Joe Flacco certainly was right when he said after Sunday's win that the Ravens' goal isn't just to make the playoffs.
Having carried a team to a Super Bowl triumph, Flacco understands that "just" getting to the postseason, though always satisfying, is a relatively minor achievement compared to the sport's ultimate goals.
Still, I've seen a lot of unusually big smiles in and around the organization after the Ravens defeated Cleveland Sunday to lock up the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff field.
The Ravens needed it ... really needed it. Not just the players, the whole organization.
They've made it often enough, now six times in seven years, that they expect no less, but still, I can't think of a time when they were more happy and/or excited and/or relieved about the positive vibe a playoff berth generates, regardless of what happens from here.
This has been a year unlike any other for the Ravens. A searing off-field scandal involving Ray Rice knocked the franchise to its knees, generating tough questions about values and decision-making. Owner Steve Bisciotti said he had never experienced a crisis quite like it. Mistakes were admitted to and apologized for, but the sour odor of controversy lingered. I read a column suggesting the Ravens had "lost their way" since they won the Super Bowl. I'm not sure what that means and it's impressively non-specific, but you get the idea.
The team itself, the on-field product, has only been tangentially involved, but inevitably, its ups and downs have been swept into the narrative. When the Ravens were on top of the AFC North in October, it was said they were overcoming adversity. When they faltered at times down the stretch and twice lost control of their playoff destiny, it was said they were stuck under the dark cloud that had shadowed the franchise all year.
When one of their best players was suspended for using a performance-enhancing drug, someone around here (me) wrote that it felt like the last straw. I was not alone in harboring doubts. With the team's struggles and the lingering scent of scandal, a segment of the fan base seemed to be just pissed off.
If the Ravens had lost to Cleveland on Sunday, the result would have fit neatly into the tough-times narrative. Even if they had won to finish 10-6 and missed out on the postseason, a second straight non-playoff year would have had the same depressing effect.
But as it happened, the Ravens rallied to win and enhanced their run of playoff seasons. The difference in the tone of the narrative, in the reflection on the Ravens, is, well, night and day.
Six playoff trips in seven years is a stellar record, truly a mark of excellence. "It says a lot about the organization," Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, leaving out that it's a year when the organization is especially grateful to hear any nice things said about it, as opposed to the alternatives, which were said a lot.
Basically, making the playoffs turns the 2014 season into a success story. It doesn't change what happened off the field or minimize the scandal's important repercussions, but it does argue pretty convincingly against the idea that the Ravens are stuck under a dark cloud.
In the end, they're a football team, judged by whether they win or lose. And even if they lose in Pittsburgh Saturday night, they can say they were good enough, tough enough and resilient enough to give themselves a shot in a year when they dealt with a staggering distraction, endured a withering rash of injuries and continued a rebuild-on-the-run project that began pretty much the moment they hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Superdome 23 months ago.
A bare fragment of that championship team remains, just seven of 22 starters, making it all the more impressive to those in the industry that the Ravens continue to chalk up playoff berths.
Yes, they want to do more than just make it. And they're not about to doubt their prospects even though they'll be underdogs.
"I'm not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we're sitting here and still playing," Flacco said Sunday.
Players can't afford to think any other way. They always want more.
But believe me, at the end of the franchise's toughest year, the act of just getting here has brightened the halls of the organization even more than it usually does.
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