The regular season is finished. A new year begins. For the Ravens, a new season, too. Yesterday's 19-7 win over the Buffalo Bills provided some closure on the regular season - the Ravens' best string of 16 games in franchise history.
So now, how exactly do we reflect on these past four months and carry over some meaning into these next four weeks? I guess what I'm really wondering, in simplest terms - what's the bottom line here?
So we seek out the locker room leader, the one who's the most liberal with his words, the most generous with his opinion, and yep, a certified expert when it comes to "bottom lines." Ray Lewis is such an expert, in fact, that he issued more than a dozen of them yesterday, including:
Papa Ray on his defense: "We're No. 1 across the board in almost every category. Bottom line, you can talk about anybody else you want to talk about. When the bottom line comes up, this season's over right now, and the Baltimore Ravens have the No. 1 defense in football."
Papa Ray on opponents: "It's been a very simple approach: The next game, no matter who it is, that's our opponent. Bottom line. And when we came here to face Buffalo, our bottom line - they're in the way."
Papa Ray on the Ravens' first playoff foe: "Bottom line, we don't care who it is. Bottom line, we got them at home."
Papa Ray on whether he can ask for anything else out of his defense: "I can't ask for anything else out of my defense, bottom line."
Exhausting, I know. And here's the thing - I'm not sure that he really got to the bottom of all this. Because the real bottom line surrounding this time is almost taken for granted. We've become so accustomed to the real bottom line, and we only take notice when it's not there.
As the national media begin to focus their attention on only a couple of teams, expect to hear a lot of things. The addition of Steve McNair was the difference. The return of a healthy Ray Lewis changed everything. Brian Billick assuming offensive coordinator duties was a season-saving decision.
And sure, there's truth in all of that, but we spend way too much time singling out players, handing out game balls and crowning game MVPs. The bottom line surrounding this Ravens team - the single most important factor in their success - is the turnover margin.
No, it's not sexy. We can't dress it up in a nice suit, and we can't interview this bottom line on the sidelines. But these Ravens live and die by the turnover, which we saw again in yesterday's season finale.
The Bills' third-quarter touchdown cut the Ravens' lead to 9-7 and suddenly one of the Super Bowl favorites - the team with the NFL's best home record since 2000 - was in danger of losing in its own stadium on the cusp of the postseason.
That worry didn't hang in the air too long, though - about as long as J.P. Losman's errant pass. Chris McAlister snatched the ball out of the air and returned it 31 yards for a momentum-changing, game-saving touchdown. (To put McAlister's career-high six interceptions into perspective: He had more than the entire Redskins' team this season.)
The Ravens managed three takeaways yesterday - a fumble recovery and a pair of interceptions - and they finished the regular season with 40, second only to the Bears. Their 28 interceptions, though, are tops in the NFL.
Their plus-17 turnover ratio is better than any other team, and all these takeaways have led directly to 122 points this season, either from defenders returning interceptions and fumbles into the end zone or the offensive unit converting the added opportunities into points. We're talking about more than a touchdown a game on average.
(If you need any more convincing that turnover margin is crucial to this team, consider this: In the Ravens' 13 wins, that margin is +20; in their three losses, it's --3.)
"That's always our goal," said linebacker Bart Scott. "That's the name of the game. The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins games."
The thing about turnovers is that by season's end, you realize what kind of team effort it really is. For the Ravens this year, 11 different players registered at least one interception, including eight starters. And eight different players recovered a fumble.
"There are so many talented people on this defense," Lewis said, "somebody is going to make a play."
And if the Ravens manage to make a run through these playoffs, you can bet that many of them will be making plays. In the postseason, the stronger, more aggressive defenses consistently find their way to the championship game.
Lewis obviously knows the importance of takeaways, but if he really wants, we'll let the rules slide a bit. A team at the top can have as many bottom lines as they wish.
The linebacker bounced through the locker room, laying down some Jim Jones lyrics - the rapper, not the cult leader - for anyone within earshot.
We fly high
You know this
And because this is Lewis we're talking about, he didn't hesitate to tell us what he thinks of his team entering the playoffs. And because we've seen this team evolve into a complete, smart and talented unit, it's hard to disagree with him right now.
"We're the best team in football," he said. "Bottom line."