From the minute the great Eddie Money took the wind-swept field in his Chiefs jersey and got 77,000 people to begin singing the National Anthem in unison, you just knew it was going to be a great day.
Great weather, great stadium, great atmosphere — the best I’ve ever witnessed for a Ravens road game — there was nothing that yesterday lacked, except of course a division title and a first-round bye.
I promise I won’t harp on that horrendous turd from 11 days ago in Cincinnati any more after this — especially considering the way the Ravens played yesterday and the ultra-short rest and sloppy road conditions that night in Southern Ohio — but the thoughts of what could’ve been certainly danced in my brain en route home from Missouri last night.
And as much of a down performance as we saw last Thursday, the entire purple engine started firing on all cylinders again yesterday, much to the chagrin of the famous “Sea of Red” at Arrowhead Stadium.
I suppose if you had offered me a split of these two, tough road games after the Ravens annihilation of the Steelers, I would’ve taken the deal.
But when the scoreboard read: Baltimore 20, Kansas City 3 and the best fans in the NFL were booing the home team and leaving the stadium a near-empty, silent shell in the fourth quarter, it became clear that the Bengals debacle might’ve been just a relatively insignificant blip on the radar for the 2006 Ravens.
The offensive coordinator side of Brian Billick’s split personality called a masterful game yesterday, with enough deception, misdirection and protection to keep the Chiefs out of synch all day and Steve McNair delivered the kind of veteran, late-season, road performance that makes all of us around here not feel too foolish for smelling South Florida palm trees in early February.
Considering Indy’s defensive disaster in Jacksonville and the way the Chargers just let the Broncos off the floor and back into the game in the second half yesterday — we should all feel a little more confidence about January and at least the possibility of some home cooking this morning.
Even Brian Billick was a bit chippy about the wave of criticism following Bloody Thursday, and immediately took his own shots after the win yesterday, defending his decision to give the team those five days of R&R last week.
As Billick said, they certainly DID look like a fresh, revitalized outfit in Kansas City yesterday with such an impressive overall effort in the 20-10 win that it’s hard to find fault with anything purple this morning.
Oh, sure, you could nitpick about a penalty or two and they certainly could run the ball a whole lot better, but what exactly don’t you like about this team right now?
The pass protection has been the best in the history of the franchise, the wide receivers get open and catch the ball, the quarterback is healthier and more productive than anyone could’ve hoped and the defense is a constant threat to either sack you or just dare you throw the ball only to take it away, and the spate of 3rd and longs yesterday for Trent Green bodes well when you consider what the Ravens have staring them down before New Year’s Day.
They have three games left — two at home — and all against the dregs of the league, albeit some dangerous rivalry teams with an axe to grind.
Hey you can’t play the Raiders every week, right?
I’ve always maintained the most significant barometer of whether a team can win in January is not only the momentum and confidence a team is playing with or home field advantage, but most importantly the health of the team. You can’t win in the NFL without your best players, and right now the Ravens look fresh enough to be one of the healthier teams in the league heading into the January tournament.
And every time you want to write off Billick — and for many Billick bashers it’s been since the day he got here and inherited a 6-10 disaster of a franchise — he comes back swinging and making you feel foolish for questioning his logic.
Short of his oft-criticized clock management philosophy, who else would you want coaching this team?
He’s now managed the Ravens into the rarefied air of 10-3 and the whole season has been better than anyone could have hoped for going back to Westminster. Remember — this is the man who won a Super Bowl here and was almost lynched by some foolish fans after last year’s disaster!
And the other lightning rod for criticism has always been Ray Lewis, who is truly a different person this season. As the time on the clock wound down yesterday, No. 52 was on the sidelines celebrating a tenth win with great joy and expression. He was really having a good time with his teammates after playing one of his best games of the year.
It was cool seeing his joy and it made me feel justified for feeling my own as a fan.
I think for some of us, our expectations are so high that nothing short of a Super Bowl win can bring any modicum of joy and that’s a shame.
This is not a time to be jaded. A 10-3 record going into the holidays is something we should all be excited about and celebrating. I broke my purple Santa hat out in Missouri yesterday and I’m ready to let the good times roll, baby!
This is a SPECIAL thing, 10-3. It might be a lot of years before we see the likes of this, so let’s have some fun with this version of Dos Festivus and dream a little!
Sure, a win in Cincinnati would’ve been taking the path of least resistance to a division title — OK, one last time let’s just dream about how 11-2 and the inside track on the No. 1 overall seed would feel this morning — but the fact that they’re doing it the “hard” way might serve them well come Dos Festivus season.
They are still involved in a sprint, not a coast, to the finish line and that might not be a bad thing.
The Chargers have Kansas City at home, go to Seattle and host Arizona in the final week. The Colts get Cincy at home, travel to Houston and host Miami in the finale. Weâ€™ve got Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
I’ll take my chances that the Ravens could still easily come out of this thing with a bye, if not the highest overall seed after seeing the Colts inability to stop the run and Peyton Manning’s clear frustration.
And from my view in that cramped, tiny little locker room underneath Arrowhead Stadium yesterday, no one was conceding anything in this playoff race.
I saw a bunch of guys who were focused on doing nothing more than taking care of their business and keeping a very peripheral view on the scoreboard in San Diego and Indy.
Everyone knows what’s at stake.
So bring on the Browns!