Despite a myriad of lingering question marks following a 5-11 disaster that cost former coach Brian Billick his job after nine seasons and one Super Bowl title, the Ravens embraced a fresh start under new coach John Harbaugh.
Instead of dwelling on the retirement of All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, the multitude of injuries that contributed heavily to the collapse a year ago defined by a franchise-record nine-game losing streak, the unsettled issue of who would play quarterback prior to rookie Joe Flacco establishing himself and the major adjustment to Harbaugh’s tougher regimen, the Ravens simply got to work.
And despite a preseason marred by injuries on a young offensive line, a quarterback competition Flacco ultimately won by default due to Troy Smith’s severe tonsil infection and Kyle Boller’s season-ending shoulder injury, the Ravens have never fallen into the trap of feeling sorry for themselves.
"You don’t look at it as being a disaster," Harbaugh said. "There are no disasters. There are only opportunities. Things are going to happen to football teams, to people in life, whatever the case is, you just go about your business, take care of what’s important now and do as well as you can that day to improve our football team.
"Our guys are resilient. They’re tough. Whatever situation comes up, that’s how we make ourselves better. It’s not in spite of something. It’s because of something. Whether it’s a loss or whether it’s an injury or whatever, because of that, we have an opportunity to become whatever we can be in the next 24 hours."
Months later, the evidence of that resilient attitude is on display as the Ravens (10-5) are in position to clinch the sixth and final AFC playoff berth with a victory Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) at M&T Bank Stadium.
With Flacco emerging as a viable passer, something the Ravens’ offense has traditionally lacked, a relentless running game ranked second in the NFL and the second-ranked d efense headlined by middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed,
"It’s been a lot of fun," Flacco said. "We put ourselves in the position to be in the playoffs. This is my first season. I guess I’m getting spoiled, but that’s the way I want it to be. We want to win and we’ve got a good team. We’ve felt like we had a good team all year, and we’ve gone out and proved that for the most part."
Instead of failing to meet expectations as they did a year ago when they went from a franchise-record 13-3 mark and an AFC North championship in 2006 prior to a bitter playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Steve McNair’s abrupt retirement last spring, the Ravens are living up to their potential.
"We’ve always had playoff caliber teams here, we’ve always had the talent, we’ve always had the right people," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "For one reason or another, it just didn’t happen for us, but this year we didn’t have any excuses. Whatever hand was dealt, we were going to play it. We did that this year, and so far it got us 10 wins."
And the Ravens aren’t surprised at their new fortune while still embracing an underdog mentality even though they’ve been installed as heavy favorites against the Jaguars. When the Ravens opened the season against the Cincinnati Bengals, a 3-1-1 squad, many people locally and nationally doubted whether
"There’s probably a lot of people that still don’t think we’re going to beat
"We felt that this year, if we can stay away from the injury bug, if we can get the offense going the way we knew it was capable of going, then we would be a very good team. We didn’t surprise ourselves. I think we surprised everybody else. We knew going into the season that everything was aligning right for us. We had a great coaching staff, some very good players that were coming in, some good rookies. We knew if we just hung in there and stayed focused and stayed hungry, we would be all right."
Perhaps no player on the team exemplifies the Ravens’ hard-nosed approach more than Mason.
In spite of a painful dislocated left shoulder that he suffered against the Houston Texans on Nov. 9, Mason has gutted it out to catch a team-high 74 passes for 960 yards and five touchdowns.
"It’s your ability to play through what you’re going through, having the resilience to be able to persevere through whatever you’re going through," Mason said. "The way I look at it is things could be a lot worse. If I can go and play, if I can go and run, if I can lift my hands up a little, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to play."
Due to Hurricane Ike causing their second game of the year against the Texans to be postponed, the Ravens essentially lost their bye week and are in the midst of their 15th week of football in a row.
They have maintained a stoic attitude about that setback. In the past, the Ravens repeatedly griped about officiating, injuries, play-calling and playing time.
There hasn’t been any whining this year under Harbaugh.
"You’ve got Derrick Mason sitting over there in a cart, where does his resourcefulness come from? Where does his toughness come from?" Harbaugh said. "Throughout the course of his life, that’s part of who he is and who he’s become.
“I would say that’s probably true for each of our coaches, each of our players, everybody in the organization, Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome, Dick Cass. It runs through the whole building hopefully. We draw on each other and everybody draws from their own resourcefulness."
That trait as well as the depth of the roster has been severely tested all season.
The Ravens lead the NFL with 18 players on injured reserve, including three defensive starters in cornerback Chris McAlister, nose guard Kelly Gregg and strong safety Dawan Landry, starting offensive guard Marshal Yanda, Boller, defensive lineman Dwan Edwards, tight end Quinn Sypniewski and wide receiver Demetrius Williams.
The Ravens dealt with a lot of injuries last year, but struggled to overcome a lack of depth. Especially in the secondary where the Ravens were exploited whenever McAlister and Samari Rolle were sidelined.
"I wouldn’t say that staying healthy is part of it," Suggs said when asked to explain the team’s turnaround. "I just think our approach and our attitude this year, and that breath of fresh air when we brought coach Harbaugh in. When that happened, everything took care of itself."
NOTE: The Ravens didn’t practice on Christmas Day and issued an estimated injury report with no changes from Wednesday.
Aaron Wilson covers the