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 Hernandez’s 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 was flagged for his team’s 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 next Sunday’s Super Bowl against the equally aggressive 49ers.
In an age of high-powered offenses in the NFL — this season’s 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. Those second-half shutouts of the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons in the conference title games were only the latest reminder from the 49ers and Ravens that defense still matters.
Opposing offenses scored 17.1 points per game against the 49ers, which ranked second in the 32-team NFL in the regular season. The Ravens gave up 21.5 per game, 12th-best.
The 49ers allowed only two touchdown passes of 20-plus yards, the lowest total in the league. Baltimore allowed six.
“There is a Steel Curtain or Chicago Bears type mentality with both of these defenses. Both of them bring a kind of edge to how they play,” Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said in a telephone interview. “They both swarm to the ball, get a lot of people to the ball. It won’t be just one guy hitting you. There will be a number of guys.”
With players such as Lewis and Terrell Suggs on the field, plus Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Whitner and Pollard, perhaps the MVP of Sunday’s game will be someone who prevents points.
“It’s just like the old saying,” Baltimore’s Ellerbe said. “Offense sells tickets; defense wins championships.”