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Gary Shelton: Can't keep these Ravens down

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

The quarterback is unlikely. The defense is aging. The team is improbable.

So how in the world do you explain these Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl?

Even in their moments of triumph after beating the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC title game Sunday night, it was hard to figure out just how the Ravens pulled this unexpected journey off. This was a team that was supposed to stop by the playoffs, nothing more. By now, everyone figured, the Ravens would have given a gold watch to its retiring linebacker Ray Lewis and gotten out of the way.

Yet, here they are.

Yet, there they go.

Miracle after miracle, the Ravens have found a way. Surprise after surprise, they have snuck up on a Super Bowl that no one expected them to reach. You could have gotten better odds on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being repainted … by Sherwin-Williams.

True, other wild-card teams have reached the Super Bowl before. It really isn't that rare anymore. But no other team has conquered Peyton Manning and Tom Brady back-to-back on its victory march. No other team had less momentum, losing four out of its last five games and firing its offensive coordinator in December.

This was Peyton Manning's year, remember? He had one of the best comebacks in history, and he put up MVP-type numbers, and it was easy to believe he was destined to make it to another Super Bowl. And the Ravens beat him and the Broncos.

This was Tom Brady's back yard, remember? No one came into Foxborough and beat the Patriots. They were 7-1 in AFC title games before this, and since 2002, they had won 10 of their 12 playoff games at Gillette Stadium. Some were already calling Brady the best quarterback in NFL history, which made it easy to believe he was heading toward yet another Super Bowl. And the Ravens beat him, too.

How did this happen? And furthermore, when? Did the Ravens become a contender when they beat the Colts in the first round? When they won the stunner against the Broncos?

Now comes the HarBowl: The 49ers and the Ravens.

Anyone want to bet against this team?

Oh, there are moments these Ravens sputter and moments they spew. They are not particularly flashy or slick. And the defense that has carried them for more than a decade has started to show some wear. On the other hand, that defense gave up only one touchdown to Brady on Sunday night.

Then there is Joe Flacco the Unappreciated. There are moments you can see the Ravens QB's rough edges, too. He hit only one of his first six passes Sunday night, and for a while, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time until the Patriots took over.

Sometimes, however, small injuries make big differences. Observe, for instance, the familiar face who spent most of the game on the Patriots' sideline.

It is fair to say this was the kind of game the Patriots had in mind when they traded for Aqib Talib, the troubled cornerback who once played for the Bucs. New England just hoped it would be Talib's entrance into the lineup, not his exit, that would be the difference.

The early season had demonstrated just how suspect the New England secondary was, and when the Bucs finally had their fill of Talib's off-the-field headlines, the Patriots decided to take the risk. In his time with the Patriots, Talib had drawn mostly positive reviews.

On the Ravens' second series of the game, however, Talib grabbed at his leg while defending a third-and-12 pass over the middle. He spent the rest of the night in a parka and a wool hat, watching from the sideline.

Oh, so that's why the Patriots wanted Talib.

After Talib's injury, Flacco was a different quarterback. He hit 20 of his last 30 passes for 223 yards, and he finished with three touchdowns and no interceptions. New England coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots made adjustments after losing Talib, but nothing that plugged the leak.

The Patriots still haven't announced if Talib is coming back next season. If not, this will leave a lasting final image of him in the New England area.

As far as the Ravens, there are still images left to savor.

There is a Super Bowl ahead. John Harbaugh gets to coach against his brother, 49ers coach Jim. Joe Flacco gets to play against Colin Kaepernick. Ray Rice gets to run against Patrick Willis.

Odds are, the Ravens will fall behind. Odds are, Flacco will make a big throw or two. Odds are, Baltimore will go into the final quarter with a chance to surprise America one more time.

Go ahead. Remind the Ravens they are underdogs. Tell them they can't win.

Just understand if they don't listen.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

Gary Shelton: Can't keep these Ravens down 01/21/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 20, 2013 11:36pm]

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