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5. The Ravens make no excuses for their physical brand of football. And while some of their defenders may soon be sending checks to Roger Goodell for illegal hits, their refusal to abandon their smash-mouth style ultimately paid off against the Patriots.
The play that turned Sunday's AFC championship game on its ear was the kind of play that makes our heart rates spike when we watch football games. It was also the kind that makes our stomachs churn. Early in the fourth quarter, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley took a handoff and ran off right tackle into open space. As he looked up the field for defenders, he lost track of safety Bernard Pollard, who lowered his helmet into Ridley's. The running back's legs gave out and his arms flailed in the air. The ball fell out of his hands just before he hit the turf. As a pile of Ravens and Patriots wrestled for a loose ball that changed the trajectory of the game's outcome, Ridley laid inches away, dazed by a concussion. Those hard hits are why we watch the game, and they are also why some deem it to be unwatchable.
That's why Roger Goodell, much to the chagrin of many players, coaches and fans, is trying to improve player safety, one yellow flag and one five-figure fine at a time. The NFL's softened standard of play is probably the only thing that can unite defenders from the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are left wondering what constitutes a legal hit nowadays. That Pollard hit was legal, but he was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit earlier in the game. Linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe were penalized for personal fouls, too. The Ravens, the NFL's second-most penalized team in the regular season, gave away 60 free yards Sunday and they will likely soon be mailing a check or two to Goodell. But their insistence on tip-toeing the fine gray line between legal and reckless served them well in Sunday's 28-13 victory.
I'm certainly not advocating for hits to the heads of helpless receivers, as I am well aware of the sad struggles that former players like John Mackey went through. But the Ravens landed a slew of legal hits, too, and they appeared to intimidate the Patriots more and more as the game went on. Tom Brady was hit seven times, according to the box score, and his receivers took a licking every time he attempted a throw into the flat or over the middle. Ridley was felled by a clean hit, the one that caused the fumble. Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it "the turning point of the football game" and "football at is finest."
The Ravens have been stubborn when it comes to eliminating the personal fouls. Guys like Lewis and Ed Reed have great respect for the spirit of the game and their fellow players, which, as counter-intuitive as it seems, they're willing to launch their aging bodies at them at high speeds. There are going to be hits that lead to injuries and costly penalties, but smash-mouth will continue to be part of the Ravens' DNA even after Lewis and Reed are gone. The Ravens were reckless at times Sunday, but they were the more physical team, and they won in part because they hit anything that stood in the way to the Super Bowl.
January 20, 2013