Ray Lewis

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (52) celebrates after the AFC divisional round playoff game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports / January 19, 2013)

It's a tale of last rides and inspired beginnings, of loss and the will to fight on, of hopes rising, falling and rising again.

Like many a dramatic yarn, it has spun back to the place where it started. And now, it's time for the Ravens to tell us how the story ends.

Running back Ray Rice calls them a team of destiny, and it's easy to see why he might think so given everything the Ravens have been through over the past 12 months — the injuries to key players, the untimely losses of one player's younger brother, the wild swings in on-field momentum, the coming retirement of their public face and private motivator, Ray Lewis.

All of that and yet they'll be back in Foxborough, Mass., at 6:30 on Sunday evening, trying to earn a trip to the Super Bowl against the same New England Patriots who sent them home bitterly disappointed at the same juncture of last season.

"I mean, if you write it up," Lewis says, "there's no better way to write it up."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is wary of tossing around terms such as "destiny."

"It's a pretty big word, if you think about it," he says, drawing a chuckle from the assembled media six days before the Patriots rematch. Like most other good coaches, Harbaugh is more apt to trust the day-to-day toil, the quest to master thousands of details that add up to a good performance.

"Process is a good word," he says in explaining why the Ravens have made it all the way back to the AFC championship game. "That's what you do — you just go to work."

Harbaugh's version might sound different than Rice's, but it's really just a lunch-pail twist on the same essential narrative. The Ravens believe they're a team defined by perseverance.

"I think the thing that what [Ray Rice] is speaking about, when you do hear him speak about it, is how we kept fighting," Lewis says. "How we kept keeping each other up and no matter who got hurt, next man up, next man up. And that's kind of the staple that we've had around here for a very, very long time. It's always next man up, and for us to fight through all the bumps in the roads that we have went through all year, I just think that's an awesome, awesome credit to our team."

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl in January 2001, said this mentality can have a powerful impact on performance.

"You've got to be a legend in your own mind," he said, talking about this season's Ravens. "That encompasses so much resolve and perseverance and all the other terms we throw around. But they're so true."

Journey through the last 12 months with the Ravens to grasp why they think this way:

Jan. 22, 2012

The story begins on a seasonably chilly afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, home of the AFC's perennial contenders.

The Patriots have been to the Super Bowl four times in the past decade, but on this day, the Ravens appear to be the better team. Quarterback Joe Flacco outhrows his legendary counterpart, Tom Brady, and in the game's waning moments, Flacco has the Ravens on the verge of a game-winning touchdown.

With the clock ticking to 25 seconds and the Patriots up three, Flacco zips a pass to the right corner of the end zone, sticking it in the gut of wide receiver Lee Evans. Evans backpedals as the ball settles into his arms, but as his left foot descends to complete the second step required for a touchdown, Patriots safety Sterling Moore slaps the ball with his right hand. In a blink, later extended to five agonizing seconds on slow-motion replay, the ball is on the ground — go-ahead touchdown negated.

The Ravens still have a chance. Flacco throws incomplete on third down, so Billy Cundiff comes on to tie the game with a 32-yard field goal. He'll note after the game that it's a kick he's made probably 1,000 times in his life. He looks rushed, however, and this one he pushes just outside the left upright.

A television camera captures Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs mouthing the words, "Oh, my God."

Sitting at his locker afterward, Evans dabs his eyes with a towel.