Late Monday night, very late, after most fans in Baltimore were sleeping, the Ravens finished dressing and boarded their buses underneath Ford Field in downtown Detroit. It was snowing, the roads slushy, the drive to the airport slow and quiet.
The Ravens were leaving a town in despair, its fans incredulous about a game that had gotten* *away. The Lions had everything going for them, a raucous home field advantage, great players, and they didn't let the Ravens into the end zone all night. Somehow, the Ravens won on Justin Tucker's six field goals, the last an improbable 61-yarder.
The Lions, a team that finds ways to lose, knew they would wake up Tuesday to a national lambasting. The Ravens, a team that finds ways to win, were heading home, their playoff prospects rising fast.
The feeling of immense satisfaction that prevailed in the Ravens' buses was familiar to many of the players. Leaving a city in despair is one of their hallmarks. They took the same satisfied ride to the airport last season after playoff wins in Denver and New England. They've won their share of epic games at home, too.
How do they do it? How do they keep coming through in these tight games that make or break their season? The NFL is full of teams that don't know how to do it, Dallas, Detroit, San Diego, promising teams that always come up short. But the Ravens could teach a class in the subject, "How to Prevail."
It starts with a simple first commandment: Make the other team beat you. Don't give the game away.
In the NFL, you're halfway home if you don't litter the field with turnovers, dropped passes and penalties, as the Lions did Monday night. Many of the Ravens' biggest wins over the years have featured similar acts of charity, going all the way back to Al Del Greco's missed field goals in Tennessee in 2000.
It doesn't cheapen the Ravens' successes. To the contrary, by not making the same mistakes, the Ravens are exhibiting discipline and fundamentals, all the right stuff. It's called being smart, playing to your potential.
The Ravens also have faith in their ability to prevail, especially at the end of close games. They have done it for so long, especially with John Harbaugh as their head coach and Joe Flacco under center, that they're comfortable in the tense environment and always believe someone is going to make the play to make the difference.
At the point in the game where many other teams panic, they take a deep breath and wade in, remembering how they've done it before.
Flacco obviously is at the epicenter of that groupthink, the one with the ball in his hands. His statistics aren't gaudy, but with the game on the line, he is confident, unflappable and aggressive, a dangerous set of qualities. His teammates trust him to get the job done, as they should. The last-ditch drive to set up Tucker's field goal Monday night was his fourth game-winner of 2013 and the 18th of his career.
"The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith. We believe. We trust," Harbaugh said Monday night. "Because of that, we'll fight. We will run the race right down to the end, that's something that our football team does."
In the sweeping theatrical production that is the NFL, every team plays a certain character, fills a role. There are royals. There are peasants. There are court jesters. There are dashing young men destined to break your heart. There are radicals, over-the-hill knights, honorable soldiers and Rex Ryan's team. (See if you can match those archetypes with teams. It's fun.)
Who are the Ravens? I see them as the savvy gladiator, calm in conflict, knowing what it takes to prevail – a role they have almost perfected, as the Lions can attest.
They aren't perfect, far from it. It's kind of remarkable they're even in the playoff hunt in 2013 considering what they've faced -- the loss of so much key personnel from a year ago, the lack of a running game, weeks of tepid play, the inability to dial up late-game magic at times, and lately, red zone woes. But who they are has trumped all that -- guys who are going to ride toughness and faith as far as those qualities will carry them; guys who love nothing more than that slow, sweet bus ride out of another disappointed town.