Ravens faced obstacles in return to AFC title game
OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens overcame an assortment of
injuries and obstacles to return to the AFC championship game, one
victory from reaching the Super Bowl.
Their usually stout defense was besieged by a season-long string of
Thirteen players with starting experience were sidelined during the
regular season, including linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs,
cornerback Lardarius Webb and tackle Haloti Ngata. Two dozen different
defensive players received at least one start, but only two — safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams — started all 16 games.
The offense had its issues, too.
Frustrated with the unit's struggle during a December swoon, coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and handed the reins
to quarterbacks coach jim caldwell.
Baltimore secured its second straight AFC North crown despite losing
four of its last five regular-season games. Unlike last year, however,
there was no first-round bye. Yet the Ravens defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the playoff opener before eliminating the top-seeded Denver Broncos last weekend to earn another shot at New England in the AFC
title game Sunday night.
"I don't think a lot of people expected us to be here," Ngata said.
"For us to overcome a lot of things, everything that has happened with
our team, I think we all just understand that we're a family here, and
we can lean on each other and depend on each other."
Not long after their season-ending 23-20 loss to New England last
January, the Ravens began to realize this team would be radically
different. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano accepted the job as head
coach at Indianapolis, and three key starters left as free agents:
linebacker Jarret Johnson, guard Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cory Redding.
Soon after that, the troubling offseason continued with another
devastating blow: Suggs, the 2012 AP Defensive Player of the Year, tore
his right Achilles tendon in early May.
In spite of it all, the Ravens won five of their first six games. But
in a 31-29 victory over Dallas on Oct. 14, Lewis tore his right triceps
and Webb ripped the ACL in his left knee and was placed on injured
Suggs made his season debut the following week, but the five-time Pro
Bowl star missed two games in December with a torn right biceps and is
still seeking to regain the form he displayed last year. Guard Marshal Yanda also sat out two games with a sprained ankle and safety Bernard Pollard was sidelined for three straight weeks with a chest injury.
And still, the Ravens pressed on.
"I think that we are battled-tested," Yanda said. "We went through a
lot of injuries. We went through line shuffles. We went through losses.
We went through losing streaks, and every team goes through that during
the year. It's all about just battling through it and trying to get hot
and trying to play your best football at the end of the year. I think
we're doing that. We are just going to have to do a lot of things to
continue to do that come" Sunday.
Judging by their performance in last Saturday's 38-35 double-overtime
win over the Broncos, the Ravens appear to be hitting peak form. Lewis
returned from a 10-game absence to lead the team in tackles against
both the Colts and Broncos, and his teammates appear to have drawn
strength from the ups and downs they've encountered over the past five
"A lot of teams go through a lot of things," Harbaugh said. "There are
challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team
and make you who you are — even as a person. And, our guys have handled
all those things extremely well. Individually and collectively, a lot
of our guys have come out of it stronger and better men, and we're a
stronger and better team."
Tight end Dennis Pitta broke his right hand in practice in late July
and received a concussion in November. But Pitta hasn't missed a game
yet, and now he and the Ravens are eager to keep the season going with
a win in New England.
"It's not easy being back in this position," Pitta said. "We've had a
lot of highs and lows this season. We had a three-game losing streak
when nobody thought we would win another game. We've battled and we've
been through a lot, and I think it's better prepared us for this point
now. We're excited to be in this game and to be able to get a rematch
with these guys."