In the aftermath of winning the AFC North, Head Coach John Harbaugh called the 2018 Ravens "The best team I've ever been associated with," paying respect to their solidarity and refusal to give in. Here are a few reasons why.
Needing to win almost every week for two months, the Ravens could have cracked under the pressure. They didn't.
When they were 4-5 at the bye, riding a three-game losing streak, the locker room could have fractured. The Ravens stayed united.
When Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback in Week 10, the team's offensive style had to be changed dramatically. The Ravens adjusted without resistance.
Overcoming those challenges earned this team a special place in Harbaugh's memory. But the next challenge awaits, a chance to earn a special place in history next to the other greatest team of Super Bowl XLVII.
"It's the best team. T-E-A-M, the best team," Harbaugh said. "The best bunch of guys who understand what it means to have each other's' backs, to fight through adversity, and never be divided by anything. … Block out all the outside, turn to each other for strength, and be there for one another. That, to me, is what makes a team. That's the best team I've been around."
The Ravens believe the adversity they have overcome will be an asset when they open the playoffs Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium. Just two weeks ago, the Ravens visited Los Angeles facing a virtual must-win situation against the Chargers. The Ravens responded with perhaps their most impressive performance, a 22-10 victory in which Baltimore's defense dominated.
That victory guarantees nothing against the Chargers on Sunday. But the Ravens have been in must-win mode for weeks. Playoff pressure should not feel much different.
"It seems like, for us, we always have to win," Harbaugh said. "We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole when we lost three games in a row. That was a situation we found ourselves in. Just for the guys not to blink, not to bat an eye. Go to work, compete in games – that's what you're proud of. You look back and look at it now. It looked insurmountable, but it was one game at a time. Now you look back, and it was a heck of an accomplishment. It had to be. If we didn't win six-out-of-seven, we wouldn't be the AFC North champions."
Making the playoffs for the first time since 2014 lifted a burden off the Ravens. But that does not mean the players are satisfied. Jackson, who turns 22 years old on Jan. 7, will become the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game on Sunday. But he is mature beyond his years, ready to turn the page on the regular season.
"We're not going to get on our high horse," Jackson said. "We're just trying to fight for the championship. In the playoffs, we just have to keep going. We'll start with practice. We have to practice hard, and we'll go from there."
The switch from Joe Flacco to Jackson and from a pass-first to a run-first offense meant a personal sacrifice for the receivers, who knew their targets and numbers would go down. But they all made the adjustment without complaint. John Brown, Willie Snead IV, and Michael Crabtree are veteran receivers who want a championship, not just individual numbers. The Ravens have become the NFL's top rushing team and the receivers have rolled with the success.
"We have a lot of unselfish players in the locker room, on both offense and defense," Snead said. "On offense that running game is unbelievable. On defense we have guys that can fly around and make plays. We're playing great defense. It's been a struggle, but at this point, it's all worth it."
The Ravens still have a chip on their shoulder, knowing that their bandwagon was nearly empty when they were 4-5. But they felt the energy in M&T Bank Stadium in the playoff clinching win over the Cleveland Browns, and they are happy to be starting the playoffs at home. After linebacker C.J. Mosley sealed the playoff berth with his game-saving interception against Cleveland, he loved seeing so happy faces – on the field, on the sidelines, and in the stands.
"Yeah man, when you do something great, and the whole city and the whole team is behind you, there's no better feeling," Mosley said. "At the end of the day, we deserved it. All the things we've been through all year, the ups and downs of the season, the naysayers out there, all the people on social media that said I can't cover. I won't say too much about that, people are going to talk, but look at it now. We're in there. Like I always said, we just needed a chance to get in the playoffs. We're in there, so let's keep rolling."
This season has been memorable, but it's not over. Baltimore enters the playoffs riding a three-game winning streak, playing as well as anyone in the AFC. This is the 12th season for Ravens Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, but he has never reached the Super Bowl. Weddle would love to change that. To the coaches and players, this Ravens group is already special. But they want more.
"We have the pieces, we have the coaches, we have the drive," Weddle said. "We've worked harder than we ever had this past offseason. When you have a group that plays for each other … people look at our defense and our team, and there's a lot of other more talented teams out there. But, you look at our team, and we're the best team. Because that's what we are. We play for each other, we rely on each other, we have each other's back. It's not always the most talented team that wins, it's the best team. It's the best team that wins. We're out to prove that this year."