Kragthorpe: Ravens welcome another shot at Patriots in AFC
Only a would-be touchdown reception that was stripped away followed by a missed field goal that would have forced overtime at New England kept the Baltimore Ravens out of last year's Super Bowl.
So how delicious is this? The Ravens beat Denver after a miracle pass sent them to overtime last weekend, and now they get another shot at the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
A look at the Ravens:
• Team's theme: They believed they're destined to win it all after what happened in Denver and are riding the emotion of linebacker Ray Lewis' planned retirement when the season ends. They've now won seven playoff games in five seasons, but have not reached a Super Bowl in 12 years.
• How they got here: The Ravens wobbled in December, but they won the AFC North title with a 10-6 record and received a wild-card berth with the No. 4 seed. They beat Indianapolis 24-9 at home before outlasting Denver 38-35 in a win that required nearly 77 minutes of football.
• Super Bowl-bound if: Quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense keep producing big plays. In the Ravens' playoff wins, 10 plays have accounted for 427 of 918 yards, almost half of their total. The alternative is doing a better job of putting drives together.
• Homeward-bound if: The Baltimore defense can't stop Tom Brady's offense on third downs. New England converted an NFL-best 49 percent of the time in the regular season. Statistically, Baltimore is a balanced, but average, football team that will need more dramatic plays to stage another upset on the road.
• Biggest variable: The offense's level of consistency. It's strange to think a team that fired its offensive coordinator in the middle of the season could play in the Super Bowl, but that's what coach John Harbaugh did with Cam Cameron. The pressure is on former Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell, now calling the plays, to sustain drives.
• Best player: Haloti Ngata, defensive tackle. That's not just a hometown pick. The former Highland High School football and rugby star is an All-Pro selection who has battled through knee and shoulder injuries this season and is a rare combination of a run stopper and pass rusher.
• Best player you've never heard of: Marshal Yonda, offensive guard. Flacco needs time to allow his receivers to get downfield for long passes, and an offensive line anchored by the second-team All-Pro allowed Denver to sack him only once.
• Local connections: Counting coaches, Baltimore is the most Utah-centric NFL team. Starters include linebacker Paul Kruger (No. 99) of Timpanogos High School and the University of Utah, tight end Dennis Pitta (No. 88) of BYU and Ngata (No. 92). Defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (No. 96) and receiver David Reed (No. 16), both of Utah, are reserves. Tight ends coach Wade Harman is a former Utah State player and coach, and senior offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg was Utah's offensive coordinator in coach Ron McBride's final two seasons.
• Reasons to cheer for them: There's somebody for everybody among the Ravens with Utah ties. They deserve a Super Bowl bid after outplaying New England last January, and if you're choosing between the Harbaugh brothers, John is the older, less brash one.
• Reasons to cheer against them: Two weeks of incessant Ray Lewis coverage would ensue if the Ravens win. And if Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco team takes the NFC title, the Super Bowl would divide a family.
Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe introduces the NFL's championship game contestants.
Saturday • Baltimore