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New Year’s resurrection: After a wild, often dispiriting 2020, the Ravens are one win away from where they want to be

With five weeks to go in this most disjointed of NFL seasons, the Ravens seemed close to drowning.

They’d entered the year with such stratospheric hopes and so much had gone wrong — a 6-5 record that left them staring up at the AFC playoff bracket, cringe-inducing injuries to cornerstone players, mounting criticism of franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson and a COVID-19 outbreak that left them bewildered about their basic safety.

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The pandemic has left everyone fuzzy about time, and to the Ravens, their most vulnerable point now feels like it happened “a year ago,” by defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s reckoning.

They did not drown. They have not lost since the week after Thanksgiving. Their previously maligned offense has averaged 37 points and 233 rushing yards over a four-game winning streak. A forgiving schedule helped, but the Ravens enter a new calendar year brimming with confidence and knowing that if they beat the 4-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, they will be back in the playoffs.

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They might not be quite the world beater many NFL analysts predicted before the season, but they’re at least within shouting distance.

“I expected the Ravens, before the season, to be one of the top teams in the NFL,” said CBS analyst and former NFL safety Adam Archuleta, who will provide color commentary on the Bengals game. “And I think right now, they’re one of the top teams in the NFL. So however they got there, they’re there. They’re a team you’ve got to worry about.”

How did the Ravens pull off this resurrection?

To hear them tell it, they never countenanced doubts about their fundamental quality. The old saws about focusing only on the next game actually worked.

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“Just not let the losses and the record define who we are,” veteran linebacker Pernell McPhee said when asked to describe his mind set going into the finishing stretch. “We’re all Ravens. We know how to play. We know we’re better than what the record says. I think we did a great job of taking it one game at a time, focusing on us, focusing on our weaknesses and our strengths. And we came down to the last few games on fire.”

McPhee lived through 2012, when the Raven survived a turbulent December on the way to an improbable Super Bowl run. So did coach John Harbaugh.

In talking to his players over the last month, Harbaugh did not gloss over the difficult path they faced.

“The message goes with the events and the circumstances,” he said. “It just tries to parallel the reality of the situation. We’re pragmatic about everything. We understood the situation we were in, what we had been through the last few weeks before that. We were trying to climb our way out of that situation. So, the guys did a good job of that. They understood how challenging it was. They tried to keep the focus on the football and keep it simple and play as well as we could.”

Players appreciated his practicality.

“I feel that coach did a great job during that time,” safety Chuck Clark said. “We were all at home on Zoom waiting for the next thing. What would be next? What’s the message? Where are we going from here? And I think coach did a good job of keeping us all grounded, knowing that we would all eventually overcome the situations that we had, and be able to get back out there and go win football games to be able to put ourselves in position.”

Even if the Ravens handle the Bengals — they are double-digit favorites — they’ll have to hit the road for the playoffs. Perhaps this scrappier position will suit them after they bowed out quickly as the No. 1 seed just 12 months ago.

If the 2019 season was a joy ride that ended in a ditch, the follow-up has felt more like a white-knuckle climb up an icy mountain road — destination to be determined.

The tumult began before the first snap, when the Ravens released seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III in the wake of a practice scuffle with Clark. Then came a 34-20 thrashing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs that put to bed any notion of the Ravens’ run to AFC supremacy.

Nonetheless, the Ravens won five of their first six games and seemed on track for a playoff berth most analysts took for granted going into the season.

The first signs of real trouble arrived in Week 8, when the Ravens blew a 17-7 halftime lead to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and watched helplessly as left tackle Ronnie Stanley left the field on a cart. Jackson’s chief protector pounded the field in agony, knowing his season had ended the moment his ankle folded underneath him.

Two weeks later, tight end Nick Boyle took a shot to his leg so grisly that several New England Patriots signaled frantically for medical assistance the moment he hit the grass. Another dispiriting loss, another season-ending diagnosis for a key player.

The week after that, the Ravens blew another double-digit lead at home, this time to the same Tennessee Titans who unceremoniously dumped them from the playoffs last January.

Then, true chaos hit.

It began the day after the Titans game, when running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram II tested positive for COVID-19 and the Ravens temporarily closed their practice facility. That pair of positives rapidly mushroomed into one of the worst outbreaks in American sports. The virus sidelined more than 20 players. The Ravens punished strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders for failing to obey protocols, sources said, and they ultimately paid a $250,000 fine to the NFL. Their Thanksgiving rematch with the Steelers was postponed three times before finally going forward on a Wednesday afternoon. Some Ravens felt powerful enough misgivings that they questioned the wisdom of playing at all.

Their 19-14 loss in Pittsburgh, with Robert Griffin III filling in for Jackson at quarterback, served as both a nadir and a rallying point.

At 6-5 with teams piling up ahead of them in the AFC standings, the Ravens knew they needed to start winning right away. But they took heart from their effort against the undefeated (at the time) Steelers, whom they pushed to the end, even with nine starters on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

“I don’t think we had any doubts — none of the guys in the locker room think like that,” said Dobbins, who’s scored in each of the last four games. “I think we knew what we had to do. We knew it was crunchtime. We couldn’t slack off, we couldn’t mentally be unfocused, we couldn’t do any of that. We knew it was time to lock in, and just go on a run.”

Jackson returned six days later against the Dallas Cowboys, feeling like he’d been gone for a year and playing with a visible joy he had not always displayed early in the season. The team’s spirits rose with him, especially after Jackson emerged from a 40-minute spell in the training room to rally the Ravens in a wild 47-42 win in Cleveland.

Since that game-of-the-year candidate, the Ravens have taken care of business against two opponents they were favored to beat. They’re back to being the most productive running team in the league. Their injury ledger is not quite so crowded. After they received help from the Steelers and New York Jets last weekend, they face the simplest equation possible: win and advance.

“The Ravens are a beast,” Archuleta said. “Are they the best team in the NFL? I don’t know. But the Ravens, as I feel about a couple of teams out there, can beat anybody.”

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Jackson, who previously led the Ravens on a furious charge to the playoffs in 2018, could only marvel at the swings of the last four months.

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“We’ve been through so much adversity this year,” he said. “We hit humps and stuff like that, but our guys just find a way to pull through and keep fighting, especially for this playoff run.”

How will he look back on this stretch?

“I really don’t want to think about the year once it’s over with,” the 23-year-old quarterback said, drawing laughs. “There’s been a lot going on this year. I really don’t want to think about it when 2021 comes.”

Regular-season finale

RAVENS@BENGALS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 12

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