Jan. 12

It's a common ploy for teams to claim "no one believes in us." But in the Ravens' case, it's absolutely true that few people expect them to beat the Broncos today in frigid Denver.

Not only did the Broncos rout the Ravens less than a month ago, they haven't lost to anybody since early October. They're statistically superior on both offense and defense, and have the league's best overall win-loss record at home since 1975.

The Ravens are coming off an emotional win over the Colts in the wild-card round, one that allowed Lewis to jog a postgame lap around his home field, gesturing gratefully to the fans who stuck with him through highs and lows. But in pure football terms, Denver presents a whole different scale of problem.

When Broncos returner Trindon Holliday cuts through the Ravens for a 90-yard touchdown return less than three minutes in, fans watching in Federal Hill fall silent, many expecting a long, tortured day.

It doesn't turn out that way.

It's not just that the Ravens win one of the classic, back-and-forth games in NFL history. It's that their performance pays off almost every storyline from a wild season.

Suggs posts his best game of the year, mauling blockers into the Denver backfield and sacking Peyton Manning twice.

Smith scores two touchdowns, sprinting well past the Broncos' defense for the first and leaping balletically to snare the second.

Lewis, not ready for his ride to end, crisscrosses the field for 17 tackles.

With less than a minute left in regulation, Flacco creates the signature moment of his career, flinging the ball as far as he can through the mile-high air to a waiting Jacoby Jones, the wide receiver signed in free agency to replace Lee Evans. Denver fans had already begun to celebrate, but the 70-yard touchdown reduces them to stone silence.

Early in the second overtime period, Tucker lines up for a 47-yard game-winner, exactly the kind of moment he's yearned for since he started kicking seriously at age 15. Back in Baltimore, fans think of Cundiff's miss, their guts churning.

Though he'll say later that the ball felt like a cinderblock because of the cold, Tucker — who has kicked better than anyone dared hope — makes the field goal with room to spare.

Jan. 20

So today, the Ravens are indeed back in Foxborough for another AFC championship game.

They enter the contest believing they're a team forged in the hottest fires NFL life can muster.

"Obviously, I have my own personal loss that my team helped me get through, but that is just how we are," Smith said last week. "You look at the games that we have been in and the games that we have come out on top … Even in the games that we lost, we never laid down for anyone. We continued to fight, and that's just how we are and who we are as Ravens."

Added Rice: "I don't think you get here by accident."

The trick of it is that, as gripping a story as they've authored, it won't be the one they wanted to tell unless they win.

Lewis, who has played in more big games than any other Raven, said something you might not expect about this: He draws peace from the fact that, in sports, every team's story comes down to a few hours.

"I've just been in this calm state," he said four days before the showdown. "Because at the end of the day, nothing matters unless we're going to win in New England this weekend."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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