"This is the best team I've ever been associated with in thirty-four years in coaching," said Ravens John Harbaugh. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Regardless of whether you love or hate Ravens coach John Harbaugh, it’s hard to ignore the job he has done this season.
The Ravens made their fans sweat again early Sunday night, taking them down to almost the last play of the game before middle linebacker C.J. Mosley intercepted a pass with 62 seconds left to secure a 26-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
With the win, the Ravens claimed their first AFC North title in six years and Harbaugh had his team back in the postseason for the first time in four seasons.
And really, that’s all that counts now.
Earlier in the season, there had been speculation that Harbaugh, who is in 11th season in Baltimore, might be fired if his team didn’t reach the playoffs in 2018 or if his team didn’t go far in the postseason.
The team announced Dec. 21 that Harbaugh will remain the coach next season and that both sides are working on an extension to his contract, which is set to expire after 2019, but there remain rumors about the Ravens possibly working a trade for him after his team is done in the playoffs.
This is what we do know: Harbaugh did a good job of getting his team back into the postseason and deserves a lot of credit.
The Ravens made it suspenseful. They nearly blew a 13-point lead. They brought back bad memories of the previous two seasons, when they lost late-season games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals that knocked them out of the playoff chase.
But that’s forgotten for now. Those losses can never be erased, but this is a season that won’t be forgotten either.
At one point the Ravens had lost three straight and four of their past five. In the last loss of that slump, a 23-16 setback to Pittsburgh, the Ravens lost starting quarterback Joe Flacco for several weeks with a hip injury and began looking at rookie running back Gus Edwards as a replacement for Alex Collins.
At that point the Ravens were 4-5 and seemingly headed nowhere, especially with rookie Lamar Jackson replacing Flacco.
But since then the Ravens have won six of seven games. They have revamped their offense, turning a pass-happy attack into one that features a dominant running game led by Jackson and Edwards.
The Ravens also have worked several other rookies into prominent roles, with Orlando Brown Jr. starting at right offensive tackle and Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst at tight end.
You have to give some credit to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and tight ends coach Greg Roman, But it’s Harbaugh who is the head coach. He signs off on everything.
“Well, this is the best team,” Harbaugh said, comparing all the teams with which he’s been affiliated. “It’s the best bunch of guys who understand what it means to have each other’s back, to fight through adversity, and never be divided by anything. They block out all the outside stuff, turn to each other for strength and be there for one another. If you want to write a book about this season, probably no one would believe it.”
Another move Harbaugh made last offseason was to name Don “Wink” Martindale defensive coordinator. Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator and Indianapolis head coach, was Harbaugh’s top choice, but no matter.
The result is that the Ravens had the top-ranked defense for most of the season.
There are times throughout his tenure in Baltimore when I have struggled with Harbaugh’s clock management and his penchant for risk-taking. He can be surly after losses and certainly isn’t the most-liked person over at The Castle.
But there are positive characteristics about Harbaugh-coached teams. They usually have good team chemistry and always play hard no matter the score.
They are usually tough and physical because Harbaugh prefers to have a strong running game and play aggressive defense. His teams absorb his personality because Harbaugh is a tough, feisty guy.
Harbaugh is cocky but not arrogant, and he is a winner.
No one knows how far the Ravens will go in the playoffs. The defense seemed to be peaking, then gave up 426 yards of total offense to the Browns on Sunday as rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 376. Jackson is an explosive runner, but he needs to make major improvement to be a top passer in the NFL.
I suspect the Ravens will see a different Chargers team in the first round of the playoffs compared with the one they beat last weekend in Los Angeles.
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But the Ravens are in the playoffs, and at one point few expected them to make it. A week ago the club put out a statement saying Harbaugh would be the team’s coach in 2019 and the two sides were negotiating.
That’s wasn’t exactly big news because Harbaugh was already under contract for next season. It would have been news if the team announced the terms of an extension.
Instead, there was more speculation about Harbaugh’s future. If he returns, there are questions about his reportedly strained relationship with soon-to-be general manager Eric DeCosta.
Also, will team owner Steve Bisciotti be willing to give Harbaugh a two- to three-year extension or would Harbaugh want to move on elsewhere where he could command a five- or six-year deal worth about $50 million?
It’s all up in the air. But on Sunday Harbaugh achieved what everyone knew he had to do. He got his team to the playoffs.