What would become the mantra for the 2017 Ravens was born just over a year ago when players trudged off the field in Pittsburgh after blowing two fourth-quarter leads and losing to the Steelers on Antonio Brown’s last-minute touchdown. Their playoff hopes dashed, the Ravens embarked on an offseason of regret.
The late-game and late-season failure drove veterans such as Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs to prepare harder than they’ve ever prepared for a season. When the Ravens reconvened over the summer, it motivated players through workouts and formed the rallying cry for the long and important year ahead.
It was uttered in team meetings and team huddles. It was written on whiteboards and in correspondence between players and coaches. For the Ravens, the motto for the 2017 season was “finish everything.”
“At the end of the day, we’ve been talking about it since the beginning of the season and even last year,” Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “It all started with how last year ended. We’re right back in the same scenario again. This epitomizes what finishing everything is about.”
The defining game of the NFL season won’t take place for another six weeks, and the established preseason goal of the Ravens — and 31 other teams — was to be playing in it. To harbor realistic Super Bowl aspirations, to be one of 12 teams who earn the right to play into January, the Ravens need to finish what started after a Week 10 bye when the playoffs seemed like a pipedream.
The Ravens have won five of their past six games, and if the 9-6 team can defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, they’ll secure a wild-card berth as the fifth seed and make the postseason for the seventh time in John Harbaugh’s 10 seasons as coach. A victory would guarantee the Ravens a wild-card matchup next weekend against the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“This is the definition of finishing right here,” Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams said, calling Sunday an “end-all, be-all game.”
“You have one game left, and if you win, you go to playoffs,” Williams said. “If you don’t, you’re sitting at home. There’s no excuse – you have to finish. You have to literally leave it all out there on the field because this could be your last game.”
The Ravens could also clinch a postseason spot Sunday if the Buffalo Bills lose to the Miami Dolphins or if the Tennessee Titans are beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Backing into the playoffs on the strength of other team’s losses, though, doesn’t fit into the narrative that the team has been writing for months.
After having their postseason shot taken from them last Christmas Day at Heinz Field and after losing five of their first nine games this year, the Ravens have been craving an opportunity to punch their own playoff ticket. The weight of the responsibility has been shouldered by everyone in the organization.
“You’re only as good as your last game, and for us, our last season. We didn’t end the way we wanted to. That’s been the driving force all offseason, OTAs, training camp. Every week, every meeting, it’s about finishing,” Weddle said. “What perfect time and opportunity to exemplify what we’ve been preaching over the last year and have that moment. It’s going to take everyone: everyone on the field, the coaches, our stadium, everything to accomplish this goal and continue our momentum into the playoffs.”
Weddle, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, and tight end Benjamin Watson, who is in his 13th NFL season, last made the playoffs in the 2013 season as members of the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints, respectively. For some of the longest-tenured Ravens, qualifying for the postseason once felt like a formality. Harbaugh, Suggs, quarterback Joe Flacco and punter Sam Koch were the constants on a team that qualified for the postseason and won a playoff game every season from 2008 to 2012.
That stretch culminated with a victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. But since the 2012 season, the Ravens have been left out of the postseason in three of four seasons, with the exception being 2014.
“There are a handful of teams in this league that have been going to the playoffs year in and year out. For those first few years, we were one of them,” Flacco said. “It is definitely a big accomplishment in a league like this where there are so many teams that pop up every year and can play good football. The last two years, I do not know if it gives you any appreciation to be honest. It just kind of is not great when you are going through it. We all want to be at this point. We all play this game so we can be in the playoffs and have a chance to go win it all.
“I think we are really excited. It is an awesome opportunity. We were not in this position last year, and it has been a few years since we have had this opportunity. We are definitely very excited about it.”
There have been lingering doubts that it would happen for the Ravens this year. Flacco showed up to training camp with a bad back, an injury that sidelined him for the preseason and continued a string of unrelenting injuries and bad luck. Last year’s leading receiving and tackler, tight end Dennis Pitta and weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr, were forced into retirement by injuries. Second-year running back Kenneth Dixon and cornerback Tavon Young were lost to season-ending injuries before training camp even started.
Tight end Darren Waller was hit with a season-long suspension and projected starting center John Urschel retired on the eve of the team’s first full-squad training camp practice. By Week 4, the Ravens’ injured reserve list included starting guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis, starting defensive end Brent Urban, running back Danny Woodhead, wide receiver Tim White, tight end Crockett Gillmore, linebacker and special teams ace Albert McClellan and cornerback Maurice Canady. Woodhead and Canady returned to the active roster for the second half of the season.
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Injuries were compounded by complete ineffectiveness for the offense, which languished at or near the bottom in most categories for the first half of the year. Through nine games, Flacco had eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
A 23-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 5 was the Ravens’ fifth defeat in seven games and it left them 4-5. It also inspired a bye week full of soul searching. At the time, the Ravens understood that they’d likely need to win six of their final seven regular-season games to finish with 10 victories and have a good chance to make the playoffs. They’re one win away from doing just that.
“After the Tennessee loss, we had to reevaluate, go back to the drawing board, and really put everything into perspective, and focus on everything we needed to get done,” Williams said. “We took it upon ourselves, looked each other in the eye, and promised each other that we have to play better. I feel we got that done.”
The Ravens offense has been revived in recent weeks, as only the division-winning Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams are averaging more points per game since Week 8 than the Ravens’ 29.8. Over the past six weeks, the Ravens have turned the ball over just twice and Flacco has thrown eight touchdown passes and two interceptions during that span. The defense continues to lead the league in interceptions and forced turnovers.
The combination of an improving offense, an opportunistic defense and a strong special teams group, along with the organization’s playoff pedigree, has convinced some that the Ravens are a legitimate threat to the AFC’s top teams if they get into the postseason.
However, the Ravens still have one more step to take Sunday before they can consider such possibilities, and it’s one that has been over a year in the making.
“This will be the ultimate deciding factor, if we truly can finish,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “It’s just one of those things, man. We’ll find out this week if we can finish or not, but we’re ready for the task.”