The Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 29 last year gave up 30 points in the second half of a 40-25 loss at home to the Cleveland Browns that dropped their record to 2-2. As he gathered his players in the locker room, coach John Harbaugh was more disappointed than livid.
“John made a statement that rings in my head: ‘We’re not a good football team right now. We’re not,’” guard Marshal Yanda said this week.
It was a candid assessment of an underachieving squad that looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender.
Flash forward to last Sunday, when Baltimore completed the regular season with a 12-game winning streak by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-10. The Ravens rested seven starters, because they had already clinched the top seed in the American Football Conference playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
They had made a complete comeback.
Standing at a lectern following the Pittsburgh game, Harbaugh looked back at the turning point of the Ravens’ finest regular season with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
“We were 2-2 and the statement was made in the locker room that ‘we’ll find out what we’re made of,’” Harbaugh said. “And boy, did we ever find out — 12 wins later.”
The Ravens enter the post-season with a first-round bye. They are to open the playoffs next Saturday night at home against either the Buffalo Bills, the Houston Texans or the Tennessee Titans. Baltimore beat Buffalo 24-17 and Houston 41-7, and last year whipped Tennessee 21-0 on the road.
However, in the playoffs, the past is irrelevant.
“It only takes turning the ball over one or two times — a penalty here and a penalty here. All it takes is one loss and we’re done,” Yanda said. “That 14-2 stuff does not matter.”
Back on Sept. 29, it was difficult to imagine the Ravens coming into the playoffs as the favorites to win the NFL Super Bowl.
They had yielded a combined 73 points in two straight defeats. Against Cleveland, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked four times and threw two interceptions.
“We pretty much said that our season could go one of two ways: We can change it and have success, or we can fold and fail,” running back Mark Ingram said.
The change came in the form of a renewed commitment to winning and several shrewd moves by first-year general manager Eric DeCosta, who realized that help was needed for a defense that yielded 530 yards to the Browns.
Linebackers L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes were signed within days of that ugly defeat, and on Oct. 15 last year, DeCosta sent linebacker Kenny Young and a draft pick to the Rams for star cornerback Marcus Peters.
Those three, along with the subsequent addition of free agent linemen Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, helped the Ravens finish with the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL.
“There’s a lot of different things that went into that, but obviously, changing the personnel helped us,” defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.
The offense jelled, too.
Jackson ended up rushing for 1,206 yards — most by a quarterback in NFL history — and Ingram tacked on 1,018 yards in his first season in Baltimore.
Backup running back Gus Williams rushed for 711 yards and the Ravens finished with more yards rushing (3,296 yards) than any other team in NFL history.
In addition, Jackson capped what could be a Most Valuable Player season by throwing for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
So now, after going unbeaten over three straight months, the Ravens enter the post-season with the best record in the NFL.
“We’re very happy, very pleased, very proud, very grateful for where we sit and the season that we’ve had,” Harbaugh said. “It’s something that will live forever. That’s an accomplishment.”
It is a feat that comes with a first-round bye, a reward that is not taken for granted.
“Obviously, rest is critical,” the 35-year-old Yanda said. “We’ve played a lot of physical ballgames this year and I’m an old man, so I’m not going to shy away from rest. I’ll take it. When we play our next football game, I’ll have some juice. So I’m excited.”
For all they have done, the Ravens would consider this season a bitter disappointment if they did not end up playing in the Super Bowl next month.
“I’m not even going to put that in my head,” Jackson said. “We’re having such a great year, that’s where we have to get to. We’re trying to get to that Super Bowl, so I’m not going to put anything else in my mind about not going there.”
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