NEW ORLEANS - The injuries reached the point late in the regular season that Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees joked, "Every week, it's like I have to take attendance in our [meeting] room to see who shows up."
At the time, there was no Ray Lewis. There was no Lardarius Webb. Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard were banged up and had missed time. Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata were hampered and nowhere near the impact players they had been a year earlier. Jameel McClain was out. Pernell McPhee had multiple ailments. And Jimmy Smith was still working back from surgery to repair a sports hernia.
Players who began the season as special-teamers were starting at cornerback and inside linebacker. A former practice-squad player also was starting at inside linebacker. And a player who began the season as a free agent was the Ravens' primary nickel back.
It was a patchwork group that bore little resemblance to Baltimore's normally dominant, star-studded defensive unit, which ranked among the top four in the NFL in nearly every major statistical category a year earlier.
Yet, just a month after Pees joked about the Ravens' rash of injuries, Baltimore's current defensive looks little like the group that so often appeared vulnerable during the regular season.
The Ravens allowed only nine points in a wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts. They held Peyton Manning and the high-powered Broncos scoreless on six of their final seven possessions during a divisional round win in Denver. And they kept Tom Brady and an explosive New England Patriots offense off the scoreboard after halftime in the AFC Championship game.
"We've had something like 30 different starters on the Ravens defense this year, if not more," Pollard said, "but guys have stepped up all season long and our defense, collectively, we've done a great job making plays, and that's something we've done the last few weeks."
It obviously helps that they've gotten healthier.
Lewis is back and has a team-high 44 tackles in the playoffs. Ellerbe's back. So is Pollard. Suggs has gotten more comfortable with his surgically-repaired Achilles and has been a factor in the playoffs. And Ngata, while still hampered by a sprained knee, appears healthier and more active.
And contributions continue from previously unheralded players such as Cary Williams, Corey Graham, Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones, among others.
The same defense that five times allowed 29 points or more during the regular season has yielded just four touchdowns in three playoff games.
"Through all our ups and down ... we've stuck together," Suggs said. "We always believed, and we kept our eyes on the prize, and that's what we just kept doing."
Thirteen different defensive starters - or players with significant starting experience - missed at least one regular-season game. The result often was a defense that struggled to stop the run and had trouble generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
A different defense has been on display in the playoffs.
The Ravens have been stingy against the run, limiting opposing running backs to an average of just 3.6 yards per carry. They've applied consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, sacking Andrew Luck and Manning three times each and recording seven hits on Brady. And they've tallied five interceptions.
Luck threw for 288 yards, but he completed just 28 of his 54 pass attempts. Manning was limited to just 121 yards during the final two-plus quarters. And while Brady threw for 320 yards, he completed only 29 of his 54 pass attempts and had two interceptions.
"We've been through a lot [as a defense]," Baltimore safety Ed Reed said. "We had a bunch of guys who've been through a lot, a bunch of guys who've stepped up, young guys that got a lot of playing time [earlier] in the year. ... And obviously, when Ray came back - he's just that engine, he's that motor that's going to go all the time.
"He understands what the offense is trying to do to you when you're talking about the run game. He's calling out plays before they even happen. That's what you really miss when Ray's out. ... [And then] to have those guys play early, get that experience, it really helped."
Now the defense will be saddled with the task of slowing down a Colin Kaepernick-led San Francisco 49ers offense that's posted an average of 29 points in the nine games leading up to its Super Bowl matchup with the Ravens on Feb. 3 in the Superdome.
Kaepernick's a multi-dimensional quarterback. He's hurt teams as a runner - rushing for 181 yards and two touchdowns in a divisional round win over the Green Bay Packers - but he's a playmaker from the pocket as well. He has 13 touchdown passes with just four interceptions in his nine games as a starter while throwing for an average of 234 yards per game.
But it's not just Kaepernick.
Frank Gore's a four-time Pro Bowler at running back. Tight end Vernon Davis is a former Pro Bowler who had 106 yards and a touchdown last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree had 1,105 yards and nine scoring catches during the regular season. There's an older but still dangerous Randy Moss, two speedy and dynamic running backs that complement Gore in Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James and another athletic tight end in Delanie Walker.
San Francisco also has an offensive line led by Pro Bowlers Joe Staley and Mike Iupati that several members of Baltimore's defense referred to as one of the best in the NFL.
Said Suggs: "It's going to be a challenge to play against them."