Eisenberg: Doing it the Hard Way

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Fittingly, it was the Harvard guy, Ravens center Matt Birk, who put things in proper perspective yesterday after the Ravens defeated the Oakland Raiders to lock up a spot in the AFC playoffs. "Today was an appropriate game," Birk said.

He meant it was an apt reflection of the Ravens' entire season, and indeed, it was – tough and physical, harder than expected, frustrating at times, but eventually successful.

The Ravens started fast and never trailed, but with their passing game tepid and their pass defense reeling at times, they watched Oakland gain momentum and pull within a point in the second half. There were moments when it seemed their playoff berth might slip away. Sound familiar? That's exactly how the team's entire season has gone – a fast start followed by a bumpy middle and some seriously shaky moments, none worse than a long week spent at .500 in early December.

But through it all, both yesterday and throughout the season, the Ravens took their lumps, endured the doubts they generated and kept hammering away with a hard-nosed professionalism that, I believe, is their finest quality. They were as disappointed as anyone that they weren't a top contender with a shiny record, but they kept grinding away.

In the end, they were rewarded. Willis McGahee, after a season in Ray Rice's shadow, had a monster game yesterday, rushing for 167 yards and three touchdowns, and rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, undrafted last spring, delivered two crucial turnovers. Their big plays enabled the Ravens to quell Oakland's rally and advance to the Super Bowl tournament for the second straight season.

In the end, a win -- that's an appropriate summation of both yesterday's game and the entire season.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh admitted it had been "a tough road" and "there are a million things we can do better," but "getting to the playoffs is a hard thing to do in the NFL," he said, and the Ravens deserve credit for doing that. No matter what happens in the postseason, they got there.

If you think they have issues, consider the Denver Broncos, who lost eight of their last 10 games to fall out of the playoff race, or the New York Giants, who lost eight of their last 11 to suffer the same fate. Think it's a happy day in Pittsburgh, where the defending Super Bowl champions are done for the season because they lost to the lowly Browns, Raiders and Chiefs along the way? Hey, Jacksonville was two games ahead of the Ravens in the wild card race in late November and ended up two games behind.

The Ravens endured as much disappointment as those teams, but they didn't collapse, steadied and eventually got where they wanted to go, where every NFL team wants to go, to the playoffs. And now that they're there, they find themselves in, well, let's call it an interesting position.

For months, they've been measured against the great expectations they generated by making the AFC championship game last season, and as a 9-7 team that barely scraped into the playoffs, it's safe to say they didn't entirely measure up. But now that they're in the playoffs, they're no longer weighted down by expectations. They're just a wild card qualifier heading to New England to play the mighty Patriots, a team that has won three Super Bowls with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. No one is expecting anything from the Ravens. Suddenly, they have nothing to lose. They're liberated.

"We are going to be a very formidable opponent," Harbaugh said yesterday, and I think he's right. I don't know if they're going to beat the Patriots, but they're not going to be an easy out. They were in the championship game a year ago. They've never beaten the Patriots, so they're due. They're back to uttering their rushing and defense mantra, playing pretty well. And these Patriots, losers of six games, aren't a vintage unit.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy said last night on NBC that he liked the Ravens in the game, no doubt partly because the Patriots will be without injured receiver Wes Welker, but also, no doubt, because the Ravens give off a dangerous scent. Yes, they barely made it to the playoffs, but now that they're in, they're unburdened and unbowed, relaxed and capable. I'm guessing no one relishes playing them.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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