BALTIMORE — For any Patriots fans dreaming of an AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium for the second straight year, there was sweet music coming out of the Ravens’ locker room after they dispatched the Colts, 24-9, Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
At the podium and in front of their lockers, there was a determination to avenge an embarrassing 34-17 home loss on Dec. 16 to the Broncos, who will host Baltimore Saturday for the right to face the Patriots-Texans winner for a Super Bowl berth.
“Really looking forward to it,” said Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, who after being shut out in the first half produced five catches for a Ravens playoff-record 145 yards and a touchdown Sunday. “I was hoping we’d get them. So, they’ll see us next week.”
Why was Boldin so resolute in wanting to see the Broncos again?
“Just because we lost to them,” he said.
The Ravens didn’t just drop a game to the Broncos, they were run off their own field after a tight first quarter produced a 31-3 third-quarter deficit.
It was the unquestioned low point of the Ravens’ season, in which they were 9-2 at one point but went 1-4 down the stretch before Sunday’s victory.
“We beat ourselves last game; we didn’t play an all-out complete game,” said running back Bernard Pierce. “This week, I think it’s going to be a little different.”
The Broncos also represented the bottom for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. He had two turnovers — including a terrible interception that resulted in a 98-yard touchdown return — that led to 10 points, and taking out garbage-time stats, Flacco was 16 of 34 for 148 yards through three quarters.
“They’re a good football team, and they got up on us early,” Flacco said. “We made a couple of mistakes in the first half, and the game kind of got away from us. It’s going to be a good challenge. We’re excited about it. We just didn’t feel like we played up to par the last time we played them.”
Boldin was asked why the offense would be better this time around against the Broncos. And he didn’t flinch.
“We’ll make it different,” he said.
The Ravens do have a few reasons to be more optimistic this time around.
“We had some internal stuff going on that definitely affected the way we played,” safety Ed Reed said. “We were not a team that day at all.”
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired that week and quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell was calling plays for the first time. It did not go well. The Ravens didn’t register a first down until there were eight minutes left in the first half, and didn’t score a touchdown until the final quarter.
The Ravens’ offense has steadily made progress from that point — they tattooed the Giants, 33-14, in Week 16 before resting most starters against the Bengals — to the point that Caldwell received a game ball from coach John Harbaugh after Sunday’s game.
“Obviously that kind of game [against Denver] was a little bit of a different game,” Flacco said. “I think he’s been doing a good job. He’s probably a little bit more comfortable throughout the week now and kind of a little bit more settled in. That week was a little hectic.”
Flacco has improved in his own right. Against the Colts, Flacco had 12 completions for 282 yards (23.5 average). His yards per attempt was an astounding 12.2.
“Joe made some tremendous throws,” Harbaugh said. “He made some throws under pressure, with those two guys coming off the edge. He played at a really high level.”
The Ravens also had 173 yards on 28 carries (6.2 average) between Pierce and Ray Rice.
“Yes, we have made progress as an offense,” said fullback Vonta Leach. “We’re a whole different team than we were three or four weeks ago, so we will be ready.”
Against the Broncos, the Ravens weren’t at full strength as safety Bernard Pollard, linebackers Ray Lewis and Daniel Ellerbee, and guard Marshal Yanda missed the game, and receiver Torrey Smith and Pierce were knocked out with concussions.
“We have some pieces back,” Pollard said. “We just have to play some ball.”
Oh yeah, about that Lewis guy.
Sunday marked the final home game for the retiring Lewis, perhaps the greatest linebacker in league history, and it was understandably emotional for the Ravens. From his final pregame introduction, complete with grass as a prop, to a celebratory lap with many fans still in the lower ring of the stadium, it was all about Ray.
“We definitely wanted to win; Ray told us we were definitely going to win,” Reed said. “It [loss] wasn’t going to happen on his last day, his last game at Ravens stadium. It was awesome, it felt good.”
Of course, the big question is, how long can emotion carry the Ravens?
“It’s a good point,” Harbaugh said. “But, the foundation of the game was not emotion. You can’t play a 60-minute football game on emotion. You’ve got to play this play efficiently and effectively. Emotion wears out really fast. So, we’ll carry forward. We’ll still be emotional and enthusiastic, but the fact that we played well, that’s what’s important.”
With a rested Peyton Manning and his teammates waiting for them, Saturday will be an entirely different challenge.
“We’ve got the MacBook that’s going to be under center,” Pollard said. “That dude’s a computer, man. He’s one of the best in the game. We have to get in his face all the time. We have to. All you can do is try to contain them. You’re not going to stop them.”
Possibly the biggest obstacle for the Ravens is for a veteran team to not only play on short rest, but to do it in altitude against a Broncos offense that likes to work uptempo. Will the Ravens have enough endurance?
“Oh yes, definitely, going there, it’s very hard,” said Pollard, who played in Denver several times with the Chiefs and Texans. “It was very difficult. We have to be smart and understand that [the altitude] is a problem, so we have to attack it. If that means jogging when we get there, doing something, we’ve got to. I don’t know how to tell you how to defeat that altitude, but it’s going to take some getting used to.”
If the Ravens do their part, and the Patriots take care of business, that would set up an AFC Championship game rematch from last season, when the Ravens were but a Lee Evans dropped or knocked-out pass — depending on your viewpoint — from going to the Super Bowl instead of the Patriots.
That’s for later. The Broncos are the first stop on the revenge tour for the Ravens.
“I’ve already turned my iPad in to get Denver film now,” Lewis said. “I told them, ‘We don’t have the 24-hour rule now. We have a less-than-12-hour rule,’ because we are back to work. We know who we have next week. Denver is going to be well-rested. We saw them earlier in the year, but now we get them again with all of our guys back. We are really looking forward to it.”
Just what Patriots fans want to hear.