Not the least of which their regular-season numbers. Those were collected over a 17-week period in which the Ravens were always missing at least one of their defensive stars, the inconsistent offense watched its coordinator be fired late in the season, and the team slumped to a 10-6 record.
Sure, the special teams were ranked No. 1 according to Football Outsiders, but neither the offense nor defense were anything special this season.
But the right pieces were coming into place, and the model for this Super Bowl run has been there before with the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006 Indianapolis Colts, 2010 Green Bay Packers and twice with the New York Giants. You get hot late and go on a run.
Yet here they are one win away from completing a Super Bowl journey that has been going five years strong in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. This truly has been a five-year project, which is why you cannot judge this Baltimore team on much of what it showed in the regular season.
The Ravens have a veteran roster with plenty of big-game experience, and now they look to cash in with a championship ring.
Super Timeline: Baltimore Ravens are “Team of Destiny”
If you want to talk numbers, how many obstacles and how much adversity did this Baltimore team have to overcome to reach this point? A mix of clutch play and good fortune has produced this minor miracle putting the Ravens where they are.
Follow along with this timeline of their up-and-down season:
Offseason: The journey started as soon as last season ended in heart-breaking fashion in the AFC Championship Game. The combination of Lee Evans’ inability to hold onto the game-winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal created one of the toughest losses any team has ever had to rebound from.
Evans and Cundiff are gone, and in their place are Jacoby Jones and rookie kicker Justin Tucker. That’s a fair trade-off, as both players have made their mark in Baltimore lore this season.
The other big story that threatened the Ravens’ season before it began was the Achilles’ tendon injury to Terrell Suggs during the summer. As the best pass-rusher on the team, Suggs was initially feared to miss the entire season, though he would return in timely fashion.
Finally, just before the regular-season opener, former owner Art Modell, the man who moved the Ravens to Baltimore, passed away at the age of 87 on September 6. The team has worn a decal in his honor all season.
Week 2 at Philadelphia: Baltimore’s only loss early in the season came in Philadelphia. This was with the replacement referees, and a bad call of offensive pass interference wiped out a touchdown to Jones that would have given the Ravens a two-score lead.
In what may be the “Greatest Coincidental Stat of the Year” the last three teams to play the Eagles in their home-opener each went on to win the Super Bowl: 2009 Saints, 2010 Packers and 2011 Giants. See, Ravens have been predestined to win it all this year.
Week 3 vs. New England: The night before this big prime-time game, Torrey Smith’s 19-year-old brother was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Smith played and he played great: six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
This was also the first showing of the improvement Jones and Tucker added. Jones had a 24-yard catch and drew 27 yards on pass interference to set up Tucker for his first game-winning attempt. Tucker nearly pulled a Cundiff, just getting the 27-yard attempt over the upright to win the game, 31-30.
Week 6 vs. Dallas: A win over Dallas moved the Ravens to 5-1, but it was costly as Lardarius Webb (ACL) and Ray Lewis (torn triceps) were lost with significant injuries. Webb, one of the most promising cornerbacks in the game, was lost for the season.
Week 7 at Houston: Though the team’s captain was down, Suggs did return to give the ailing defense a boost, though it resulted in a 43-13 rout at the hands of the Houston Texans. The 30-point defeat is the worst loss in the Harbaugh era.
Week 11 at Pittsburgh: A big opportunity came when Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger suffered a serious rib injury, and he would miss both games in this AFC North rivalry. Baltimore cashed in with a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh, but the offense failed to score a single touchdown.
Week 12 at San Diego: In one of the most fortunate wins of the season, Baltimore completed a comeback in San Diego after Flacco dumped a short pass to Ray Rice on 4th-and-29, which virtually no quarterback ever does, and yet Rice made it work with a run for the most improbable first down. The “Dump Mary” led to a game-tying field goal, an overtime opportunity, and the Ravens won 16-13.
Weeks 13-14: Now with the Steelers turning to Charlie Batch, the oldest quarterback in the league, the Ravens blew a 10-point lead and opportunity to sweep the Steelers. A week later the Ravens could not hold an eight-point lead in Washington, surrendering a game-tying drive late to rookies Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. The Redskins won in overtime after a long punt return set up their winning field goal.
Week 15 vs. Denver: Even though it was the defense unable to hold the lead the past two weeks, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and he was replaced with Jim Caldwell. The first game was a tough task against Peyton Manning and the streaking Denver Broncos, and Baltimore fell behind 31-3 at one point with the offense looking even worse. The 34-17 loss is the worst defeat at home in the Harbaugh era.
Despite the loss, Baltimore clinched a playoff spot that day.
Week 16 vs. New York Giants: Five years ago the Giants used the undefeated New England Patriots as a playoff warm-up in Week 17. After handing the Patriots their largest deficit of the season (12 points), the Giants proved they can hang with what was supposed to be the best team ever. This inspired enough confidence to go on one of the all-time playoff runs to a Super Bowl title.
