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John Harbaugh steers Baltimore Ravens through adversity

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PITTSBURGH -- This week, the Baltimore Ravens gave their players T-shirts. "Faith and Guts," they said. And John Harbaugh said Saturday night he might have added "Fortitude," too. He gave them out to recognize a glaring and sometimes uncomfortable reality about the Ravens: They have traversed -- are still traversing -- a minefield of problems, both self-created and beyond their control. That the Ravens will be one of the final eight teams remaining this season -- after pounding their greatest rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-17 -- is, in large part, a testament to Harbaugh's ability to steer them through potential embarrassment.

"Going into Week 2 of the season, when everything happened off the field, that, honestly, was a huge point for us," said tight end Owen Daniels. "It could have snowballed in the wrong direction. He kept us focused. Harbs has done an excellent job of keeping us focused on what we can control. A lot of things that happened we can't control. If you start focusing on that, you end up losing games and the team might split up a little bit."

It has sometimes been difficult to like the Ravens this season, unless you are the most ardent of Ravens fans. Their handling of Ray Rice's domestic violence helped set off a firestorm from which the NFL still has not fully escaped. Then one of their star defenders, Haloti Ngata, was suspended for the final four games of the regular season for violating the league's ban on performance-enhancing drugs, while his team was struggling to qualify for the playoffs. Even this week, the team's director of security was revealed to have been charged with a fourth-degree sex offense and was placed on paid leave.

But after the Ravens went to Pittsburgh and skated over one of the only consistent potholes in their postseason paths -- they had previously lost to the Steelers the three times they had faced them in the playoffs -- it is impossible to ignore that the Ravens seem to be emerging from under a cloud that they never really allowed to engulf them. On Saturday night, they shed -- at least for now -- the yoke of the controversy that has surrounded them much of the season and looked again like a team capable of winning a Super Bowl, with five sacks and a nearly perfect quarterback and the kind of grit they displayed when they capped their surprising playoff run with a Lombardi Trophy.

Saturday night's performance likely would not have been possible if Harbaugh had not immediately managed the crisis he was presented with. Daniels said Harbaugh addressed the team immediately in Week 2, while the Rice case erupted and was in the news. The coach told the Ravens they could not control Rice's situation or the questions about how the team or league had handled it. He told them to only worry about themselves and each other. Daniels said Harbaugh effectively created a buffer for the players, insulating them from the cacophony around them.

Harbaugh twice volunteered that the Ravens were better for the adversity they had faced, saying they had had each others' backs throughout the season, seemingly inviting questions about exactly how the team was emerging through episodes it would surely prefer to forget. Baltimore, for example, won the three games in a row during the height of the Rice controversy and then won three of the four games that Ngata missed at the end of the season, to get into the playoffs. Almost nobody on the outside imagined the team could survive either issue this season.

"We played our best football game of the year right here," Harbaugh said. "I think it's because of what we've been through all year."

Harbaugh deflected credit for managing his team through its season-long drama, which one team official admitted before the game made this feel like one of the longest seasons he could remember.

"Our guys stand on a rock solid foundation of character," Harbaugh said. "We have a lot of good people. They love one another. They believe in one another. They are very determined that when things go the wrong way, it's an opportunity to step up and do the right thing."

That sentiment might still be difficult for some observers to square with the damage that Rice's situation has done. It will surely take longer for some people outside of Baltimore to view the Ravens as anything more than a vessel for a gross misstep. But the Ravens are demanding to be dealt with right now, because they will not conveniently go away. They have proven, over the years and now, to be very comfortable in the role of spoiler. They are surely not the opponent the top-seeded New England Patriots were hoping for, because the Ravens have beaten them twice in playoff games in Foxborough, and their pass rush will create a test for Tom Brady and his blockers that the Colts or the Bengals were unlikely to present.

The Ravens are potential disruptors again, a prickly challenge to the favorites because they have no fear of playing the Patriots on such a stage. The truth is that the Ravens have shown no fear all season, not as their integrity and values were questioned, not as opponents waited for those cracks to develop.

As Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was about to enter the locker room, he smiled broadly. There were certainly many days this season when there was nothing for the Ravens to smile about, and it may take a while longer for the franchise to entirely live down all that has happened. But like them or not, the Ravens are still alive in the playoffs and that is far more surviving than most predicted for them.

"Once we got past that, we just kept on moving," Daniels said. "Stay on the tracks. And we're here now."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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