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Schmuck: Though 2018 has been a wild ride for the Ravens, all will be well if it ends well against the Browns

It’s almost hard to believe that the Ravens are sitting atop the AFC North standings and are one win away from hosting their first playoff game at M&T Stadium since they began their march to the Super Bowl title six years ago.

Maybe that’s because the past 12 months have featured so many twists and turns that it’s still fair to wonder what might happen next.

This year started the day after one of the most devastating losses in franchise history. It was last New Year’s Eve when the Cincinnati Bengals scored on a freak, fourth-and-12 play to knock the Ravens out of the postseason and throw the organization into a period of uncertainty that only now seems to be on the verge of a happy end.

There’s still a tough game left to win Sunday, when the Ravens host the resurgent Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale, but the future of the team seems bright. The quarterback of that future has arrived early and injected new life into a fan base that couldn’t hide its disenchantment with the organization at this time last year.

Ravens fans can count some pretty big blessings as the New Year approaches. They know their team is on the upswing, coach John Harbaugh will be back for at least 2019 and Lamar Jackson cannot become a free agent until after the 2022 season. For a little perspective, consider that Oakland Raiders fans don’t even know where their team will play next year and know for certain that it won’t be in the East Bay in 2020.

So, how exactly did we get to this watershed moment in the Ravens’ recent history?

Well, that 49-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left in the 2017 regular season certainly set the Ravens on a different course than anyone around here could have expected.

If the Ravens had made the playoffs last year, who knows how far they would have gone and whether it would have been far enough to change the course that owner Steve Bisciotti mapped out when he announced Feb. 2 that longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome would be stepping aside at the end of this season in favor of longtime assistant GM Eric DeCosta.

That was probably in the works regardless because of the promises that were made to DeCosta six years ago to keep him in Baltimore after his name was linked to several GM openings. But the announcement seemed to place an extra layer of importance on Newsome’s final draft, during which he chose tight end Hayden Hurst with the Ravens’ first pick, then provided some midnight magic by trading back into the first round to select Jackson with the 32nd and final pick of the first round.

Of course, no one could have foreseen just how important that pick would be. Jackson was considered too rough around the edges to be a serious candidate to replace Joe Flacco in his first year in the NFL, and Flacco showed early in the season that he wasn’t ready to ride off into the sunset.

The Ravens opened the 2018 regular season with a resounding 47-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills in which Flacco threw for three touchdowns. Flacco would lead the team to victories in three of the first four games, including a 26-14 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh that seemed to signal that the Ravens were on their way to the playoffs.

That signal got crossed in a hurry when they hit a big speed bump the following week in Cleveland and went on to lose four of their next five games to reach their Week 10 bye with a 4-5 record and an injured starting quarterback.

Flacco injured his hip early in the Week 9 loss to the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium and – though no one would know it for a couple of weeks – a young star was born.

Jackson made his first regular-season start against the Bengals in Week 11 and quickly changed the way the Ravens played offensive football. He threw for 150 yards and rushed 26 times for 119 yards – the most carries in a game by an NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

There’s no need to recap what has happened since then, except to say that Harbaugh really had little choice but to keep Jackson as the starter when Flacco was cleared to play two weeks ago. The results speak for themselves.

There was only one other big decision to make as the Ravens prepared for last Saturday’s huge victory over the San Diego Chargers, and it was made the day before by Bisciotti, who decided to commit to Harbaugh for next season and begin discussions with him on a long-term extension.

The timing might have been curious, but the owner obviously likes the new direction the team has taken, and why not?

There’s just the not-so-small matter of taking care of the Browns and just about everyone associated with the Ravens will be able to look back very fondly on the 2018 season.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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