Flash back to Week 16, and with much to play for this time for the Giants, Baltimore came out and played a fantastic game, producing 533 yards of offense, allowing only 186 yards, and winning the game 33-14. It was the breakout performance for rookie running back Bernard Pierce (14 carries for 123 yards).
This time it was the Ravens using the Giants to get ready late in the season for the playoffs. The spark can be as simple as one game.
Week 17 at Cincinnati: With the AFC North clinched, Baltimore was able to rest key starters for much of this game, treating it like a preseason affair. This would be a big help for a veteran team that was unable to get a first-round bye.
January 2, 2013: Lewis announces he will retire following the playoffs after 17 years with the Ravens. It is the move that would no doubt inspire his teammates in the playoffs. It is the return that likely never happens without the new injured reserve rule put in place for this season, allowing the Ravens to designate Lewis as their one player eligible to return late in the season following a serious injury.
AFC Wild Card Round: Not to say it determined the outcome of the game, but Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians unexpectedly missing the game due to illness could not help Indianapolis, who did hang tough for a while with the Ravens. But Flacco averaged 23.5 yards per completion, which is the second-highest average in playoff history, and the Ravens won 24-9.
Not only did Lewis return and soak up his final home appearance, but safety Bernard Pollard also returned after missing the last three games of the regular season. It was perfect timing for the defense to get healthy.
AFC Divisional Round: In a game where the defense needed the offense to come through, the Ravens produced one of the all-time comebacks in playoff history thanks to Denver’s Rahim Moore inexplicably letting Jones get behind him for the 70-yard touchdown. Baltimore’s win probability was about 1.0 percent at the snap of the ball.
It was the first time in nine games the Broncos, who were on an 11-game winning streak, did not lead for the entire fourth quarter. After an interception of Peyton Manning, who had won nine straight games against Baltimore, the Ravens won in double overtime when Tucker came through with the 47-yard field goal in frigid conditions.
AFC Championship Game: Getting a shot at redemption in New England, the Ravens trailed 13-7 at halftime. The daunting statistic of the week was New England being 71-0 when leading at halftime at home since 2001.
Make that 71-1, as the Ravens exposed the injury to Aqib Talib with a pass-happy approach in the second half, Patriots-killer Bernard Pollard delivered a crushing blow to force a key fumble, and the defense held the third-highest scoring team in NFL history to just 13 points.
Now that is not exactly an easy or recommended path to the Super Bowl, which is why one has to cherish such an opportunity. Baltimore knows this better than most, because it has tried so hard since 2001 to get back, but often a team needs many things to fall in their favor, and they finally did for the Ravens in 2012.
Ray Lewis’ defense finally has the offense to win another ring
The swan song for Ray Lewis will be his 21st playoff game in Super Bowl XLVII. He has played in all 20 of Baltimore’s playoff games, in which the team has compiled a 13-7 record since 2000, including Lewis’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis won that year with great players around him, but none of them were named Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed or Haloti Ngata. These players, potential Hall of Fame defenders themselves, make up the foundation of Baltimore’s vaunted defense, which has seemingly been elite this whole century.
Rough years did exist, but most of the time Baltimore had a defense that was primed to win a championship. The offense, especially at quarterback, was the missing ingredient to more deep runs.
Finally, it appears Lewis has the offense he has been looking for to have his storybook ending with a walk-off Super Bowl win. This would come seven years after Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis did it, which was seven years after John Elway retired on top. That is any player’s dream ending.
The season started with the idea that this would be the year the torch would be passed to Flacco, in his fifth season, and the offense would start carrying the team instead of the aging defense. Early on, this appeared to be working, but as the season wore on and the battered defense struggled against the run, the offense also regressed to pedestrian levels.
This is why it is still unbelievable this team has made it this far, but the key is Jim Caldwell sparking production out of this talented offense, and the defense getting healthy at the perfect time.
For Lewis, this postseason has been the only time all year he has taken the field with those other three elite players. When those four are intact, this defense still has the ability to be elite, even without Webb present.
The results in the postseason speak for themselves, as holding offenses with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to 17.0 points per game is no joke.
These performances are no fluke either, as this is the level this defense is expected to play at. The difference this year is that in the past the offense would have never came through in Denver to win that game.
While a lot of it is based on Rahim Moore’s pathetic judgment, the fact is Flacco stepped up, threw the ball as far as he could, and Jones was there for the catch. All day the overhyped Denver defense failed to get pressure on Flacco, and Champ Bailey was roasted by Torrey Smith several times. The offense came through with 31 points, which has never been the case before.
As you will see, the performance of the Baltimore defense in the playoffs since 2000 has been nothing short of legendary.
The “PA” is points allowed, “DPA” is points allowed by only the defense, “Scored” is how many points the defense scored in the game, and “NDPA” is net defensive points allowed, which subtracts the points the defense scored from the points the defense allowed.
Where does one even start with these fantastic numbers? There is the fact that only five of these 20 games were played at home. Six return scores in 20 games is solid work, but allowing just 11.3 net defensive points per game is unheard of in this era of offensive football.
