Before they exited M&T Bank Stadium late Sunday afternoon, the Ravens celebrated getting both a new life and a clean slate.
Their 20-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns, along with the San Diego Chargers' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, sent them to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons and — the way the Ravens see it — puts them on equal footing with the rest of the postseason field.
A slumping offense? Seasonlong troubles in the secondary? An injury list that grows by the day?
To them, that's all in the past. The only thing that matters to the Ravens (10-6) is that they'll get another opportunity to overcome those things Saturday night, when they face the third-seeded and AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at Heinz Field in the AFC wild-card round.
"You put a stop to the season now in a sense of, 'OK, our record is what it was. It was good enough to get us in the playoffs, which is the most important thing,' " Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "It's a great accomplishment, but it's all equal now. It's a new season. It's a tournament, and we're all equal now."
One by one, Ravens players stood up in front of their lockers after Sunday's game and echoed similar sentiments. Sure, they needed help from the Chiefs to get in the playoffs. Sure, they needed to score 17 fourth-quarter points to beat a Browns' team that was without several key players and starting an undrafted free-agent rookie quarterback.
And a few players didn't even challenge the notion that over the past three games — which included two closer-than-expected victories over the Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a lopsided loss to the Houston Texans — the Ravens came nowhere close to resembling a team that looks like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
But to them, that hardly mattered now.
"I think every time you play a game, you look at what you did and try to improve on it," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two touchdown passes in a four-minute span of the fourth quarter to help the Ravens beat the Browns. "Having said that, we're in the playoffs. There's a reason that you put six teams from the AFC in the playoffs and six teams in the NFC.
"Over the course of a 16-game season, that's how you decide who has a chance to go win the Super Bowl. It's been done plenty of times. We're 10-6, we had a good year, and now everybody is 0-0, and we just got to go get ready."
What Flacco didn't say — and frankly, he didn't need to — was that the Ravens followed a similar script during their Super Bowl season two years ago. They entered the playoffs having lost four of their last five games, and they fired their offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, during that stretch.
But in the playoffs everything seemed changed, especially on offense.
"Everybody is going to want to compare one season to another season, one team to another team. It's a similar situation to the last time we went to the playoffs," kicker Justin Tucker said. "We had to get a little bit of help to get into the tournament, but we're in it and anything can happen at this point.
"So, you look back at some other teams that have done exactly what we want to do, and we can draw inspiration from that. I think we have just the men for the job in this locker room and our coaches upstairs. It's exciting, but now the real fun begins."
There have been six wild-card teams that have gone on to win the Super Bowl, the latest being the 2010 Green Bay Packers. Like the current Ravens, the Packers were a sixth seed. Last year, both No. 6 seeds — the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints — went on the road and won their first-round matchups.
So, recent history indicates that what the Ravens will attempt to do is neither unprecedented nor especially unusual.
"We're in the playoffs, man," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "Sitting home last year was miserable. All you can really ask for is an opportunity, and that's what we have. It's all about what we do with it from here, and we stand as good a chance as anyone else, regardless what anyone thinks."
The Ravens, though, can't deny that there are some legitimate concerns as they head into the postseason. Since their 28-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 7, the Ravens haven't been sharp or looked especially inspired.
They have gone four straight games without their offense scoring any first-quarter points. They've gone three games without a rushing touchdown. Over their past three games, they're just 12 of 40 on third-down conversions.
"Slow starts, third downs, touchdowns in the red zone, those are all things offensively that when you play anybody — especially when you play Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh — those are things that you really need to do well at," Harbaugh said. "We need to do better at those things if we expect to come out of there with a victory."
The Ravens split two games with the Steelers this year, beating them, 26-6, at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 2, and losing, 43-23, at Heinz Field in Week 9.
In that second game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched the Ravens' defense for 340 passing yards and six touchdowns. That blowout was the low point of the year for a Ravens pass defense that ranks 24th in the NFL but has played better of late, albeit against young and unproven quarterbacks.
But as Harbaugh and other Ravens have pointed out, nothing that has happened in the past will matter come Saturday, not even the Steelers' three previous postseason victories in the rivalry.
"All you've got to do is win all your games now," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "So, if you ask me, I think we're a [heck] of a team on the road. Sometimes, that's the way you've got to go. But everything's 0-0, all things are new, and we've gotten to the second season."
Asked if the Ravens can win the Super Bowl, Suggs said: "We'll see. We better."
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