Ravens coach John Harbaugh defends his opinion that Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in the NFL. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Say this for the Ravens with John Harbaugh coaching and Joe Flacco throwing the passes: they have upended the usual math of the NFL playoffs.
The league's best teams toil all year, trying to ensure they'll play at home in January. They do so knowing home teams have won 67 percent of all playoff games in the Super Bowl era.
But in a seven-year run the likes of which the NFL has never seen, the Ravens have not only played 11 road playoff games, more than any other team. They've won seven — or 64 percent.
They've done it in some of the league's most unwelcoming venues — Denver's Mile High Stadium, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field and Gillette Stadium, where they'll try to upset the top-seeded New England Patriots once again Saturday afternoon.
In just 19 seasons as a franchise, the Ravens have amassed as many road playoff wins as any team in league history. They are the NFL's ultimate road warriors.
It's an unusual distinction. You won't find a Raven who'd rather play Saturday's game in Foxborough, Mass., than Baltimore. As several players noted this week, the Ravens have faced all these road games in part because of unwanted letdowns in the regular season.
Nonetheless, the Ravens' ability to play their best under the most challenging circumstances has won them widespread admiration.
"Most of the time, they've walked in as the underdog," said CBS analyst and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "And John has played that card as well as anybody. … They're a scary team to face right now."
In searching for explanations, start with the simplest — the Ravens carry as many proven stars as any team they might visit. Nothing mystical about that.
Said Flacco: "We've obviously had a lot of chances at it, a lot of experience with it, and reacted well in it just because — just like I always go back to — we've had a good football team around here, and guys that are strong and not intimidated and very confident in nature. I think it just plays well."
He's a big part of it, having performed as well in the playoffs as any quarterback in the NFL. In addition, defensive centerpieces Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata have started 16 and 15 playoff games, respectively. Marshal Yanda, the anchor of the offensive line, has started 11. All receive universal praise from opponents, including the Patriots.
With such talent on hand, the Ravens feel that if they play a sound game, they'll win anywhere.
"Been there done that, man," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We've done it a lot. We're going into the game with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback and guys like [Elvis] Dumervil and Suggs, Haloti Ngata — guys who've been in the playoffs before, who've been in these tough environments. It's nothing new. We have to just come in and play Raven ball."
From a strategic view, the Ravens present difficulties because they open important games with aggressive play and because they can win in many different ways — from Flacco's arm to the fierce pass rushes of Suggs and Dumervil.
That was all the explanation Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered when asked why the Ravens have performed well in Foxborough, where they won playoff games in 2010 and 2013.
"I think the Ravens are one of the most complete, well-rounded teams in the league," Belichick said.
But is there more to it than that? Some ineffable quality that allows the Ravens to keep winning in settings where other teams don't?
Don't ask Suggs, who rarely looks happier than when an opposing crowd's animus is centered on him. "I'm not going to tell you all why we've been so good at it," he said, drawing laughs from reporters.
If you ask Harbaugh, he'll tell you this week was a lot like any other.
"We've been on the road enough, so it's not like we have to talk to our guys about traveling or how we go about doing that," he said. "Our guys are very businesslike home or away. We keep the same routine home and away. Our guys will be focused. They'll be ready. It's a business trip."
And maybe that's it. Maybe the Ravens simply excel at not treating these weeks like anything extraordinary.
Flacco said when he's standing on an enemy field at playoff time, he's not thinking or feeling anything different than he does before a midseason game at M&T Bank Stadium.
But he allowed that he might thrive on the urgency of do-or-die games.
"You don't have any choice but to be totally locked in on this one game," he explained. "And not that you aren't always that way, but there's nothing really to look forward to. You don't know what's going to happen after this. So, it's definitely an interesting type of mindset that you take as a team, and it's a lot of fun."
Cowher recalled how bonded his Steelers felt at the end of the 2005 season, when they won three straight road playoff games on the way to the coach's lone Super Bowl victory.
"It kind of galvanizes your team," he said. "When you're together like that, traveling every week. You're all living in the now. It's you against everybody."
Cowher got to pick which uniform his team would wear in the Super Bowl. He chose the visiting whites because road success had become the Steelers' identity.
Experience alone does not explain the Ravens' success. Flacco, Suggs, Yanda and Ngata are the anomalies. Before last Saturday's win in Pittsburgh, 27 of the 53 players on the Ravens' roster had never played in a postseason game.
And yet the newbies sound a lot like the vets, when discussing the art of winning on the road.
"It was the biggest game of my life to date," said rookie right guard John Urschel, who made just the fourth start of his career in Pittsburgh. "But at the end of the day, it's just football."
It was a matter-of-fact response that might have drawn an approving nod from Urschel's no-nonsense mentor, Yanda. Of course, it's easier for the rookies to calm their nerves when they're taking the field beside players for whom this is all routine.
"Let me tell you, I feel a whole lot better having Marshal Yanda lined up next to me," Urschel said.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk also credited the team's veteran stars.
"I feel like we're just such a confident group that it really doesn't matter what environment we go into," the second-year pro said. "We really kind of draw that from Joe, Yanda, [Suggs], Haloti. They don't act any different. Right now, they're acting like we're home, and it's just another day. When you see them acting that way, you just kind of take on the same mentality."
During the postseason, players are asked over and over about past battles and overarching storylines. But their craft requires them to push all that aside and dwell on the patterns of the game, the subtleties of each man's task in hundreds of potential scenarios. That's the discipline younger players see from their Raven elders, no matter the opponent.
"During the week it doesn't feel any different," Juszczyk said. "It doesn't feel like we're only one of eight teams left. It feels like just another work day. … You don't spend much time on the name of the guy you're blocking. Everyone's a number and you just worry about doing your job."
Which is not to say the inexperienced never take a moment to appreciate the stage. As the national anthem played in Pittsburgh, Juszczyk turned to the guy next to him — he couldn't remember whom — and whispered, "This is sweet. It's electric!"
Other players noticed the "O" belted out by Ravens fans who'd made the trip, a reminder of the Baltimore contingent that supports them no matter how far they go.
"You couldn't get a better atmosphere," Juszczyk said a few days later. "It was thumping. It kind of pumps you up. Being the bad guy pumps you up.'"