Most years, going 11-5 will all-but guarantee a spot in the NFL playoffs, likely via a division win. This year, wild as it is, posed a much more difficult proposition for the Baltimore Ravens. While it’s true that an 11-5 record eventually did ensure postseason football for Baltimore, that wasn’t set in stone until Week 16, when the Ravens received a great deal of help. Up until then, a typically terrific season could have seen them going home early. With their strong record aside, though, I truly feel this year’s playoff berth is the most impressive in the team’s history.
To explain this, I want to start by highlighting the immense pressure this team was under after flying to a 14-2 record last year. Many believed Baltimore was a surefire Super Bowl contender in 2020, potentially even a favorite. Despite that, the year was far from easy.
The predicaments presented by the COVID-19 pandemic were an obvious struggle this season, but all teams dealt with that on some level. Surely, it makes a postseason appearance more impressive, but it wasn’t an issue exclusive to the Ravens.
Rather, what I’m referring to is the fact that this team seemed lost for a great portion of the year. Even when winning early on, the Ravens looked like they wanted to transition to being a pass-first offense. It wasn’t working. Throw in that Mark Ingram, for whatever reason, looked a shell of his 2019 self, and last year’s elite offense seemed a distant memory. Big free-agent acquisition Calais Campbell helped the defense early, but fought injuries right – coincidentally or not – right in the midst of the midseason swoon. All of this led to incomplete games and eventually, losses. In addition, the team had lost star LT Ronnie Stanley, the NFL’s best blocking TE Nick Boyle, and stud slot corner Tavon Young to season-ending injuries.
On top of it all, just before COVID struck Baltimore’s squad, the Ravens began a scary losing streak of four games. That, compounded by their already existing identity issues, made the previously simple task of making the playoffs a much more daunting task.
I’d be remiss to not point out that Baltimore ended their season with an extremely favorable schedule, but still, they looked down-and-out in almost all phases.
Then, amidst their bout with the coronavirus, a switch flipped for the Ravens. They returned to their ground-and-pound identity, moved to a backfield of rookie J.K. Dobbins and ol’ reliable Gus Edwards, and began winning. Lamar Jackson began playing MVP football again, and the defense found its footing.
Now, the Ravens are a battle-tested, white-hot team heading into a Wild Card Weekend that sees them facing a familiar foe: the Tennessee Titans. What will surely be different in this year’s playoff matchup is the mentality of the Ravens. Last year, sitting with the top seed and riding a 14-game winning streak, Baltimore’s run to the postseason had been easy. This year, it’s been far from that.
This Ravens team is special not because it’s particularly flashy or consistently dominant, but because it’s played with incredible heart and recovered from the potentially season-dooming obstacles that seemed to relentlessly impede them.
Don’t be surprised if these struggles help them gut their way to a deep playoff run.