When he spoke to his teammates after practice late last week, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith acknowledged that the 2014 Ravens were still a question mark.
They were in the thick of the playoff race and everything they talked about achieving months earlier was still in play. But the Ravens, Smith told teammates, had still not proven who they are and they were running out of chances to change that.
A 28-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium doesn't validate the Ravens as a postseason-worthy team, nor did it even put them in playoff position heading into Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But it did reaffirm what is the defining characteristic of this Ravens' team — its ability to handle adversity and block out distractions while continuing to play solid football.
That skill was on display against the Dolphins when the Ravens (8-5) overcame an early 10-0 deficit by out-scoring Miami, 28-3, over the final 30 minutes, two seconds of the game. The victory, which helped the Ravens move up to the seventh seed in the AFC, salvaged a tumultuous week for the Ravens. They had to move on from a difficult home loss to the San Diego Chargers and deal with injuries to several key players and a four-game suspension to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
"They're a resilient bunch," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "They are mentally tough. They don't get caught up in the noise. They don't get distracted. We say, 'Turn to the left or to the right. Eyes straight ahead.' We have a bunch of very mature men and some young guys who are heading in the right direction because of the guys around them showing them the way."
After learning last week of Ngata's four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said there's seemingly "always something" that threatens to divert the Ravens' focus from the upcoming game.
That started on Sept. 8, three days before their Week Two game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, when Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely after video of his assault of his then-fiancee, Janay, surfaced. Each week seemingly brings a new development in the Rice situation and new questions for Ravens' players, coaches and executives to answer.
They have dealt with numerous injuries as the Ravens currently have 10 players on injured reserve, including starting tight end Dennis Pitta and top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Cornerback Danny Gorrer, who tore ligaments in his knee against the Dolphins, will become the 11th in the coming days and there are questions about the status of Torrey Smith's right knee going forward
Ngata's suspension for the rest of the regular season — he says that he tested positive for Adderall — only added to the list of key personnel losses and potential distractions. But without Ngata, the Ravens played arguably their best half of the season in putting away the Dolphins. And following Rice's release in September, they played arguably their most complete game against a quality opponent in beating the Steelers, 26-6.
It certainly appears to be a trend — the more distractions circling around them, the better the Ravens have played.
"That's just who we are," said Torrey Smith, who didn't have a catch and played just 15 snaps against the Dolphins because of his knee. "It starts at the top. We understand that things happen. That's just life, it's just not our team. Things happen and it's all about how you deal with that. We've done a great job of it all year and the years prior to that."
Like many other teams, the Ravens constantly talk about having a 'Next man up' philosophy, where the organization don't dwell on any outside issues or players going down or leaving. They just prepare somebody else to step in and move things forward. Steve Smith cited Justin Forsett replacing Rice as a prime example.
"What's going on now is the other guys are stepping up," Smith said. "We truly have guys that they work their butt off to get in the position that they're in and now they have the opportunity, and they are seizing the moment. It's pretty cool to watch those guys take their opportunity and just run full speed. That's what it's all about."
When the team's handling of the Rice situation was being debated daily earlier this season, Harbaugh asked his players if they had any questions about it. When they didn't, the Ravens moved on. Last week, Harbaugh told the team during a team meeting about Ngata's suspension and read a statement by the five-time Pro Bowl selection. But when that was over, the focus returned to preparing for the Dolphins.
"We always communicate with the team. There's always conversations going on through the team in this very room or in one-on-one and group settings throughout the course of the day," Harbaugh said. "We've got the right guys to deal with stuff like that. All of our focus is on Jacksonville, on our next game, our next challenge and being the best football team we can be, and we've had our share of disappointment."
Harbaugh said getting the Ravens ready for a struggling Jaguars team that is 2-11 overall and 0-6 on the road, won't be a problem. He called the Jaguars a "very young, highly-motivated football team that plays extremely hard and has a lot of young talent."
The Ravens know that they can't afford to slip now. A win over the Jaguars, coupled by a Chargers' loss to the Broncos, would put the Ravens at least in the second of two wild-card spots with games against the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns remaining. And the Cincinnati Bengals, who still have remaining road games against the Browns and Steelers, are just a half game ahead of the Steelers and Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
"We're pleased with the fact that we're in the hunt, we control our own destiny," Harbaugh said. "You can ask for more, but it's a great accomplishment to be in that position we are now. It's just our job to make the most of it. Our guys are really tuned into the fact that it's in their hands, and it's our responsibility to get the job done."