Where will you be at 4:15 p.m. today? For those not fortunate enough to have tickets to M&T; Bank Stadium, the destination of choice is in front of a television set. With a victory today over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Baltimore Ravens can clinch a spot in the NFL playoffs.
This is big. This is really big. Not because the Ravens are favored to march through the playoffs and make another trip to the Super Bowl. They are not, although anything is possible. But rather because the Ravens' ascendancy this season has been so unexpected and so joyful to witness. And because Baltimore needs this particular bit of psychic uplift.
Next door at Camden Yards, the Orioles are in a state of "rebuilding," to put it kindly (after more than a decade of futility, it's a bit like congressional reform - much talked about, little accomplished), while division rivals prosper. Tampa Bay is last season's pennant winner, the Red Sox are one year removed from a World Series win, and the Yankees are spending the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Paraguay on free agents. But for local baseball fans, the real kick in the pants is knowing that Severna Park's Mark Teixeira, the one-time star of Mount St. Joseph High School, will be wearing pinstripes next season. Apparently, $180 million tugs at the heart strings a lot harder than hometown traditions like hating the Yankees.
Add to this the hardships and malaise that accompany a particularly brutal economic recession and the usual frustrations of urban poverty, and Baltimore has reason for the blues. What sweet relief to see the city earning its notoriety on the gridiron and not on some drug pusher's corner.
Last season, the Ravens finished 5-11. The head coach was sent packing. The offense was uninspired. The team's future Hall of Fame tackle and Pro Bowl quarterback retired.
A young first-year coach, a rookie quarterback, a young offensive line - circumstances suggested Baltimore should expect no more than mediocrity. But game by game, something extraordinary emerged. A close game against the undefeated Titans, a sweep of Cleveland, a mid-season winning streak of seven of eight games, and the Ravens came within a bad goal-line call of competing for the division title. Suddenly, people were spelling out "Flacco" in their Christmas lights. John Harbaugh looks like a genius. And Johns Hopkins launches a research program to discover how Derrick Mason can play receiver with only one healthy arm - or at least it ought to.
The Ravens are favored to beat the Jaguars today, but there are no guarantees in the National Football League. What is certain is that Ravens Nation will be fired up to full Ray Lewis levels, excited about what is to come and grateful that a brutal 2008 can close on a moment of great civic pride.