. We’ve played well at times on the road but not well enough to win.  It’s December and the playoffs are in our sights. The close road losses will help us win this game. Coach Harbaugh will have his guys ready – and he is great at prepping them for big games. “We’re really grinding in the office,” he wrote to me in a postcard after receiving my book and I believe him. This is where he excels as a coach. They are coming together at the right time. He has done a great job with this team.

5.       Our defense can stop Reggie Bush

Reggie gained 36 yards against us in 2010 playing for the Saints. He’s having a great year against a division that defends the run poorly.  Ngata, McPhee, Jones, Upshaw and Canty will clog the lanes and wreak havoc. Our linebackers will fly to the ball. The defensive line will get to Matthew Stafford and disrupt his rhythm. We will block his side-arm tosses. We will end our sack drought.

6.       It’s the Detroit Lions

George Plimpton played for them. Alex Karras played for them and went on to star in Blazing Saddles. They’re like the Orioles – one or two good seasons in the last 15. They’ve ruined any number of Thanksgivings with their poor play and I don’t see them responding well in a must-win situation here. I like their head coach — the Arbutian Jim Schwartz who nearly came to blows with Jim Harbaugh a couple of years ago. It’s a “must win” in a “must year” for Jim and the Lions but they still have two more tries at the division after we head home. They have a prolific offense – but not a great defense. We’ve lost to the Bears and the Vikings already this year and we won’t have a losing record against the NFC North.

7.       Haven’t played our best game yet

We started putting it all together about this time last year. We played a great game against the New York Giants and won 33-14.  No one expected us to beat them so soundly.  The team has been improving with each week and we got a taste of their resiliency against the Vikings.  The Ravens get more physical as the season progresses and this year will be no exception. This game feels like the last game in Texas Stadium in 2009 when all signs pointed to a Cowboy win—and we beat them soundly.

8.       Ray Rice will have a big game

Last week against the Vikings, Ray Rice found holes on the right side of the line late.  He burst through them with speed and ferocity – the likes of which we haven’t seen yet this year. This effort will carry into the Lions game. To avoid Suh, Flacco will need the check down play.  Rice knows he has to make the most of the last three games.  The Ravens need him to make the playoffs.

9.       Look for the return of Bomber Joe

The fast track in Detroit will give Joe the chance to go deep against the Lions secondary. Jones, Smith and Brown will be targeted deep. We might even see the vaunted “scramble bomb” where he rolls right and heaves one down the sidelines. Joe used the long ball in the Super Bowl and he will do so again. We need to strike early and often on Monday and take the Lions out of the game.

10.   It’s Monday Night Football

The pressure is on the home team to perform in front of the whole country. Both teams need to win but mistakes will be made by the Lions in this one. They have been turnover prone all year.  Stafford, Bush Johnson and Suh may try and do too much.  Terrell Suggs has been here before and he will have the defense ready.  Joe Flacco and his big arm like a large stage.

Will we have any fingernails left on Tuesday morning? Will this one go down to the wire? Of course it will, and Justin Tucker will seal the deal.

Ravens 34 – Lions 31