NEW ORLEANS — Even after witnessing the most incredible month in the history of the Baltimore Ravens, it’s still difficult to believe it all happened in the hours following their 34-31 win in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Ravens have had better and more talented teams than this group that finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, good enough to win the AFC North but hardly anything to write home about. The offense and Super Bowl most valuable player Joe Flacco were exceptional at times this season but were maddeningly inconsistent as well. A defense regarded as one of the NFL’s finest for more than a decade was far from dominating due to age and a plethora of injuries, taking a significant step back as stars such as Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis missed significant time.
A three-game losing streak in the month of December that included the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron left the Ravens looking anything but “super” as they desperately searched for answers. Frankly, it was difficult to decide just how good they were — or even if they were at all.
Yet, there they stood on the on-field stage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after winning the second NFL title in the 17-year history of the franchise. It wasn’t pretty as the Ravens nearly squandered a 22-point second-half lead, but they prevailed, earning the right to call themselves champions.
“It couldn’t end in a better way,” safety Ed Reed said. “The game was a display of the whole year. Started good, got ugly, ended great. Ended great.”
Perhaps the 35-minute power outage was the appropriate symbol of where the Ravens had been over the last six weeks. Just as a 28-6 lead evaporated as the San Francisco 49ers pulled to within two points with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens appeared to be knocked out in December after suffering their third consecutive loss in a humiliating 34-17 final at home against the Denver Broncos in mid-December. At that point, the Ravens looked more like a team that might not win another game before regrouping to make the incredible run to New Orleans.
A 9-2 record that stood among the best in the NFL — even if many questioned the validity of that mark after several underwhelming wins — had fallen to 9-5, with many wondering if the Ravens were bursting at the seams with dissension. However, they stuck together, insisting all their goals still stood in front of them while fans and media alike wondered if they were finished. They were the truest form of a family, at least as close to one as a professional football team could be as players shared their faith and love for one another openly down the final stretch of the season.
“We had a lot of guys injured,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “But at the same time, the camaraderie within that the locker room — this is the closest team I’ve ever been on in my life. Like I said, we came together and fought the good fight.”
Yes, these Ravens were inspired by a returning Lewis in the postseason, but it was the play of Flacco that took them to new heights as the fifth-year quarterback was the best player in the NFL during the playoffs. His play and the improved offensive line after the reinsertion of Bryant McKinnie at the left tackle position were all new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell needed to propel the Ravens to new heights on that side of the football.
That offense looked as elite as ever in the first half on Sunday night, but the 49ers regrouped in slowing the Ravens’ passing attack while the running game remained a non-factor. Meanwhile, the Baltimore defense wilted, looking tired and lacking answers for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as he led San Francisco to three second-half touchdowns and a field goal.
As they had countless times throughout the season, the Ravens appeared on the ropes with the offense sputtering and Lewis’ once-mighty defense completely exhausted. But as savvy veteran teams often do, the Ravens had enough in them to make a few more plays to finish the job.
With the 49ers having three shots at the end zone from the 5-yard line and trailing 34-29 at the two-minute warning, the old Ravens defense made its final great stand with Lewis at the helm. The unit forced three incompletions to hand the ball back to the Baltimore offense. It was vintage Baltimore defense, even if that idea will take on new meaning beginning next years as the Ravens face life without Lewis leading the way.
The final stand was the end of an era with Lewis retiring and Reed potentially playing his final game with the Ravens. And in the context of this 2012 season, it was the last example of one unit — offense, defense, or special teams — picking up the others in crunch time.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, but it was us,” coach John Harbaugh said. “The final series of Ray Lewis’ career was a goal-line stand to win the Lombardi Trophy. As Ray said on the podium, how could it be any better than that?”
Harbaugh’s right. It was the only fitting way to end the perfectly imperfect season that included ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and trials and tribulations. Of course, the Ravens ended the year on the highest note of all in winning their first Super Bowl title since Jan. 28, 2001.
In a season in which we constantly asked the real Baltimore Ravens to stand up, we finally learned who they really were over the course of the last six week as Harbaugh and his team dusted themselves off from a miserable stretch in early December to start anew. They knew something the rest of us didn’t as the Ravens pulled off the unlikeliest of wins in Denver, exorcised the demons from a year ago in New England, and polished off their final act as a postseason underdog by turning the lights out — literally and figuratively — on the 49ers.
On Feb. 3, 2013, we finally figured out the only appropriate way to describe this unique football team after a season of struggling to find the proper words.
They were champions.