After enduring sub-freezing temperatures, layered in purple and clinging to cozies that were keeping their hands from sticking to the aluminum beer cans, Baltimore's football fans got their reward Sunday.
The Ravens, playing their first home playoff game since 2007, won a do-or-die contest against the Houston Texans to face a Sunday showdown with the New England Patriots, and a chance to return to the Super Bowl.
The 20-13 victory was in doubt until the very end, but within and around M&T Bank Stadium the home team's fortunes took on a feeling of destiny even before the first snap of the ball.
As early as 5:30 a.m., well before the stadium's parking lots officially opened, there was a kerosene-scented air of inevitability. The Ravens had the more experienced quarterback, the home-field advantage and the best odds of winning the Super Bowl in a decade. The Houston Texans could not win, these fans insisted — and the Ravens would prove them right almost 11 hours later.
The Ravens were "playing a winning team," Pat Philip of Rosedale explained, referring to the 10-6 Texans. "We only lose to teams with a losing record."
Philip was overseeing a setup from a customary perch in a shopping center parking lot across the street from the stadium. He and friends came early in a caravan of trucks and minivans. They brought with them a generator, a flat-panel television, a portable heater, a grill, a pizza oven and a microwave. And alcohol — 20 different beers, wine and shooters.
Philip, a season ticket holder, has been setting up camp with his wife, Millie, and friends for the past five years. "You can't get into the lots till 8 a.m. By 8, the drinking has already started," Philip grinned.
So had the traffic. Russell Street, a main gateway to the city and the stadium, and surrounding neighborhoods were crowded with cars and trucks whose uncommonly united occupants were looking for a win, and a section of asphalt big enough for their purple-, white- or black-topped tent.
As the sun climbed higher over the parking lots and the stadium, the usual festive atmosphere was beginning to take shape. But this time, the feeling was different. There was an edge, a powerful vibe for the first home playoff game since 2007, many fans said. Some were anxious, others were brimming with anticipation from the win-or-die game.
Inside the stadium, merchandise vendor Ashley Streeter had done massive sales of blankets and hats and other Ravens items. The high spirits, and perhaps low temperature, made it a record morning for sales in her booth.
"People are more willing to spend money in the playoffs," she said. "All around, people are happier. I think this is probably the happiest I've seen people all season."
Walking arm in arm, friends Isabel Starkey and Michele Moyer were buzzing with happiness as they strutted along the lower-level concourse in their purple wigs and purple glasses. They had come with a group of friends from Kent Island on a bus, arriving at the stadium at 10 a.m.
The Ravens had an early 10-3 lead, and the friends expressed their joy with a bat of their purple eyelashes.
"This is our first time doing the wigs," said Starkey, who was nursing a can of Budweiser. "We went to a costume store in Annapolis."
"We've been preparing for a week," said Moyer.
By the third quarter, the faithful were still certain their team was headed to New England to play the Patriots in the AFC championship game next Sunday, but some were beginning to doubt it would be the blowout suggested earlier.
Chuck Egeberg, at the game with his girlfriend Dottie Breeden, from Dundalk, said the 17-13 score was too close.
"The Ravens don't want it as badly as I do," said Egeberg from underneath a Raven-shaped hat and purple and white streamers. "They're going to do it, but they're making us bite our nails."
Ryan Langhauser, of Baltimore, felt so strongly about showing his purple pride that he decided to forgo a jacket and wear only his No. 82 Torrey Smith jersey, Ravens hat and gloves. "It's my team, it's even tattooed on me," he said as he raised his pants leg to show off the Raven's logo.