Only the Steelers (2001 and 2010) have managed to exceed 24 points on the Ravens’ defense, and that 31-24 win from two years ago is a bit misleading. Baltimore’s defense did score a fumble touchdown, and the Steelers came back with third-quarter touchdown drives of just 23 and 25 yards thanks to turnovers by Rice and Flacco.
That’s the old story. The defense would play great, but the offense always failed to capitalize, and would sink the Ravens either with turnovers or an ending like in New England last year. But this season, things finally have worked on the offensive side of the ball in the postseason.
When you mix the Lewis-led defense with an effective offense, you have the recipe for a championship. This is that offense, which is much different than the Trent Dilfer days. The 2012 offense can actually win a game for the Ravens.
Joe Flacco’s success is anything but conventional
Through a quarterback’s first five seasons, he has won the second-most games (54) in the regular season in NFL history. He is the only quarterback to ever win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and he has a record six playoff wins on the road.
Yet most would conclude Joe Flacco is not an elite quarterback, but is enjoying the hottest run of his career at the right moment. He has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs with a 114.7 passer rating. Throw in the game against the Giants (Week 16), and it has been unquestionably the best stretch of Flacco’s career.
This is all coming after one of Flacco’s worst seasons yet, which is further confirmed from various sources. His ESPN QBR was 46.8; his lowest since his rookie campaign in 2008 (43.2). Football Outsiders also had 2012 as Flacco’s second-worst season, statistically. Flacco ranked no better than 12th in the key stats from Advanced NFL Stats this season.
How is he capable of this late-season turnaround for such success?
Flacco is elite at avoiding turnovers, especially interceptions (No. 5 all-time in lowest interception percentage). That is odd given he ranks just 22nd in completion percentage (59.8 percent) since 2008. Flacco is only completing 54.8 percent of his passes this postseason.
Is Flacco just lucky?
Rahim Moore and 4th-and-29 withstanding, Flacco has been bombing it out all season, and no matter which stat source you look at, two facts are clear: Flacco has thrown over 80 passes this season more than 20 yards down the field, and not a single one has been intercepted.
The big plays have been there for Flacco, but he has not always looked to move the chains on third down this season. In fact, 2012 was Flacco’s worst season yet at converting on third down. The following includes passes, runs and sacks, while excluding spikes and kneel downs.
Flacco’s third-down conversion rate of 35.59 percent in 2012 is the lowest of his career, and it is remarkable how the Ravens have consistently put him in situations where he needs almost eight yards to convert on average. The 2012 rookie quarterbacks had different ranges than that.
But in the playoffs, Flacco’s average third-down conversion attempt is only 6.68 yards, which may speak to either the small sample size (12 games split over five seasons), or a shift in how Baltimore calls offensive plays in the postseason.
Either way, Flacco converts in the playoffs at practically the same rate he does in the regular season. This postseason in particular he is down to just 32.14 percent, and yes, that includes the 70-yard bomb in Denver. An elite quarterback is in the upper 40’s, though that is based on regular-season competition.
Flacco will try and lay claim to one of the all-time playoff runs, extending his record to 9-4 as a starter with a ring. But it sure is a drastic change from the player we have come to know over the years.
It was just three years ago, following the 2009 season, that Flacco had thrown one touchdown and six interceptions in five playoff games (46.5 passer rating). It was just after last season when Flacco had eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 70.4 passer rating in nine playoff games.
Now three games later, and Flacco has doubled his touchdowns to 16, no picks, and is up to an 82.5 passer rating. That is some change in a short period of time, and for a player who was known to be a road liability.
Should Flacco continue his success for one more game this year, he may want to find more completions, because you cannot count on never throwing another interception.
With Caldwell running the offense, Flacco has thrown one interception on 177 passes, including none on his last 162 attempts. That is a career-best streak. Flacco went 137 attempts without an interception in 2010.
Flacco has never attempted more than 36 passes in any of his 12 playoff starts, though the Ravens are no stranger to letting him take over while ignoring Rice. In fact, it has produced one of the most perplexing records you will ever see.
Flacco has the best record in NFL history (minimum five games) when throwing at least 45 passes in a game.
These are the only five quarterbacks to even have at least a .500 record. The other 83 quarterbacks with at least five games all have a losing record when throwing that often. For someone like Tom Brady, it makes some sense with the short passing game, but with Flacco’s vertical approach, it is a head-scratching fact.
Yet, the high-risk, high-reward style continues to work for Baltimore. The team set franchise records with 398 points scored and just 16 giveaways this year. The offense also set team records with 72 plays gaining 20-plus yards, and 41 passes gaining at least 25 yards.
You can argue this is the best Baltimore offense yet. It may not be pretty or efficient like an offense run by a Manning or Brady, but Baltimore has the defense to stifle those teams, and now it has the offense to outscore them as well.
Flacco is all the Ravens have ever needed at quarterback because of their defense, and the only regret will be that it took them until 2008 to find him.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.