OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It has become, in recent years, a new-age Super Bowl Sunday ritual: After the TV commercials are dissected, after the halftime show is lauded or panned, once the game is over and the confetti is falling, fans are left to wonder: “How did that team win it?”
The out-of-nowhere team has come to be the dominant force in football’s grandest game. The Baltimore Ravens have a chance to continue the trend next Sunday. If they beat the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, the Ravens will become the sixth Super Bowl champion in the past eight years to have played a first-round game in the NFL playoffs en route to its title.
That means winning the Super Bowl without the benefit of being a first or second seed in the AFC or NFC playoffs, without having an opening-round bye leading directly to a home game in a conference semifinal. It means winning four postseason games instead of the three victories required of a top-two seed. It means not being considered a favorite when the playoffs begin.
And all of that, according to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, can be a fine way to go about it.
“There are advantages in that path,” Harbaugh said last week. “There are advantages in both paths. Just assuming when you get the bye that that’s necessarily a plus is not necessarily true.”
Players and coaches talk about the sense of urgency that carries over into the playoffs after playing meaningful games down the stretch in the regular season, rather than being able to coast late in the regular season with a playoff spot ensured and then needing to find a way to reclaim the necessary intensity when the games matter again. They speak about staying in the groove of playing on a weekly basis instead of having a bye weekend off and then having to turn the switch back on.
Those factors indeed may be part of the narrative that has enabled the Ravens to reach this game after being seeded fourth in the six-team AFC playoff field. They were part of the narrative for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 season, the Indianapolis Colts in 2006, the New York Giants in the 2007 season, the Green Bay Packers two years ago and the Giants last season — all of whom won first-round playoff games on their way to Super Bowl triumphs. The Steelers and Packers did so as No. 6 seeds for the playoffs. The 2007 Giants were a fifth seed.
But that is where the Ravens’ story parts ways with those of some of their predecessors. The lesson of the postseason success of some of those unlikely Super Bowl winners was that it paid to be the team on the rise entering the playoffs; for them, the NFL postseason wasn’t about which team was the best but which team was the hottest. Last season’s Giants, for instance, began their postseason run after beating the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys in their final two games of the regular season just to get into the playoffs.
These Ravens, however, were making no one feel good about their play late in the regular season. They lost four of their final five regular season games.
“We wanted to be in the dance,” tailback Ray Rice said. “We knew once we got in, no matter what seed we were, that we were going to be able to compete with anybody that we played. We got in the dance and took care of business, but the road wasn’t easy. Nobody likes losing. But losing four of the last five really wasn’t the make or break of our year. . . . The team became stronger through the losses. We didn’t point fingers. We didn’t make any excuses. We went out there. We took it on the chin and got to the playoffs.”
The Ravens aren’t an unexpected Super Bowl participant because of where they started. They were considered a powerhouse team when the season began, coming off a near-miss loss at New England in last season’s AFC title game.
Rather, they are an unlikely Super Bowl team because of the travails they experienced during the season. Injuries were a major part of that. Hall of Fame-bound linebacker Ray Lewis missed the final 10 games of the regular season because of a torn triceps before returning for the playoffs. He has said he will retire after the Super Bowl. Fellow standout linebacker Terrell Suggs missed half the regular season because of injuries to his Achilles’ tendon and biceps. Cornerback Lardarius Webb was lost to a season-ending knee injury. In all, 24 players made at least one regular season start on defense for the Ravens. The team’s depth was severely tested.
“We’ve probably never tested it as deep as we did this year since we’ve been there,” Harbaugh said. “Our young guys always came through.”
The Ravens, after a 9-2 start, began December with consecutive losses to the Steelers, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos to begin their 1-4 downward spiral. Harbaugh made the unusual move of ousting offensive coordinator Cam Cameron 13 games into the season. He replaced Cameron with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, the former head coach of the Colts.
“We’ve been through a lot,” safety Ed Reed said. “We had a bunch of guys who’ve been through a lot, a bunch of guys who’ve stepped up, young guys that got a lot of playing time early in the year when Ray went down. We knew that we wanted to make the playoffs in order for Ray to have a chance to come back. And obviously, when Ray came back, he’s just that engine. He’s that motor that’s going to go all the time. . . . To have those guys play early, get that experience, it really helped.”
It has been a different team in the playoffs. Lewis has returned to the lineup with a flourish, totaling 44 tackles in the three AFC playoff games. Quarterback Joe Flacco had eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in those three wins. The Ravens sandwiched relatively routine victories at home over the Colts and at New England around a miraculous double-overtime triumph in Denver.
“There are a lot of people in this league that can’t say they’ve ever gotten to this point,” Flacco said. “So it definitely feels good to get here. We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that have played long careers and this will be their first time here. So we realize that opportunity and realize how special it is. That’s why we’ve just got to work hard and make sure we make the most of it.”
Lewis is doing his best to make his exit a glorious one. When a CBS television crew showed up at the Ravens’ training facility Wednesday seeking to have players pose with a Lombardi Trophy, Lewis wouldn’t allow it. The TV shots were done, but without a version of the trophy given to the Super Bowl winner.
“Like I told my team,” Lewis said the following day, “don’t ever take pictures with nothing that’s not yours, nothing that you haven’t earned. When we hold that Lombardi, whoever holds that Lombardi next Sunday, you’ve earned it when you touch it. And don’t fool yourself and try to trick yourself: ‘This feels great.’ Don’t go through that. . . . I don’t believe in jinxes and all that. I just believe in don’t set yourself up for something. Just really work for it.”