I'm a big fan of the Baltimore Ravens, and it's a great time to bask in that glory. Even though I was fortunate to win some money on their Superbowl victory, I only started to believe deep into their playoff run.
Here are 10 reasons I never expected them to be lifting the Lombardi this year.
1) It seemed like last season was their big chance
The Ravens really should have been in the Superbowl last year. Forget Billy Cundiff missing a ridiculously easy kick to tie the game, Lee Evans should have caught a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. They had such an outstanding season, whitewashing the Steelers, it seemed as if it had all come together. With Ray Lewis nearing the end of his career and Ed Reed too, surely that was their big chance, and they blew it. Not so...
2) Lack of big name strengthening in the off-season
So what did the Ravens do in the off-season? Well there weren't many big moves, they were high up the draft board, and didn't come out with any outstanding rookies. That was how it seemed. Now a particular bit of business looks especially shrewd. Their pick-up of Jacoby Jones, who contributed two Superbowl touchdowns including his incredible 109-yard punt return. I just didn't see it panning out so spectacularly.
3) Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb injured in one game
The season had started pretty well, despite the loss to the Eagles in Week Two, which looks even worse now, wins over the Bengals and New England had set them on track for a good season. Until week 6, when both Ray Lewis and star cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered seemingly season ending injuries. Lewis recovered, but Webb, a key man in the defence, did not.
4) Texans blowout
A week later, Houston demolished Baltimore, with quarterback Matt Schaub irrepressible. The Ravens only just beat the Texans the previous year in the play-offs, it was one hell of a game, and had started this year superbly. It had seemed inevitable the two teams would meet again in this year's play-offs, and it was hard to see the Ravens turning this one around if they had to. But they didn't need to.
5) Charlie Batch
Hello. The Ravens, the Superbowl champions, lost a game not so long ago to the Steelers with 38-year-old Charlie Batch as quarterback. Say no more.
6) Offensive co-ordinator sacked
How many Superbowl champions sack their offensive co-ordinator's mid-season? It certainly isn't a usual move, and it wasn't even mid-season really, it was on December 10, as the regular season was right at the business end. Cameron had struggle to get Ray Rice involved enough, and his replacement, Jim Caldwell, certainly can't be called on results. Nonetheless it was a brave move.
Yes the Superbowl MVP himself was a doubt heading into the play-offs. The worry over him was that he was inconsistent, and this year he was just that. Stunning at home, and off his game away from home. The Ravens form meant they had the majority of play-off games away too, which didn't bode well. And then there was the hand-off to Ray Rice against San Diego. Rice performed a miracle to get a 30-yard fourth down, but what was Flacco doing?
8) Regular season ending with a whimper
Week 17 was a real 'nothing game' for the Ravens, but they let the AFC North crown go to the Bengals, and Andy Dalton picked up his win over them. Baltimore certainly rested a few key men, and first or second didn't matter too much as whichever play-off route available would have been tough, but they so often say you need form going into the play-offs, but they ended it with a whimper, and ever since Batch-gate, the win over the Giants aside, the Ravens hadn't looked the same.
9) The Broncos
Despite beating the Colts, the Ravens knew their divisional game against the Broncos was a tall order. The Broncos were unstoppable at home, had won 10 straight, and few gave Joe Flacco a chance up against Peyton Manning. When Denver took a first quarter lead it was expected to be a rough ride for the visitors, but they quickly turned it around, and the game will go down as one of the best in recent playoff history, and when Flacco really broke out, even if a certain Denver safety can claim an assist to that.
Every year throws up a real story, last year it was Tebowmania, this year it was CK7, the second year quarterback who was making just his 10th career NFL start in the Superbowl. He didn't play like it, and anybody who saw how he ripped Green Bay apart in the air and on the ground would have been worried for the Ravens defence. Was Kaepernick one challenge too far, the passing of the torch from Ray Lewis to the epitomy of the NFL's young read-option offences. Baltimore struggled against RG3 and Washington, and I'd expected the 49ers to enjoy similar success. Fortunately I was wrong. Just.
The good news? I started to believe. The Ravens had the story and it seemed like Ray Lewis retiring with another Superbowl ring was going to be destiny. Prior to the New England AFC Championship game, I put the remaining £10 in my betting account on the Ravens to win the trophy. The odds were so long I came out with £90. Now, do I lump it on them to win next year? They won't repeat, right...?
images: © Maryland National Guard