As he does each week, Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' 20-10 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
1. These Ravens have overcome a lot and deserve to celebrate.
It wasn't pretty, OK. We'll talk about that in a bit. But the Ravens are in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, and they overcame a near-Biblical plague of injuries and off-the-field difficulties to make the postseason.
The Ravens no longer resemble the balanced powerhouse that blew out opponents in the first half of the season. They seemed in genuine danger of losing to a Browns team that has steadily unraveled over the last month. Fans at M&T Bank Stadium booed often in the first three quarters and understandably so.
But the Ravens survived.
Their defensive front, manned by the usually anonymous likes of Casey Walker and DeAngelo Tyson, controlled Browns rookie quarterback Connor Shaw. And Joe Flacco got hot in the nick of time, throwing for 161 yards in the fourth quarter as the Ravens rallied from a 10-3 deficit.
Those boos morphed to deafening cheers, as fans realized the Ravens were going to win and the Kansas City Chiefs were going to knock the San Diego Chargers out of the way in the AFC playoff race.
I'm all for analytical rigor. There's more to criticize than praise in the way the Ravens have played over the last three weeks. But there are also times when it makes sense to look only at the biggest picture.
Taking that wide view, this team worked past everything from the Ray Rice nightmare to Haloti Ngata's suspension for Adderall use to dozens of injuries, big and small. So enjoy the next week, Baltimore faithful. There are 20 other fan bases that would love to trade places with you.
2. The Ravens' offense is not in playoff form.
Flacco and Co. were almost indescribably bad the previous week in Houston, and they didn't look a lot better for much of Sunday's game, despite facing a poor defensive front with no one resembling the terrifying Texan, J.J. Watt.
The Ravens had fans groaning from the first possession, opening with a false start by Owen Daniels, a dropped pass by Steve Smith and a bungled snap exchange between Jeremy Zuttah and Flacco.
Later in the first quarter, sitting first-and-goal at the 2-yard line against the worst run defense in the league, the Ravens came up empty on four straight plays. Near the end of the first half, the Ravens literally fumbled their way out of scoring position.
Players seemed at a loss to explain another unsightly start. They had talked all week about jumping off more quickly but couldn't make it happen. Coach John Harbaugh credited the Browns defense for crowding the line of scrimmage and stifling his team's running game.
To be fair, the Ravens' offensive line is battered, much as it was throughout a frustrating 2013 season. Starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner didn't play, and that meant Marshal Yanda had to line up out of position and rookies James Hurst and John Urschel had to jump in as starters.
All things considered, the unit did a decent job, holding the Browns to one sack and wearing them down to the point Justin Forsett ran for 75 yards in the fourth quarter.
In fact, all seemed right over those final 15 minutes, with Flacco also playing one of his best stretches of the season.
Just don't let it obscure the futility that pervaded over the previous seven quarters. The Ravens can't afford to play like the walking dead for the majority of next weekend's playoff opener, and they know it.
3. This was, in its own way, one of Joe Flacco's signature days as a Raven.
I've long preached against overreacting to the highs and lows of the Flacco experience. Just when you're convinced he's a top-10 quarterback, he'll break your heart, as he did last week in Houston.
And then the son of a gun will win it back.
After Sunday's game, fellow Ravens made a point of saying it was Flacco who rallied them at halftime with a few simple exhortations. His words, as recounted, didn't exactly sound like a Shakespearean call to arms. He basically told everybody to stop screwing around and win.
And then he played his best fourth quarter of the season, missing on only one pass and throwing for more yards in 15 minutes than he had in the previous 45.
I always appreciate Flacco's honesty, win or lose. And I believed him when he said he didn't know if it was a defining moment for him.
But you could hear in the words of Torrey Smith and Harbaugh that the afternoon's events did reinforce their deep belief in Flacco. In trying to pull the Ravens out of a hole he helped dig, the man stood up with his mouth and then his arm.
Isn't that what we mean when we call someone a franchise quarterback?
4. Pernell McPhee is going to get paid this offseason.
Every week, I search for a different way to talk about the Ravens' defensive front bailing out the rest of the team. It happened again this week, as the Ravens remained in striking range largely because they chased Shaw out of his comfort zone possession after possession.
McPhee led the charge this week, with two sacks and another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
For three seasons, the fifth-round pick from Mississippi State tantalized the Ravens with his potential but frustrated them with his inconsistency.
This year, he has emerged as a steady force, every bit as important as Terrell Suggs or Elvis Dumervil. He has done it just in time to hit the free-agent market in the offseason.
Name me a team that wouldn't want a top-notch pass rusher with the size and speed to line up anywhere from outside linebacker to defensive tackle.
This could be yet another case of the Ravens identifying and developing an underappreciated talent, then losing him to an aggressive market. Arthur Jones was that guy last season.
For now, they'll simply enjoy the impact McPhee made on a day when Timmy Jernigan became the latest defensive standout felled by injury.
5. For a second straight season, the Ravens aren't peaking at the right time.
In John Harbaugh's first five seasons as Ravens coach, his teams were always better at the end of the year than at the beginning. The 2012 team memorably found its offensive identity in the playoffs and went all the way. But that late charge to the Super Bowl was hardly an anomaly.
Last year, the magic evaporated as the Ravens crashed out of the playoff race with double-digit losses in their final two games. Those defeats at least came against tough opponents -- the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals on the road.
This year has been worse in many ways.
In Week 15, the Ravens barely eked out a win over the crummy Jacksonville Jaguars -- at home. In Week 16, they delivered their most desultory offensive performance of the season, losing helplessly at Houston. In Week 17, they again started without energy or purpose against a Browns team that had spent weeks falling apart, both on and off the field.
It all added up to an ugly stretch for a team that looked like a possible Super Bowl contender early in the season. The Ravens' 3-1 record over the last month simply doesn't reflect their level of play.
Because they ultimately slipped into the last playoff spot, Harbaugh won't face widespread calls for his dismissal. And he shouldn't, given that he has never coached a losing team in seven seasons.
But he was perilously close to a second uncomfortable ending in two years. Owner Steve Bisciotti extended Harbaugh's contract as a sign of faith after last season. That doesn't mean Bisciotti would remain patient if the Ravens fall out of contention for multiple seasons.
The big question: Would the season have played out the same way if the team wasn't so decimated by injury?
Think back to early September and imagine the prospect of the Ravens playing Week 17 without Jimmy Smith, Haloti Ngata, Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, Rick Wagner and Chris Canty.
Would that have sounded like a winning scenario? Could you blame a coach for encountering some rocky weeks with such a beleaguered team?
It's an eternal question in the NFL, where injuries play an outsized role in determining each team's fate. For my two cents, I believe the 2014 Ravens would have won the AFC North if they'd been a little luckier with health.