Even with this weekend's disappointing loss to the 2-6 Seattle Seahawks, the Baltimore Ravens are still on track to be the AFC representative in the 2012 Super Bowl. This most recent loss will serve as a wake-up call and propel this team the rest of the season and into their first NFL championship game in 11 years.
John Harbaugh has reached the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship in his inaugural campaign and losing to eventual Super Bowl champ Pittsburgh.
Here's why Harbaugh completes the mission in his fourth season.
Flacco goes deep for the sweep
The season sweep is complete!
When Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith clamped down on Joe Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to seal the sweep over the Steelers on national television, the table was officially set for Super Bowl supper.
Ever since Harbaugh and Flacco arrived at One Winning Drive in Owings Mills, Maryland, the Steelers have stood between them and greatness. Can you remember the last time Baltimore swept the season series with Pittsburgh? It was 2006, and the Ravens beat Pittsburgh in Baltimore 27-0 and then again at Heinz Field 37-7 on their way to a 13-3 record. That year the Ravens finally succumbed to the Indianapolis Colts as Indy went on to win their first and only Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLI.
Sweeping the Steelers is huge. Even if Pittsburgh rights the ship, the damage has already been done. The confidence and knowledge gained in that most recent road victory will power this Ravens team into the playoffs, where a possible third game with Pittsburgh will take place in Baltimore. There's nothing like playing at home in the playoffs, a luxury Baltimore hasn't known since John Harbaugh got the job. We'll touch more on this later.
Maybe defense does win championships
This is not the Patriots team that steamrolled their way to the most Super Bowl appearances of any team in the last 25 years. Between 2001 and 2010 New England set a record for most wins in a decade with 126, but this is 2011.
Okay, so they beat the New York Jets 37-16 on Sunday Night Football. That still doesn't hide the dents on this year's model. Already this season, Tom Brady has thrown 10 picks, unheard of for Tom Terrific in years past. Add in the defense, ranked dead last against the pass, and you begin to get the picture.
This team is a shadow of its former self. Albert Haynesworth was brought in to add muscle up front and was body-slammed by Belichick, who deadpanned as only Bill can, "It didn't work out."
The Ravens always seem to match up well with New England, and the Patriots know it. Last year the Ravens roughed 'em up in the playoffs IN New England, winning 33-14 and proving a point in the process.
The Patriots ain't the Steelers as far as Baltimore is concerned. New England may be able strike fear into other AFC teams, but not the Baltimore Ravens. Not in the past, and definitely not this year.
The way we were
Think back to the last Ravens Super Bowl team in 2000. They had a great defense (as they do this year) and a suspect offense (just like this year). That Ravens team started out gangbusters, winning five of their first six games. That's when the wheels came off. Those Ravens would not score an offensive touchdown for five consecutive games. Five!
They were able to win the first two games but dropped the next three. Things looked pretty bleak, and nobody was talking about going to the Super Bowl, but that's exactly where they ended up. That Ravens team beat the New York Giants 34-7 in Tampa, capping off what was known in Baltimore as "Festivus Maximus."
Although this year's defense (ranked No. 3 overall) is not of the same caliber as the record-setting 2000 defense, it's still the class of the league. And even though Baltimore has lost three games so far this season, they were really only out of the Tennessee game in the season's second week, losing 26-13.
Sure, the Jacksonville loss was ugly, but it was a learning experience. The problem is Baltimore slipped back into the same rut against Seattle, running Ray Rice only five times. If kick returner David Reed hadn't fumbled twice, it would have been a whole different game.
It's better to get these games out of the way now so the Ravens can handle their business down the stretch and enter the postseason playing their best football. With the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns twice, and the San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers remaining on the schedule, Baltimore can realistically win six of the last seven, maybe all seven.
Winning six would give them a 12-4 record, just like the Super Bowl year of 2000.
No place like home
Since 2008, the Ravens have made the playoffs every year in the John Harbaugh era.
In 2008, they beat Miami and Tennessee before losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh in 2008. All on the road.
In 2009, Baltimore won their wild-card game against New England before losing to Indy, again heading on the road for both playoff games.
Last year, the Ravens again took to the road for their playoff games, beating the Kansas City Chiefs before losing to the Steelers.
Winning away from home is so much more difficult in the playoffs, and Baltimore is living proof. With a regular season sweep of Pittsburgh under their belts, this may be the year the Ravens finally enjoy a little playoff football at M&T Bank Stadium.
So far this season we've seen Baltimore win all of their home games and drop three of five road games. As long as they straighten out the hiccups away from Charm City during the last half of the regular season, they'll be home for the playoffs.
And then in Indianapolis playing Green Bay in Super Bowl XLVI.