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Despite all the obstacles, Ravens claw their way into playoffs

How quickly they forgot the frustrated boos, the disbelieving silences, the genuine doubts that grew around their faltering team.

As M&T Bank Stadium rocked in the waning moments of the Ravens' 20-10 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, fans chose to dwell on one reality — their team was headed back to the playoffs. The Ravens will travel to Heinz Field to play in the AFC wild-card round Saturday night against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

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It was an ugly ride, one in which the Ravens trailed a short-handed opponent after three quarters and in which they needed a big hand from the Kansas City Chiefs, who vanquished the San Diego Chargers. But as fans streamed from the stands, trading bear hugs and belting off-key renditions of "Seven Nation Army," they swore they wouldn't have had it any other way.

"It's been a dog fight, but fighting is what we do," said Larry Skinner of Park Heights. "That's Baltimore man. That's how we do."

Players embraced this sentiment as well, noting that winning pretty has never been the Ravens' way, even during the team's 2012 Super Bowl run.

"We had to handle our business, and we did so, Ravens style," said beaming linebacker Terrell Suggs. "Now, everything starts over."

The Ravens better hope so, because in recent weeks, they have not looked like a team prepared to beat a strong opponent. Several players acknowledged their relief after Sunday's win. They'd spent the afternoon watching the scoreboard as the Chiefs built a lead on the Chargers, a team that stood ahead of the Ravens in the playoff order. Anxiety gnawed at star players as they struggled to do their part.

"We have a real opportunity here," receiver Torrey Smith said he remembered thinking. "And we're wasting it."

It was Smith's 53-yard catch in the fourth quarter that finally turned the tide as the Ravens rallied from a 10-3 deficit.

As the Ravens celebrated their playoff berth, they didn't know yet whom they'd play in the first round, though they knew the game would be on the road.

But fans in the sellout crowd of 71,070 were already dreaming big, remembering the improbable playoff surge two years ago.

"We are going to win the Super Bowl, mark my words," said Howard County resident Peter Turner. "I'm not going to lie. We limped into this. But it doesn't matter now."

The entire season felt like a fight against off-field gloom and on-field misfortune. Even coach John Harbaugh, rarely a fan of midseason reflection, said making the playoffs carried greater weight because of all his team had endured.

Before the Ravens won their first game, they'd faced countless questions about the fall of former teammate Ray Rice, released the day after the season opener when a video surfaced of him striking his fiancee in a casino elevator. The Rice saga put the Ravens at the center of a national storm, with members of their front office scrutinized as never before.

From there, they coped with more than a dozen significant injuries that weakened nearly every unit of the team. Just as the holiday season arrived, they received one last sour surprise in the form of Haloti Ngata's four-game suspension for using the stimulant Adderall (he'll return for the playoffs).

Despite the unending list of woes, the Ravens entered Sunday with a good chance to make the postseason. All they had to do was beat a Browns team plagued by off-field disarray and hope for the Chiefs to knock off the Chargers in Kansas City.

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Fans arrived hours before kickoff, decked out in their usual array of purple garb and war paint, speaking optimistically of the season continuing for at least another week.

Woody Conley's daughter, Danielle, surprised him with a pair of tickets on Christmas. They showed up Sunday in matching purple, black-and-white face paint, dad with a beak hat covering his head.

The Conleys live in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., so they generally follow the Ravens from afar. But they were in town visiting family for the holidays.

"This is the best father-daughter experience you could have," Danielle Conley said.

Woody Conley, who grew up in Glen Burnie, listened to his radio in horror as the Ravens stumbled to defeat in Houston last week. He put his team's playoff odds at 50-50 going into the Browns game.

"You never know who's going to show up with this team," he said before Danielle snapped a photo of him beside the Ray Lewis statue outside M&T Bank Stadium.

Few seemed to be talking Super Bowl before the game. Instead, fans said they were happy with a winning season and the possibility of another week or two of Ravens football.

"If we can get further, that's great," said Josh Starleper, a season-ticket holder from Canton. "You've still got to support your team."

One way or another, fans knew they wouldn't be back at the stadium for another home game until next summer — a mournful thought for those who build their autumn Sundays around the Ravens. As the sixth seed in the playoffs, the Ravens have no chance of hosting a game.

"It's always a fun season," Starleper said. "I can't complain. Football's football."

That matter-of-fact attitude was gone as a sellout crowd watched the Ravens bumble away drive after drive in the first three quarters. Players heard the fans' boos and accepted them as just punishment.

Torrey Smith said he too wondered when the team would finally break through. He couldn't explain the tepid start. "If I knew, I swear it wouldn't happen," he said.

In the end, though, Smith sounded a lot like fans who say the hard way is the Ravens way.

"The good thing is, we've been there a thousand times," he said. "So we don't panic."

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