Early Sunday evening, the Buffalo Bills probably figured they would host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The Steelers just had to win a wild-card game against the Cleveland Browns, who had barely practiced all week and were missing their head coach and several key players due to COVID-19.
But the Browns won a game that truly defied belief, which meant the Ravens, not the Steelers, are facing the Bills Saturday night in Buffalo.
Enjoying their finest season in a quarter-century, the Bills are seeded No. 2 in the AFC field. But I can't believe they're excited to see the fifth-seeded Ravens in their path.
To be clear, no one fears anyone at this point in the playoffs, especially not a team that went 13-3 during the season, as the Bills did. But the Ravens bring an assortment of qualities that make them a daunting opponent in the January crucible that is the playoffs.
For starters, they're accustomed to the pressure-packed environment, having made three straight playoff appearances, nine in 13 years under Head Coach John Harbaugh and 13 in 25 years as a franchise.
The effect of that track record shouldn't be underestimated. Expecting to win is the first step toward making good things happen. The Ravens drill that expectation into every player who joins the team, not with words so much as the culture Harbaugh oversees.
The big stage won't intimidate them in the least, as it does some teams.
And not only are they comfortable in the environment, they thrive as their circumstances get tougher. They're 11-6 as a franchise in road playoff games after Sunday's win in Tennessee.
If you think that's just history and has nothing to do with the 2020 team, you didn't hear tackle Orlando Brown Jr. say last week that he was thrilled the Ravens didn't have a first-round bye this year, as opposed to a year ago, when they sat out a week and then were upset as the AFC's top seed.
He might as well have said, "We don't like the easy way!"
You aren't going to talk me out of believing the Ravens prefer it this way, i.e., facing skepticism rather than praise, circling their wagons in hostile territory, a night game in cold, snowy Buffalo, etc.
It speaks to an ingrained mental toughness that was evident this season as the team faced a litany of obstacles including key injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak. The Ravens weathered it all and now they're relatively healthy and peaking.
When you take them on in the playoffs, you take on an organization that knows how to field winning teams.
Consider how the 2020 team got here. The big move in building this unit was the drafting of Lamar Jackson in 2018. Other teams wouldn't commit to a quarterback with wondrous natural talent but a non-traditional skillset. The Ravens have reaped significant rewards for possessing the self-confidence to go all in. Jackson was the league MVP at 23. Sunday, he took down the Titans with a touchdown dash borne of his singular talent and instincts.
But the Ravens haven't just turned Jackson loose. They've brought him along, coached him up. After Sunday's win, Jackson praised Quarterbacks Coach James Urban for being in his ear all day, and for that matter, all day every day.
There's a lot of that going on at the Under Armour Performance Center. It doesn't guarantee success, but it sure helps your chances.
As for the team around Jackson, General Manager Eric DeCosta has bolstered the roster with veteran additions and hit on draft picks. No one should take it for granted, as I've learned in two years of working on my Ravens podcast, "What Happened to That Guy?"
I've interviewed multiple players who had long NFL careers with many teams, and many have told me Baltimore, in their experience, was the organization most committed to winning; the organization that most operated as one should, in top-down fashion, without cutting corners; the organization with the clearest view of how it wanted its teams to play year after year.
"Man, when you're a part of this organization, you've got some big shoes to fill … with just the history and what it stands for," said cornerback Marcus Peters, who has played for three teams in six years in the league. "It stands for defense, it stands for toughness, and it's together. That's the best thing, is that we all come together, and we've got a team full of tough players who are going to go to battle, and who are going to scratch and claw for each other."
It's an organizational DNA built for January, which is exactly why the Ravens are the playoff team no one is excited to see.