OWINGS MILLS, Md. – It was as if linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard and the rest of the Baltimore Ravens defense set out to provide a quarter-by-quarter demonstration of how they do business.
About 11 minutes into the AFC championship game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Lewis drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit that pushed tight end Aaron Hernandezs chin strap up near his nose.
Then, in the second quarter, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe gave New England another free 15 yards by hitting an offensive lineman in the face mask in response to an after-the-play shove.
Fast-forward to early in the third, and Pollard, the Fort Wayne native, was flagged for his teams third personal foul of the day, thanks to a leaping hit against the helmet of receiver Wes Welker. Two plays later, Welker dropped a third-down pass.
And finally, a couple of minutes into the fourth, Pollard struck again. No penalty was called this time, but his helmet-to-helmet hit on Stevan Ridley resulted in a fumble and left the running back on his back, looking limp and helpless. Ridley left the game with a head injury, while the Ravens recovered the football and were on their way to Sundays Super Bowl against the equally aggressive San Francisco 49ers.
In an age of high-powered offenses in the NFL – this seasons games featured 45.5 points, the highest average since 1965 – and increasingly safety-conscious officials, a pair of hard-hitting, oft-penalized defenses are meeting for the championship.
Being physical? Thats vital, man. Thats what we live by, Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams said.
San Francisco defensive lineman Justin Smith deflected a question about whether his defense is as good as Baltimores, replying: I mean, were just trying to win a ring.
Actually, thats probably better asked about the Ravens: Are they as good as the 49ers?
Opposing offenses scored 15.5 points per game against the 49ers, which ranked third in the 32-team NFL in the regular season. The Ravens gave up 20 per game, 11th-best.
During the regular season, the Ravens were whistled for an NFL-high 19 personal fouls. Their team also was penalized more yards overall than anyone else.
The 49ers tied for fourth with 15 personal fouls and ranked fifth in penalty yardage.
When you go against a team that has that kind of reputation, and you can watch it on film, it definitely gets in your mindset and you know you have to deal with it, Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said.
Im not sitting here saying that were intimidating everybody or anything like that. But you know were coming to hit you, for sure.
Pollard put things a little more starkly.
For everybody, for fans, people who dont understand – they want to say, well, Im being a dirty player. Well, no, Im not being a dirty player. Im just playing defense, said Pollard, a seventh-year veteran out of Purdue.
And I ask you the question: If I came into your house, with your door locked, and I just kicked it down, and came to try to steal stuff, youre going to defend your house, am I correct?
So thats the stand I take. Weve got grass behind us. Weve got the end zone that we have to defend, weve got to protect.