All season, the Ravens talked about peaking at the right time. They downplayed their 9-2 start, maintaining that a strong finish to the regular season was what was important. They didn't want to just make the playoffs. They wanted to enter them with momentum, their offense putting up points and their defense putting down quarterbacks.
Before walking out of the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday following a 23-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals to end the regular season, the Ravens were singing a decidedly different tune.
Four losses in their last five games was a non-issue, they claimed. All that mattered was getting healthier and the Indianapolis Colts coming to their home field Sunday afternoon in the first round of the playoffs.
"It doesn't worry us. This is the playoffs and it's different," said safety Ed Reed one of several veterans that barely played Sunday as head coach John Harbaugh opted to rest most of his. "Playoffs are different than the season, man."
Still, is it reasonable to expect that the Ravens will just flip a switch at 1 p.m. on Sunday and suddenly all that ailed them over the final month of a 16-game season will be cured? Recent history suggests no, but to a man, Ravens' players insisted that they are in ideal position to make a playoff run.
"I think we're very ready," said tight end Ed Dickson who had his best game of the season Sunday, six catches for 64 yards. "We know exactly who we're playing. We had a chance to get guys healthy [Sunday]. We're going to be firing on all cylinders. If we put it all together, the sky is the limit for this team. It's a one-game season right now. Our goal [is] to be playing our best when our best is needed. Playoffs are coming, man. We win or go home."
What the Ravens are trying to accomplish — rebounding from a poor final month and making a Super Bowl run — isn't exactly unprecedented. Three years ago, the New Orleans Saints dropped their final three regular-season games and went on to win the Super Bowl in relatively dominant fashion, becoming the only team in the NFL to pull off that feat. Of course, before their late regular-season slide began, the Saints already had clinched the NFC's top seed and a first-round bye.
But their run was more the exception rather than the norm, which has been teams getting hot late in the regular season and carrying that steam into the playoffs. The New York Giants won three of their last four regular-season games last year and then reeled off four straight playoff wins to capture their second Super Bowl in five years.
Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers won their final two regular season games just to get in the playoffs, momentum that they rode to a Super Bowl. Then, there is the case of the Ravens' chief rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won six of their final seven games of the regular season, beat the Ravens in the AFC title game and then defeated the Arizona Cardinals to win the Super Bowl.
Clearly, teams that entered the playoffs riding a wave of momentum recently have fared better, but Harbaugh downplayed the significance of that Monday.
"Whatever team plays the best in the playoffs is going to win it," Harbaugh said. "So if you want to call it getting hot, it's pretty important. Starting this week, whoever plays the best will be the champion. … It's a whole new season, it all starts fresh. It's the playoffs. We're all 0-0 at this point. It's time to move on and play this part of the season."
The Ravens were at their best two weeks ago, demolishing the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants to clinch their second straight AFC North title. The commanding victory ended a three-game losing streak and seemingly gave the Ravens some of the momentum back that they lost through the first half of December. But on Sunday, Harbaugh decided that the health of his team was more important than finishing strong as he rested most of his top performers in the loss to the Bengals.
"We thought about everything," Harbaugh said, explaining the decision a day later. "We thought about all that stuff, we really did. We took it all into consideration and we weighed it all out. We felt like we can win the game with the guys that we had and we almost pulled it off. With better field position, we would have pulled it off. If momentum is winning the game, that was something we talked about and we tried to win the game. But some other factors weighed heavier into our minds."
Colts head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano took a different approach. Already entrenched as the AFC's fifth seed, Pagano, in his first game back after receiving treatment for leukemia, opted to play his starters throughout and the result was a 28-16 victory over Houston in a game the Texans needed to win to secure the conference's top seed. Overall, Indianapolis won nine of its last 11 games to finish 11-5 on the season
"It was a great team victory as far as talking about wanting to play your best football at the end of the season," Pagano said at his news conference Monday in Indianapolis. "You'd love to go into the playoffs with momentum and we talked at great length about that as a football team this past week."
It will be an emotional return for Pagano who coached under Harbaugh for four seasons in Baltimore. Harbaugh acknowledged that it will be "great" to see Pagano but the good sentiment only goes so far.
"Right now they are just an opponent," Harbaugh said. "I'm very excited about our team right now. I like us a lot. I've liked us all year. I like the fact that we've overcome a lot of adversity, both personal and team. I like the fact that our guys have stuck together through a lot of that. I think that's what makes a team what it is and I'm looking forward to seeing who we are for the next one game through however many games we're able to play. It's going to be a big challenge, it's a great opportunity and I wouldn't want to be coaching any other team besides the Ravens at this stage."
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