By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
1:42 PM EST, 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.
"It was an opportunity for us to go to the Super Bowl," he finally says to the mass of reporters swelling around him. "And I let it go."
Cundiff is also contrite, saying, "There's really no excuse for it."
Harbaugh says he wants to get back to the same spot a year later. He says it will be hard. Even he can't possibly guess how many turns the road will take.
April 28, 2012
This is supposed to be a happy day — the conclusion of the NFL draft, every team's chance to restock its shelves. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is an acknowledged master of the process, but what Newsome can't know is that 2,000 miles away in Arizona, a hole has opened in his roster that cannot be filled with any college player.
Suggs, coming off a career-best season of 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles, tears his right Achilles tendon. An ESPN report says he did it playing basketball. Suggs says he did it while shuffling between cones in preparation for conditioning tests at Ravens training camp.
Regardless, a study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says the average recovery time for an NFL player is 11 months. That timeline suggests Suggs' season is in jeopardy. The voluble linebacker says he'll be back in uniform by October or November.
The Ravens' dream of returning to the AFC title game could hardly be off to a worse start. Pass rushers are considered among the most vital commodities in the NFL, and Suggs is by far the Ravens' best. Las Vegas oddsmakers drop the team's chances of winning the Super Bowl from 12-1 to 15-1.
Aug. 27, 2012
Cundiff has said all the right things about bouncing back from his miss against the Patriots. Harbaugh backed him in the wake of the bitter loss, saying he expected Cundiff to be his kicker in 2012.
"It's all about moving forward," the veteran said at a May workout.
And Cundiff has kicked pretty well during the four weeks of training camp. But there's this kid from the University of Texas, Justin Tucker, with the patchy beard of a philosophy major and a confidence that quickly captivates Ravens veterans and coaches. Every time Cundiff makes a long field goal, Tucker wants to jump up and nail an even longer one.
The supposed narrative entering camp was that Tucker had been brought in to give Cundiff a little nudge. But that's not what Harbaugh told the undrafted free agent. Tucker believes it's a straight-up competition, that if he kicks better, the job will be his.
Three weeks ago, Cundiff said Tucker had "livened things up a little bit." Today, he finds out just how much when the Ravens cut him less than two years after he represented the franchise in the Pro Bowl.
Even if the Ravens get their shot at playoff redemption against the Patriots, Cundiff will not get his.
After Harbaugh calls Tucker over to give him the news, the rookie feels "accomplished but completely unaccomplsihed, all at the same time."
Sept. 23, 2012
Torrey Smith answers the phone in the wee hours of Sunday morning, and the voice on the other end says the unthinkable: His 19-year-old brother, Tevin Jones, has crashed his motorcycle into a utility pole in Virginia.
"I can't believe my little brother is gone," Smith writes on his Twitter account.
No one would blame the second-year receiver if tonight's game against the Patriots were the furthest thing from his mind. But he arrives at M&T Bank Stadium to be with his teammates a few hours before kickoff.
With his team down 13-0 early in the second quarter, Flacco lofts a 25-yard pass that Smith snatches in the left corner of the end zone. The former Maryland star drops to a knee after the touchdown and then points to the sky. He has tears in his eyes when he reaches his teammates on the sidelines.
Smith catches another touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter, a few minutes before Tucker sneaks a game-winning field goal inside the right upright.
The 31-30 victory doesn't close the circle with the Patriots. This is only the regular season. But given Smith's day, it's a moment when the Ravens feel as much like a family as a team.
"I just told him that we're here for him," says safety Ed Reed, who played through his own brother's death in 2011. "I'm here for him."
Dec. 16, 2012
After a 9-2 start, the Ravens' train is beginning to derail.
There have been exhilarating and hopeful moments.
Suggs startled the football world by returning Oct. 21, roughly when he had predicted. He carried a few pounds of unwanted weight but was arguably the team's best player in an otherwise ghastly 43-13 loss at Houston.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Rice saved the Ravens from a dispiriting loss in San Diego when he scampered 29 yards on fourth-and-29 to keep the game-tying drive alive. It was the play of the regular season.
But the Ravens haven't won since, and the story behind the box scores is even more troubling. Questions about Flacco's consistency have returned to the point that six days before today's game against the Denver Broncos, Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. No one in the NFL can recall such a drastic move by a winning team so late in the season.
It's not even clear that offense is the team's biggest problem. A staggering spate of injuries has left the Ravens with its weakest defense in more than a decade. In an early-season win against the Dallas Cowboys, the Ravens lost their best cornerback, Lardarius Webb, to a season-ending knee injury and their vocal leader, Lewis, to a torn triceps.
In today's game against the surging Broncos, the Ravens play without their biggest hitter — safety Bernard Pollard — and starting linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe. Haloti Ngata hobbles through the game on a sprained knee, and Suggs winces on every play because of a torn biceps.
The team's troubles snowball in a rare home loss that isn't as close as the 34-17 score suggests. Hours after the game, the Ravens secure a playoff spot when the Pittsburgh Steelers lose. But it's the emptiest clinching moment the players have ever experienced.
"We're a 9-5 football team," Flacco says. "And it feels like we're 0-14 right now,"
The reporters gathered around Lewis expect him to make a little news today. The great linebacker has missed the last 10 games, but it's widely expected Lewis will defy age and injury to return for the Ravens' playoff opener on Sunday. He talks about jumping on his bike, 10 days after surgery to repair his torn triceps, with absolute certainty that he would play again this season.
Most of Lewis' interviewers don't notice players and coaches massing in the background, waiting to hear the stunning news he's about to drop.
Asked about his long-term plans, the 37-year-old says he just informed his teammates that the playoff run will be "my last ride."
Lewis started in the first-ever Ravens game in 1996 and has been the face of the franchise through most of his Hall of Fame career. He was the Most Valuable Player of the team's Super Bowl win. Teammates fight back tears as they describe what he's meant to them. Anticipation immediately builds for Lewis' last entry dance at M&T Bank Stadium.
It's clear from his words that he wants the hip-swiveling, chest-thrusting spectacle to inspire an unexpected roll to the Super Bowl.
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.
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."
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