The Ravens' season has been filled with what-ifs, almosts and proclamations unfinished.
On Sunday, the Ravens had the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, winners of six straight games, on the ropes.
They had their chance to make a statement.
As the defense prepared to take the field, needing one fourth-quarter stop to win, linebacker Ray Lewis paced up and down the sidelines, imploring his team to finish.
This time, they did.
With a Haloti Ngata tipped pass and Cory Redding interception, the Ravens captured a 30-24 win at M&T Bank Stadium that was not only important in the standings, but for Baltimore's psyche.
At 10-4, the Ravens stay on the Steelers' heels in the AFC North race and tighten their grip on a third straight playoff berth with two games remaining in the regular season.
"I just think it doesn't get any better," Lewis said. "You know, we've been through every up, every down, every peak, every valley, and for us to come out and fight the way we did …"
Lewis, who delivered a passionate speech to the team the night before at the team hotel, didn't finish his sentence. It was understood.
The Ravens had surrendered fourth quarter leads eight times in 13 games this season. The Saints (10-4) needed just a field goal to tie the game and had 2 minutes and 51 seconds to get it done.
Baltimore continued to pressure Brees, as it did all game and eventually forced a fourth-and-8 from the Ravens' 17. Ngata cut inside, but it was closed off so he spun around. He saw Brees looking right through him so he got his hands up.
"I think everybody on our defense was thinking we couldn't let this one get away," Ngata said. "Throughout this year, we have always let teams finish us off. It just felt great that our defense could help out our offense like that."
"I just kind of jumped and tipped it. It was perfect."
It wasn't just the defense's final stand that had Baltimore's players shouting and singing in the postgame locker room. They also restored the running game that has been largely missing for much of the season.
Ray Rice ran 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown and surpassed the 1,000-yard landmark. He also caught a team-high five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, which left him with a career-high 233 total yards.
As a team, the Ravens rushed 39 times for 208 yards. They passed 20 times for 148 yards.
The biggest offensive play of the game came on the legs of Rice in the fourth quarter.
On the first play from scrimmage, following a Saints' touchdown that tied the game at 24, Rice scampered up the middle behind blocks from tackle Marshal Yanda and fullback Le'Ron McClain and broke back outside for 50 yards. That set up the decisive 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
"I think we've established our team mentality back," Rice said. "I saw the game plan. I knew we were going to run the ball today. We knew one thing we would be able to do was run the ball."
After falling behind by a touchdown in the first quarter, Baltimore scored touchdowns on its next three drives.
Flacco found rookie tight end Ed Dickson open on third down for a 34-yard touchdown and Baltimore's first score. It was Dickson's first NFL touchdown and came on a clever release play.
The Ravens stayed aggressive on their next drive. After being stuffed on third-and-inches from the Saints' 49-yard line, they decided to go for it on fourth down. Baltimore faked an inside run then pitched the ball outside to Rice, who broke off a 20-yard run. Rice capped off the drive with a 10-yard scamper up the middle on third-and-3.
The Ravens didn't let up from there, going 66 yards in just six plays to take a 21-7 second-quarter lead. This time, it came on a beautiful 17-yard rainbow pass by quarterback Joe Flacco on third-and-10 to Rice in the back corner of the end zone.
Flacco finished 10-of-20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He too saw the importance of establishing the ground game.
"The biggest thing is that we knew we were going to score points," Flacco said. "When we got down there in the red zone, for the most part, we put the ball in the end zone, especially early on. After we got down, 7-0, we came back with three big scores, and the running game was a big part of that."
New Orleans wasn't going down easily, however. Would it be any other way this season for the Ravens?
The Saints marched 92 yards at the end of the half to score on a 1-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham, his second of the game. Brees, who finished 29-of-46 for 267 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, went 9-for-9 on the drive.
The Ravens, who haven't scored an offensive third-quarter touchdown since Week 10 against the Falcons, came out of the half with consecutive three-and-outs.
The Saints capitalized with a 47-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley to cut the lead to 21-17. Baltimore had two sacks/strips on back-to-back plays by outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs but couldn't recover either.
As if Baltimore needed anything else to go against them in the fourth quarter, New Orleans tied the game on a deflected pass in the end zone that needed a challenge replay to confirm.
Brees tossed up a jump-ball to wideout Marques Colston in the end zone, but the ball was tipped by Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson right to Saints wideout Lance Moore, who tiptoed in the corner of the end zone for the tying score with 11:34 left.
Just when fate seemed to be once again against the Ravens, Rice and the offense answered and the defense closed it out.
The Ravens have now won four of their last five games and have contests at Cleveland (5-9) and versus Cincinnati (3-11) remaining.
"It was a game we felt like we had to have," center Matt Birk said. "The Saints are a great team, the defending World Champs, all that stuff. But we're fighting for our playoff lives at our place in December."