Baltimore Is Left Feeling Empty Again

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, January 14, 2007

BALTIMORE Two big moving vans stood outside the Indianapolis Colts' locker room Saturday night, ready to move every shoulder pad or horseshoe helmet out of Baltimore and on to Indianapolis. However, this time the name on the sides of the trucks wasn't the infamous Mayflower line that ferreted the Colts out of this furious town in 1984. Instead, it was innocent Von Paris Moving and Storage that was shipping the Super Bowl hopes of the Baltimore Ravens out of this stunned town for a long offseason in bitter cold storage.

In a game billed all week as "Ravenege" in Crab Town, the larcenous Colts, steeped in the sin of stealing the name and heritage of Johnny Unitas's crew, had the gall to rob Bal'mer again, 15-6, in this AFC semifinal grudge battle. Wasn't this playoff injustice incarnate? Surely the wrong franchise won. After all, somewhere, an Irsay is gloating. That can't mean a better world. And, in all likelihood, the better team, if these Ravens and Colts had played 10 times not just once, probably lost.

In defeat, the Ravens seemed stunned. All week, their 13-3 regular season, their role as favorite and Peyton Manning's history of playoff miseries on the road seemed to ensure a win on their home field before a roaring crowd of 71,162 with blood in its eye. Thousands in the purple stands had deeply personal memories of a score that required settling.

"All that doesn't make it yours," linebacker Adalius Thomas said of the high dudgeon buildup. "You've got to take it."

Sport doesn't follow scripts, and constantly mocks the comparison to cheerful parable. If you commit four turnovers as the Ravens did, if you drop two easy interceptions that hit you in the hands, then the moral high ground is worthless. And if you complete five passes on third down -- repeat, complete five passes -- yet on each occasion fail to gain enough yardage to gain a first down, then history can't help you.

The Colts may have begun the day cast in the role of villains, but Ravens Coach Brian Billick will get the third degree for those bizarre play calls, as well as another "underneath" pass on third and goal from the 4-yard line that was intercepted at the Indianapolis 1. Somewhere, the spirit of Johnny Unitas is in pain. Would Raymond Barry have repeatedly run third-down patterns that ended up short of the first-down marker? Would Baltimore's original swashbuckling NFL team, the one with Lenny Moore, have settled for a game of dink-and-dunk passes without a single gain of more than 23 yards?

"We're highly disappointed and disappointed for our fans," Billick said. "You can't make [that many] turnovers in a championship level game. You can't make the mistakes we made when we got to their three-yard line."

As for all those failed third-down pass completions, Billick passed the buck. "Those plays are designed to get the first down," he said. "You throw underneath and somebody has to make a play." Unless, of course, the coach calls a better play.

"Twelve points. That's a win," Baltimore wide receiver Derrick Mason, referring to the Colts' low point total until the fifth and final game-icing field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 23 seconds left to play. "The defense played well enough. But as an offense we didn't get it done."

That offense amassed only 244 yards as Steve McNair had a lowly 49.9 passer rating, including two interceptions and a lost fumble. "This is a bitter taste," McNair said. "Everything we saw on film they did exactly the same. We just didn't execute offensively."

One Indianapolis strong point consistently foiled the Ravens. "On third downs, they can get enough pressure by just rushing four men and dropping everybody else back in pass coverage," said Ravens center Mike Flynn. "So, on third and five or more [yards to go], you are probably going to have to throw underneath."

All season, the Colts were notoriously bad tacklers and were ranked last in the league against the rush. Yet they made key stops at crucial times. However, the Ravens helped the Colts immensely by running the ball only 20 times -- for a healthy 4.2-yard average -- while resorting to 29 passes. What happened to the Ravens' power image? In contrast, the Colts, who are supposed to be the finesse passing team, ran more often than they allowed Peyton Manning to pass -- 35-30.

Throughout this game, the Colts delivered most of the memorable hits, not the Ravens. In the second quarter, 182-pound Nick Harper, giving away 70 pounds, hit tight end Todd Heap so hard that he fumbled in the midst of a midair flip. The Colts recovered to set up a field goal. On the Colts' vital interception at their 1-yard line, defensive back Antoine Bethea, a rookie from Howard University, held on to his theft despite almost being knocked out by a teammate as he made the play.

The Ravens' famous defense, which allowed the second least points in the NFL this season (12.6 per game), was left to cope with a competent but unspectacular effort that was respectable but not good enough. "We did our game plan to a tee," said spectacular and lethal safety Ed Reed, who had two interceptions. That game plan relied little on blitzes, fearing the Colts' hurry-up offense and Manning's ability to change plays at the line. Instead, the Ravens frustrated Manning, who had a dismal 39.6 passer rating, with their pass coverage.

That's where luck -- bad luck for Baltimore -- came into play. Once, cornerback Chris McAlister dropped a potential interception that was right in his hands. On another bad Manning decision on a pass over the middle, Reed was waiting for a pick when Ray Lewis, diving, made a deflection. "It was right to me," Reed said. "Ray didn't know it. He had to make that play."

Few games, even in the playoffs, approach the crowd intensity of this encounter. The wealth of signs in the stands came from the gut, like "Colts Died 03/29/84. Today We Bury Them" and, in an homage to Unitas's superiority to Manning, "19 Will Always Be Greater Than 18."

"I can't say that I disagree with that," Manning said. "People ask my dad, 'Who were your heroes growing up?' He'd always say Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas. So what else do you need to hear?"

In victory, the eminently decent Manning seemed to feel guilty.

"If the New Orleans Saints were ever to have left town when I was growing up, I would have felt the same way," Manning said, empathizing with Baltimore fans. "With the Colts' move, it was a one guy's decision from what I hear. . . . I never knew the previous owner [Robert Irsay]. Everything I've read about him or heard about him, I don't think I probably would have liked him very much. But his son, our owner, I do like."

At least Baltimore fans got to hear the winning quarterback lambaste the late Irsay -- with his son still around to hear it. Little did those Ravens fans imagine that the quarterback saying such things would have a Colts horseshoe on his helmet.

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