Ravens still standing tall after a brutal year

The Ravens may have achieved more than some expected when the season began

There is the slim chance that the outcome of the Ravens' final regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals will have an impact on their place in the postseason pecking order, but it won't change the way anyone looks back on 2012.

The past 12 months have taken Ravens fans on a ride that has been — at various junctures — exhilarating and exasperating. The year started with an exciting playoff run that fell achingly short when Lee Evans dropped an apparent touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a chip-shot field goal in the AFC title game. It will end with a second consecutive AFC North championship and the fifth consecutive playoff berth of the John Harbaugh era.

Who knows where the Ravens will go from here, but it's important to go back to the beginning to fully appreciate how they got to this point … and understand just how much they were able to accomplish in the face of some tremendous obstacles.

That might not be necessary if they had not spent most of December in a scary downward spiral that took them out of contention for a playoff bye and led to the dismissal of longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But their recent three-game losing streak spawned a crisis of confidence both on the field and in the stands that still begs for a healthy dose of perspective.

Lest anyone forget, there were plenty of experts who questioned whether the Ravens were even a wild-card team after Terrell Suggs suffered that nasty Achilles tendon injury last spring. He was, after all, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, and two of the other cornerstones of the Ravens defense weren't getting any younger.

Suggs was supposed to be out for most of the season, and the Ravens lost Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding to free agency. The talk around the league was that the Ravens would have to take a big step forward offensively to compensate for the decimated defense, and that was before they lost star cornerback Lardarius Webb and emotional leader Ray Lewis to serious injuries in a Week 6 victory over the Cowboys.

If ever the conditions were ripe for the first real hiccup since Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, this season was it.

Their reward for coming within an eyelash of the Super Bowl was one of the NFL's toughest 2012 regular-season schedules. Along with the usual four challenging games against the Steelers and Bengals, the Ravens had to battle through a phalanx of playoff candidates that included both of last season's Super Bowl teams, this year's runaway AFC Central champion Houston Texans, the Denver Broncos, the Cowboys and the surprising Redskins.

Now, go back to the beginning again and try to recall just how many games you thought the Ravens would win this year. The preseason consensus among the oddsmakers was that the Ravens would finish the regular season with 10 victories — again proving that the Vegas types are pretty smart — but that was before the rash of injuries that probably should have submarined their playoff bid.

That was also before anybody had any idea how good the Broncos would be or anyone imagined that Robert Griffin III would turn the Redskins into instant contenders. To be fair, it also was before the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for an extended period to lighten the competition inside the division.

Still, the Ravens probably had no right to get off to a 9-2 start with that schedule and the setbacks they suffered during the first half of the season, but their performance through the first 11 games was a testament to their resilience and the top-to-bottom strength of the organization.

When they finally blinked, no one should have been terribly surprised. Maybe they should not have lost to the Big Ben-less Steelers, but they limped into back-to-back games against the Redskins and Broncos at just the wrong time and came away looking like a team that was headed nowhere fast.

And now, just two weeks later, the division title is secure and the final game against the Bengals is just a tuneup for next weekend's playoff opener against either the Colts or the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium.

Happy Old Year!

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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