The first time the Ravens went to the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh, they opened in Miami, then traveled to Tennessee to upset the 13-3 Titans and finally on to Pittsburgh, where they fell in the AFC championship game.
A template was established.
Over Harbaugh’s first seven seasons, the Ravens went to the postseason six times and won 10 games, including Super Bowl XLVII. But they hosted just three playoff games.
They became proud road warriors — no one’s Super Bowl favorite, but also a team no one wanted to play come January.
Which is all a way of saying that this 2019 season has become something entirely different for a franchise accustomed to winning. As the Ravens prepare to host the Titans on Saturday night in the AFC divisional round, they’re the team with the best record, the one that has rested its starters for three weeks, the big dog everyone else is targeting.
From the moment the regular season ended, the Ravens were listed as a clear Super Bowl favorite in Las Vegas sports books, a position they still hold going into this weekend’s games. Some statistical analysts are even more bullish on their odds; the analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Ravens a 48% chance to win the Super Bowl, with no other team higher than 17%. Another analytics web site, FootballOutsiders.com, rated the Ravens the seventh best regular-season team of the past 35 years.
And don’t forget the individual plaudits. A record-tying 12 Ravens made the Pro Bowl. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is heavily favored to become the franchise’s first Most Valuable Player. Harbaugh’s a contender to win his first Coach of the Year award.
It’s all fairly startling considering that many national media members predicted the Ravens would miss the playoffs coming into the season.
“Best regular-season football team in the National Football League — we’ll take that right?” Harbaugh shouted in the locker room after the Ravens’ closing win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. “But we’re about to find out postseason football. We’re ready, right? But given that, at this point in time, right here today, who’s got it better than us?”
“Nobody!” the team shouted in unison.
Does this unfamiliar perch change anything for the players as they prepare for their second season?
“No, 100%, no,” said Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, one of seven holdovers from the 2012 Super Bowl team. “We do what we do every single day. We put the work in, put the time in to prepare. … Play winning football — that’s our mindset. Just stay focused, stay in the moment and don’t worry about the Super Bowl.”
Safety Earl Thomas III has spoken as boldly as anyone in the locker room about the team’s Super Bowl ambitions. He also has experience, from his days with the Seattle Seahawks, playing for heavily favored juggernauts.
“I think we don’t look at it that way,” he said when asked if he embraces being on the most targeted team. “I think that’s just the position that the outside, people that don’t really have any control of the game, have labeled us with. But we still have that underdog mentality, that chip on our shoulder.”
Thomas might look back to specific plays from the regular season to help sharpen his preparations. “But other than that, it’s a new season,” he said.
“I feel like you wear it as confidence going into what we're going into,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “The next time we lose will be the next time we lose. So, we don't want it to happen any time soon, and we have bigger goals for this year, and we have to finish it out. So, what we've done, we stand on it, but we can't rest on that.”
The Ravens are in the position every team fights to achieve for 17 weeks of the regular season. The last six Super Bowl winners benefited from first-round byes. In fact, the 2012 Ravens were the last team to play in the wild-card round and win it all.
Simple math says it’s good to be the favorite.
But given how many years the Ravens spent in the position the Titans currently occupy, they understand there are benefits to the other side.
“Sure, there is, absolutely,” Harbaugh said. “You just keep playing. You keep that edge. You are kind of going week to week. There’s not time to breathe or think about anything. I absolutely think that that can be a plus. It has been for us in the past.”
Homefield advantage has offered no guarantees for the Ravens. They were upset by the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round last year. And one of the bitterest defeats in franchise history came on Jan. 13, 2007, after they had completed their best-ever regular season (at least until 2019).
The Ravens stood 13-3 with the best defense in football and a battle-tested quarterback in Steve McNair. Fans smelled blood as the Indianapolis Colts came to town for the first playoff game between Baltimore’s current team and its former one.
The Ravens did not allow a touchdown that day and still lost to Peyton Manning and Co. They lost 11 games the next season, and coach Brian Billick lost his job. Life moves fast in professional sports.
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Jackson was 10 years old then, just finding himself as a quarterback on the recreational fields of South Florida. So it’s not as if that game is part of his world. But at 23, he’s wary of playing the favorite. He’d rather be doubted.
“No, I don’t,” he said when asked if he likes the Ravens being labeled the Super Bowl favorite. “Because at the beginning of the season … people were [saying], ‘The Ravens are going to finish 8-8, 7-9,’ stuff like that. They didn’t know what we had going on here. We believed in ourselves. And even when we started 2-2, they still didn’t have faith. Or when we beat the Dolphins, [they said], ‘It was just the Dolphins.’ We heard all types of stuff. So, we don’t really care about the bandwagoners right now. We know what we have going on, and we know what we’re trying to get.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM