In getting to New Orleans, the Ravens navigated one obstacle after another. There was the passing of legendary owner Art Modell. The death of wide receiver Torrey Smith's younger brother. Season-eating injuries to first Terrell Suggs, then Ray Lewis. A protest against practicing in pads, the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a three-game losing streak -- the makings of what linebacker Paul Kruger called "a bumpy, bumpy ride."
Coach John Harbaugh has taken the stance that the Ravens might have needed that bumpy ride. He's said it made them stronger and better men and a stronger and better team. Center Matt Birk doesn't disagree with that. After 15 years in the NFL, the self-avowed "America's Game" junkie said what has always jumped out at him about championship teams is what those squads faced down.
"There's always a bad stretch, maybe two or three bad stretches," he said. "That's part of the deal. That's the part of the journey that galvanizes you as a team, that hardens you, that makes you who you are. And some teams don't deal with it that well. You know, adversity can derail them. But the teams that have the character and the wherewithal to overcome that, those are the teams that succeed and ultimately are the ones called 'champion.' "
Here are some of those defining moments -- the adversity-turned-catalysts -- as picked by the Ravens:
Last season's AFC Championship Game loss
The Ravens came within one dropped pass, or one shanked field goal, from being in the Super Bowl a year ago. Birk is adamant that it was that game that turned this season. Yes, each campaign stands on its own, he said, but that heartbreaker against the New England Patriots taught the Ravens a lesson, and to him, that was this season's defining moment.
"As bad as that felt, it didn't deflate or deter us from our goals," he said. "As close as that game was, and as bad as we felt after that game, we said right away in the locker room, Coach Harbaugh said, 'This will not deter us. We will be back.' "
Torrey Smith's performance in the wake of his brother's passing
The oldest of seven, born to a single mother, Torrey Smith helped raise his younger siblings. Late on the night of Sept. 22, he learned that one sibling, Tevin Jones, had died in a motorcycle accident. Torrey went home to Virginia and then returned to Baltimore the next afternoon. And that night, in a rematch of the AFC title game against the Patriots, Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
For rookie offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, Smith's performance turned the season. "It was definitely something we saw that was remarkable, just the inner strength that he showed and the fact that even after all that he was willing to go out there and fight for his brothers," Osemele said. "It made it 10 times easier to go out there and fight for him and fight for the rest of our 52 brothers every day after that."
The Group Therapy Session
Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver first reported the story: When the Ravens showed up for work after their Week 8 bye, they were told they'd be practicing in pads, but instead of mere groaning, there was protest. Which turned into very frank, clear-the-air talk between the players and head coach John Harbaugh. Birk termed talk of an actual mutiny "way overblown," but veteran safety Bernard Pollard said it was nonetheless an important and cathartic session, that all sorts of concerns went on the table, and that the openness that ensued still prevails.
It's worth noting that the Ravens did practice in full pads the Friday before they left for New Orleans, going so hard, Suggs said, it felt like training camp. But Suggs also said it was "fun," and that "we've never been immune to working hard around here."
Firing Cam Cameron and promoting Jim Caldwell
Even the former offensive coordinator, in making a few media rounds last week, said this was the right decision. Still, it was gutsy, it was a bit controversial and it could definitely have been perceived as desperate. Tight end Dennis Pitta frankly said, "I think we were all thinking that, just because of the juncture of the season in which it happened. Week 15, you don't expect to have a new offensive coordinator." And then Pitta said, "It was a good decision."
The proof is certainly there. The Ravens have put together three exceptional offensive performances in these playoffs. Since Caldwell's arrival as quarterbacks coach last offseason, he and signal-caller Joe Flacco have connected. They are similar in temperament; Flacco responds to Caldwell's patient, no-drama, professorial ways. Receiver Jacoby Jones said when he looks at them together, he thinks one thing: "Father from another (family). They're cool, they enjoy each other -- it's like a family."
The Ravens were desperate to end a three-game losing streak. The New York Giants were in a must-win situation. The Ravens had a still-new offensive coordinator who had yet to win his first game in that role. Flacco threw for 309 yards, the defense held Eli Manning and company to 186 total yards and the Ravens sewed up the AFC North.
"We went into that game and put it all on the line and treated it like a championship game," Pitta said. "We played well in that game and put it all together and got a win. I think that was the turning point where we started to gain momentum and get guys healthy and start to make this run."
Ray Lewis announces intentions to retire
After 17 years, a tenure as one of the game's greatest linebackers and the indubitable face of the Ravens' franchise, Lewis told his teammates his career would end with their season. Defensive end Arthur Jones said the Jan. 2 announcement so stunned the Ravens, they stayed rooted to their seats a good two minutes after Harbaugh dismissed them to go to their team meeting rooms. "We all just looked at each other," Jones said, "like, 'Wait, is this guy really retiring?' "
Suggs said that was the team's galvanizer: "It opened everybody's eyes. It just made us realize just how precious time really is."
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie said players always play hard, but after that, there was extra incentive "to send Ray out the right way."
"We already had that match and we already had that fire, but it's like someone pouring gasoline on it," Jones said. "Ray retiring us just enflamed us -- and we still got a lot of gas left. We're planning on starting a bonfire up in New Orleans."
Jacoby Jones said he's taken to calling this Invictus -- and then he quoted the William Ernest Henley poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
"We are unconquerable souls; we are tough," Jacoby Jones said. "Everything happens for a reason, you know? You have your ups, your downs. You can't win every game. It's life… It just made us stronger. So I would never take -- I would never change anything."