Playoffs  

 

Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens keep pushing through adversity

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- John Harbaugh stopped on his walk to the Baltimore Ravens' bus, his suit on and an AFC Champions hat tugged tightly over his head. And on the way to the wildest family reunion ever, he was reminded of just how his team had looked 35 days earlier.

That day, his Scotch-taped-together group was overwhelmed by a red-hot Denver Broncos squad that raced to a 31-3 lead before cruising to a 34-17 win in Baltimore. Harbaugh smiled at the memory.

"Looks," he said, "are deceiving."

Want to encapsulate the 2012 Ravens? It's right there, in the five-week period between that loss and the AFC Championship Game.

There was nothing deceptive about what went down at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. The Ravens spent the early going peppering the New England Patriots with jabs before unloading a barrage of second-half haymakers on their decorated hosts, scoring a convincing 28-13 win.

But to simply see Baltimore as the juggernaut it so clearly seemed to be on this night -- without accounting for the road it traveled to get there -- wouldn't do service to the journey. On Dec. 16, Harbaugh might have known that the rest of the world hadn't seen a proper representation of his team, that the loss hadn't marked the beginning of the end for the Ravens. But few others did.

Against the Broncos that day, the Ravens had just four opening-day starters in their defensive lineup, with massive changes having been prompted by a string of unfortunate circumstances. Ray Lewis was still out. Terrell Suggs was playing through a torn biceps, which he'd suffered after coming back from a torn Achilles. The secondary had been decimated. Haloti Ngata had been playing on a sprained MCL all year.

On that afternoon, logic held that it was over for Baltimore.

"Our team is awesome, because we always believed in each other, no matter what we went through," Lewis said in a quiet moment in the tunnel at Gillette. "It shows you how close our team really is. It's special, because everybody went through pain; everybody had to go through some type of pain. And there was always the next man to pick him up and keep his spirits high. When Suggs went through it, I kept his spirits high. When I went through it, too.

"Five of our starters had major surgery? Who does that?"

The Ravens did. And as has been the case with so many things in this topsy-turvy season for Baltimore, it started with something Lewis himself said.

If you ask Suggs to trace it, he'll go back just about one year, after Lee Evans dropped that ball and Billy Cundiff missed that kick and Baltimore went home one game short of the ultimate stage. What Lewis said, the Ravens believed.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay will re-air the Baltimore Ravens' 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. ET.

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" 'We'll be back next year. We'll be back next year,' " Suggs remembered Lewis saying. "And we didn't put it in the hands of the refs or the kickers. Even though a few of those calls were questionable, we just said, 'We don't need to worry about wide left.' "

Suggs, of course, was the first to go down, suffering his Achilles injury in April, with Lewis' vow still ringing in his head.

"They said, 'You're out -- nine months to a year.' I said, 'No way. Not with the team I got. No way,' " Suggs said. "They told me I was out for the season, and I decided with my heart I wasn't gonna accept that. They told Ray he was out for the season. He decided in his heart he wasn't gonna accept that. So here we are. And the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl."

Lewis and Suggs were both in the lineup Sunday. They both played all the way through. As did Ngata and Ed Reed, who seemed to have been held together by paper clips at times this season.

Maybe more impressive was how, banged up and maligned as the defense was -- it ranked a middling 17th overall this season -- the team that showed up to Gillette played like the Ravens.

Some of the hits were borderline. Others were flagged. But the message was being sent that Baltimore -- just like in old times -- was going to be the aggressor in this heavyweight bout.

The Ravens were still older in some spots and beat up all over the place. And yet, what Harbaugh had seen earlier rang true. Their resilience trumped everything else.

Wes Welker's momentum-turning drop on third-and-8 in the third quarter came three plays after he took a big -- and illegal -- shot from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Two Patriots possessions later, Pollard knocked the ball loose from Stevan Ridley -- and knocked Ridley from the game.

Joe Flacco and the offense -- under coordinator Jim Caldwell, who called his first game for Baltimore on Dec. 16, after Cam Cameron's firing -- adjusted in the second half. They spread the Patriots out, picking them apart on three consecutive scoring drives before coming back and running six straight times for two critical first downs.

When it was time to finish the Patriots, Baltimore's defense picked off Brady twice, sending the Ravens to a stage few of us envisioned them climbing a month ago.

"We knew they didn't have us picked for this," Reed said outside the locker room. "We were underdogs for the whole time in the playoffs. We weren't picked, and that's Baltimore's spot. It happens. For you to grow as a team, you gotta have some losses, you're gonna have some tough wins, and you're gonna get after each other. And we did. But we persevered through all that, through everything."

The Ravens, without question, have been through a lot.

And maybe that's why, as Harbaugh said, we'd all been deceived, because there was so much beneath the surface of the team's problems.

After Sunday, though, it'd be hard for anyone to miss what the coach has seen all along.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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