Ravens Enter Playoffs 'Forged' Through Adversity


Minutes after the Ravens clinched their spot in the playoffs, Head Coach John Harbaugh circled the team around him and relayed the story of Gideon, which is referenced in the Bible's Book of Judges.

He had read the story a couple weeks earlier and was reminded of it that morning, and he told the players that they would revisit it this week.

The story goes that God wanted Gideon to free the Israelites from the neighboring Midianites. Gideon assembled an army, but God kept having to cut his numbers to prove that, with His strength and not the strength of man, they could still win the battle.

After beginning with 32,000 men, Gideon and his 300 soldiers drove the Midianites out.

The story reflects the season the Ravens have had.

In training camp, it appeared that Baltimore had plenty of ammunition to make a deep playoff run. But the Ravens' numbers have shrunk dramatically.

First it was Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice's suspension and ultimate termination. That set off a national firestorm.

Then injuries hit, and they hit hard, sending 18 players (as of now) to injured reserve, including integral pieces such as tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot) and tackle Rick Wagner (foot).

There was another suspension too, this time to one of the franchise's bedrocks in five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. In the midst of a tight playoff race, Ngata had to sit out four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances policy.

One player at a time, the Ravens' roster was picked off and those in the middle of it were tested.

But here the Ravens are, in the playoffs once again for the sixth time in seven seasons. And now, as they head to Pittsburgh as the sixth seed, with some of the worst Super Bowl odds of any team in the tournament, the Ravens feel mighty after all the adversity they've faced.

"We feel like we've been forged in a lot of different fires – daily and weekly fires that have come up, and our team is stronger because of that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We're very mentally tough, and that's a good thing going into the playoffs."

As defensive end Chris Canty said this week, and many other have echoed, every NFL team goes through adversity. That's just part of the business, and no other team is going to send its condolences.

But wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. has been around for 14 years, and it's even taken him by surprise.

"It's abnormal," he said. "It has been very unique and interesting, and at times, a circus."

The Rice incident kicked it all off.

While Rice wasn't around for many of the questions after he was released, the rest of the Ravens were left dealing with the aftermath of his actions. And the national reaction came from every direction – strongly.

Dealing with something never before seen in the NFL was a new challenge for this team and for Harbaugh. This was well beyond the scope of just coaching football.

"One great thing about being a head coach at this level is that you're dealing with adult problems," Harbaugh said this week.

"All kinds of different 'crises,' as you put it, that come up in people's lives that you do have an opportunity to get involved with on a personal level, and that can be challenging, but it can be rewarding."

While trying to take on those problems, Harbaugh had to focus on keeping his team moving forward. The Rice story dragged throughout training camp and heightened when a two-game suspension was first announced.

Harbaugh leaned on his mantra of "W.I.N." (What's important now?) which is tattooed throughout the building.

"[It's] taking the opportunity through what we do every single day – whether it's have a great practice or focus on your next opponent or your next challenge – not looking to the left or to the right, looking straight ahead at the next task at hand and not getting caught up in some 'civilian affairs' when it comes to taking care of our business on the field," Harbaugh said.

Rice, who was arguably one of the Ravens' best players from 2009-2013, was cut just two days before a critical Week 2 matchup against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Under Armour Performance Center's parking lot was filled with television trucks. The Ravens were coming off a bitter loss in the final minutes to division foe Cincinnati.

The distractions were at an all-time high.

Yet the Ravens responded with a convincing 26-6 beatdown of their rivals. It was a turning point in the eyes of running back Justin Forsett, the man stepping in for Rice.

"The way we went out and performed against Pittsburgh that night, it said a lot about us, the resilience and how focused we were about our craft," Forsett said. "I was really, really impressed and proud of the way we handled that situation."

Getting through that gave the Ravens' skin like an armadillo, a phrase Harbaugh likes to use.

"Everything that came behind it wasn't as big as the first distraction," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We had been through bigger stuff."

That wasn't the end of the turmoil. A week later, Pitta fractured and dislocated his hip again, and just like that, one of Flacco's favorite targets and a player that fit perfectly into Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's two-tight end scheme was gone.

The Ravens pushed ahead, winning five of their next six games while feasting on the weakened NFC South. They rolled into Cincinnati sitting at 5-2 and in first place in the AFC North.

Then came more punches to the gut. Baltimore's secondary, which was already thin, lost its best performing cornerback to that point, Jimmy Smith, to a season-ending foot injury. Cincinnati delivered, picking on his replacement with a late, long drive.

An offensive pass interference call wiped what would have been a game-winning touchdown by Smith off the board, angering the Ravens. Baltimore lost, 27-24.

The thin secondary was exposed the next week by the Steelers, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped six touchdowns on the secondary and handed the Ravens a 43-23 tail kicking. That loss suddenly dropped Baltimore into last place in the division.

Harbaugh and the players stuck together. While the head coach refuses to give himself the credit, his players say otherwise.

Earlier this month, quarterback Joe Flacco said persevering all starts with Harbaugh.

"It definitely starts with him and filters throughout the rest of us," Flacco said. "So, we are able to keep that levelheadedness and keep the same mentality no matter what's happened the previous week and move on and still go out there the next week and play well."

What helps is that Harbaugh himself hasn't changed too much over his seven years. He's been a constant, steady leader.

Flacco said Harbaugh is now able to trust the players more, especially the veterans. He has a little different style in certain minor instances. But Harbaugh's core beliefs are all "pretty much the same as when he first got here," said Flacco.

The Ravens rallied down the stretch of the regular season. They had even more injuries, then Ngata's suspension. The offense stumbled down the stretch. They responded after a harsh loss at home against San Diego and a complete clunker in Houston.

Through it all, they won five of their final seven games to get into the playoffs on the last day.

In the final minutes of the win over Cleveland, as a postseason berth was coming into view, Harbaugh went to Smith for an embrace.

"Let me tell you something," Smith said into his ear. "You're a heck of a coach. You're a heck of a coach. You're a heck of a coach. You do it right. You're a heck of a coach."

The next day, Harbaugh opened his Monday morning press conference talking about how proud he is of the other coaches and players, especially veteran leaders such as Flacco and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

"You're riding on that train with those guys through all those valleys and all those peaks and all those twists and turns and all those tunnels, and you're looking and you're saying to yourself, 'What is that light? Is it the end? Is it light at the end of the tunnel, or is it the train coming from the other end?' If it's the train, we'll smash into it anyway," Harbaugh said.

"I just feel like those guys came out the other end really well. I'm happy for them and proud of them and excited for the opportunity to walk with them through this next challenge."

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