Though perennial contenders for several years now, it’s hard not to be a little surprised that the Baltimore Ravens won this year’s Super Bowl.
Last season was the season, wasn’t it? The Ravens were primed to go to the Super Bowl last year, with a dominant defense and an offense that was finally showing signs of improvement. They rolled through the regular season and earned the second seed in the AFC, only to fall agonizingly short in the AFC Championship game to the New England Patriots. Had Lee Evans held on to a perfectly-thrown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco in the closing moments of that game, the Ravens would have been in the Super Bowl last year.
And who knows what would have happened then?
But the fruits of success kind of caught up to the Ravens following the season. Chuck Pagano, the team’s wildly-popular defensive coordinator, left to take the head coaching job with the Indianapolis Colts. Defensive end Cory Redding and safety Tom Zbikowski joined Pagano in Indy, and longtime linebacker Jarrett Johnson left to join the San Diego Chargers, as the Ravens struggled to get their payroll under the salary cap. Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs also left, taking his talents to New Orleans to play for the Saints.
Then, while working out in the offseason, reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs blew out his achilles tendon, and the general concensus was that Suggs would miss this entire season.
Even the most optimistic Ravens fans were feeling a bit wary about the 2012-13 season. I had an 8-8 season in mind, with hopes that they could win a couple surprising games to slip into the playoffs while the younger players gained valuable experience for the future, and Flacco continued his growth as a quarterback.
But beat reporters started talking about Flacco’s improvement during the team’s mini-camps. The talk only escalated as the team went through training camp, and Flacco was impressing teammates and the media with his throws and composure. The team pounded the Bengals in the season opener, 44-13, and Flacco shined brightly, providing some real hope for the team’s chances.
The next week I found myself in Philadelphia, walking into the stadium in a Ray Lewis jersey, and walking out with a bruised ego as Flacco struggled and the Eagles earned a tough one-point win. Again, my mind went back to thoughts of 8-8, and my expectations were generally low.
More adversity then hit the Ravens the next week as word came out that wide receiver Torrey Smith’s brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident the day before the team would face off with the Patriots in a nationally-televised game. Somehow, Smith showed up to play that night, and was seen wiping tears away during the national anthem. That was before he went out and caught two touchdown passes from Flacco and helped lead the team to the win.
The team struggled a bit the next few games, but managed to pull out some fortunate wins, and then disaster struck in a tight win against Dallas. Lewis tore his triceps, essentially ending his 17th season with the team, and star cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his ACL, shelving him for the rest of the season, as well.
Against all odds, Suggs managed to gut himself back on the roster the following week, but the team got destroyed by the Houston Texans, 43-13, and it appeared the wheels were in full falling-off mode.
Using duct tape and pride, the Ravens won a few games in a row after that, but found themselves in deep trouble against the San Diego Chargers, and faced fourth-and-29 late in the game. A short pass to running back Ray Rice led to an improbable first down, and the Ravens went on to win the game.
But it felt like they were doing it with smoke and mirrors.
The luck appeared to run out as the team lost its next three games, each uglier than the last, and the Ravens appeared to be in full-panic mode when they fired longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in the midst of that streak. They were ridiculed by the national media and given up for dead.
I started counting the days until the Orioles showed up for spring training.
But then, something clicked. Flacco was fantastic against the defending champion New York Giants and the Ravens cruised to a 33-14 win. With a playoff spot clinched, they rested their ailing starters in the final game and got ready for the playoffs.
Lewis then announced his impending retirement, willed himself back onto the field at the start of the playoffs, and the team continued to defy the odds, culminating in a closer-than-it-should-have-been 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. Flacco, the UD alum, earned MVP honors for the game following a sensational postseason run, and I did my fair share to rid the world of its all-too-dangerous alcohol supply.
It will be a different team that takes the field for the Ravens next year, thanks to retirement and more salary cap casualties, but that’s what happens. Life could be worse. I could be a Steelers fan.
Man, that felt good to write.