Here's what Phil Simms said on a conference call with reporters earlier this week:
"Baltimore is as good as they were last year, and that's the team that went to the AFC Championship game. They could be 12-3 as easy as they are 8-7. If you said to me the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl, I can't say I'd be completely shocked if it happened. They are a dangerous team with a unique style, especially on defense. Of course, they have to win this Sunday to get this thing going. If you think back to all of their games: against New England, against Indianapolis, when they had about 10 chances to beat them; an incredible loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it keeps going and going. Of course, they won some close ones too. I don't discount any of these players or these Wild Card teams, when they go to the playoffs."
A year ago at this point of the season, the Ravens had to win their last game to earn the playoffs. We had to beat the 5-10 Jaguars to get the 2nd Wild Card position.
There was certainly a "feel good" energy for Ravens fans then. Flags were on cars. Purple was everywhere, and we sensed the excitement from the community.
Let's face it. It's not the same feeling right now. And, yet, we're in the same spot. We're playing another dangerous 5-10 team. And, if we win, we get the 2nd Wild Card spot.
What's the difference?
Two wins – that's one difference. In 2008, we were 10-5 at this time. Today, we are 8-7. We had a couple of close, dramatic losses a year ago, but nothing like we have experienced this season. This year, we had the missed kick to end the Minnesota loss, the dropped pass at New England, the interception in the red zone against the Colts and the mess in Pittsburgh last Sunday. (And, yes, it was a mess. To play as well as we did against the Steelers and lose in the fashion we did – with the penalties and the dropped touchdown pass – really hurt all of us: you, our fans, our players and coaches. We CAN feel the "you-let-us-down" attitude coming from some of you because of the Pittsburgh defeat. The team loves to beat the Steelers, and we know our fans want us to beat them more than other teams.)
Another difference: perception. We enjoyed every victory last season because our fans were surprised by our successful pursuit of the playoffs. That's because we had suffered through the ugly 5-11 2007 season. Without a doubt, the most enjoyable seasons are the ones when the experts do not expect you to win. This season, based on our appearance in the AFC Championship last January, expectations were much higher. Sometimes even victories weren't good enough: "It's only the Bears – (they looked pretty good, by the way, when they beat the Vikings last Monday night)…the Broncos are frauds…you got lucky in San Diego."
So be it.
I know there are many of you out there who have enjoyed every minute of Ravens football this season. For those who aren't having as much fun, jump in the pool. The water is fine. It's fun.
Remember, it's hard to make the playoffs. (To do it this season, we have to fly across the country and play a Raiders' team that has beaten the Eagles and Bengals in Oakland and won at Pittsburgh and Denver.) There will be at least 5 new playoff teams in the NFL this January. In 3 of the 4 previous years, there were 7 new playoffs teams compared to the previous season. As I've written before, the NFL rules make it harder for good teams to win – you play a tougher schedule, your draft choices are lower.
I'll admit, it took all of us a few days to get over last Sunday's Steelers' loss. I've moved on, and I'm fired up about our opportunity to go out, beat the Raiders and get into the playoffs. I'm even more encouraged when I examine a couple of playoff teams from a year ago. At this point in the season in 2008, the Cardinals were 8-7 and the Eagles 8-6-1. Like us this year, each had to win the season finale to get to 9 victories. Both teams did that. (Arizona, in fact, got whacked by the Patriots, 47-7, and Minnesota, 35-14, in its 2 games prior to the '08 regular season finale.)
We know what happened to those 2 teams that "barely" made it to the postseason. They met in the NFC Championship game, and then Pittsburgh needed the best last-minute drive in Super Bowl history to beat the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
It may not feel like it, but this Ravens' team might be better prepared for the playoffs than our team a year ago. In 2008, we were riding a rookie quarterback and a 1st-year head coach to the playoffs. We were very injured – the most players (19) in the league on Injured Reserve. Our secondary was depleted with both Chris McAlister and Dawan Landry on IR, plus Samari Rolle was very limited by foot and neck injuries. Kelly Gregg and Dwan Edwards were out for the season, as were Marshal Yanda and Demetrius Williams. Oh, did I mention that Ray Rice was severely hobbled by a calf injury?
We're actually healthier today compared to a year ago. We're close to getting some key, important players back. We're tested by being in this position a year ago. We're hardened by the difficult losses we've suffered this season. We're clearly more experienced at key positions like quarterback, running back – what a great season Ray Rice! – and offensive line. We're much healthier on the D-line, and, actually, a little healthier in the secondary. (Although Jim Leonhard, subbing for Landry last year, had a great playoff run for us.)
So, I know it doesn't feel the same. But, let's enjoy it. Let's appreciate how hard it is to get to this point. I'm done pouting about the "what ifs" from the Pittsburgh loss. I'm fired up about our opportunity in Oakland. Let's beat the Raiders.
Talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis , Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.