This is the way it was supposed to end. In fact, the game had been closer than predicted. Mile High Stadium filled with the crowd's roar of approval as the Broncos, leading by a touchdown, lined up to shut down the Baltimore offense. Thirty-one seconds to go, third down and three, Baltimore on their own thirty-yard-line with no timeouts. Cameras panned to Ray Lewis, slumped on the sideline as the final moments of his career wound down. Then the snap, the pressure, the throw on the move off the front foot. The ball cut a high arc, long through the icy air. Touchdown Ravens! Seventy yards from impossible to anything is possible.
The Baltimore Ravens came into the 2012 season with high hopes, well aware of what it was like to have those hopes crushed. After sweeping their division and making it to the AFC Championship game, the 2011 Ravens fell one dropped pass short of going to the Super Bowl. Moments later, a missed field goal ended their season. The team's goal for 2012 was undisputed: to get to the big game, and win. What no one knew in August was how much the Baltimore Ravens would go through in the following months, both as individuals and as a team.
A different kind of losing
On September 6, 2012, Art Modell died of natural causes. The former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, beloved by the city for bringing football back after a long, painful drought, remained involved in the organization up until the time of his death. The night before Modell passed, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and players Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs visited him in the hospital.
At that time, Lewis lay his head on Modell's shoulder and whispered in his ear.
"I will always keep that between me and him because it is a son talking to a father. That's the way I looked at it from the moment I started whispering in his ear because that's what he always used to do to me," Lewis said.
"It's hard to keep talking about someone who loved you that much. It's like you have to keep a man like that lifted up because when you see that time closing, that you know physically that you will never see him again. That part of it, you let it take care of itself. Everything that I said in his ear, he knew came from my heart. I loved the man dearly.”
Modell's death echoed throughout the Ravens organization. When they took the field Monday night for their home opener, just days after the death of the man who was so instrumental in bringing Monday Night Football to American culture, the Ravens wore “Art” decals on their helmets. For their second game, and the rest of the season, they turned the decal into a patch which each player wore in his jersey.
Current Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took over ownership of the team in April of 2004. However, Art's loyalty to the team never wavered, and he remained involved with both the management and the individual players in the organization.
"He was my friend, my mentor," Bisciotti said in a statement released by the team. "How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore? We will strive to live up to his standard."
While Modell's passing dominated local and national media, one Raven was dealing quietly with his own loss. Sophomore defensive end Pernell McPhee had a breakout rookie season in 2011. Then, in February of 2012, his cousin's body was found in a canal. He had reportedly drowned. Months later, in July, McPhee's sister was killed after being shot in the head, chest and arm with an automatic weapon. In August, there was another death. A man who was a father figure to McPhee- McPhee referred to him as his “White Daddy”- unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
McPhee dealt with his pain privately, but his teammates and coaches were right there with him.
“He’s one of the toughest people that I’ve ever been around in my life,” Harbaugh said.
Defensive tackle Terrence Cody echoed their coach's sentiments, saying of McPhee, “We know he's emotionally tough and spiritually tough.”
McPhee and his team were off to a 1-1 start when the New England Patriots came to town. The game initially garnered attention as a re-match of the AFC Championship, a devastating loss for the Ravens and Baltimore fans. However, the storyline changed overnight. Literally.
When Torrey Smith went to bed Saturday night, his focus for the following day was a rivalry game, billed by the media as a “revenge” game. He was awakened at one o'clock in the morning by a phone call. His 19-year-old brother had died in a motorcycle accident.
Smith left the team hotel in the middle of the night and drove to Virginia. He spent much of the day with his family. When he arrived back at the stadium, sleep deprived and grieving, he made a choice. He was going to play.
"I texted my mom when I got to the stadium. That was when I knew I was going to play," Smith said. "She was excited about it. She said, `He'd want you to play.'"
Smith did more than simply take the field. He had six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
He propelled the Ravens to a dramatic win. With four minutes left in the game and the Ravens trailing by five points, Smith capped off a 92 yard drive with a touchdown reception to bring the Ravens within two points. New England 30, Baltimore 28. The defense stopped New England, and Flacco, Smith, and the Ravens moved the ball down the field. With no time left on the clock, the game came down once again to a field goal.
This time, the Ravens would not be denied. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker delivered to give Baltimore the win, 31-30.
Before the game, the Ravens observed a moment of silence for Smith's brother. Following the game, Harbaugh dedicated the victory to Smith's brother.
Fellow receiver Anquan Boldin explained that the team was determined to support Smith.
“All we can do is be there for him,” Boldin said, “It's a tough situation. All you can do is put your arms around him."
"My teammates helped get me through this. I love them to death," Smith said, "Coach Harbs, the players, the others in the organization … I mean, I don't know what to say. They were so respectful to me and my family. Wow, I'm fortunate to be with them. It's like I was meant to be with the Ravens."
Second Quarter. A sea of noisy purple formed a three dimensional frame for turf lit by stadium lights to neon green. New England led 13-0. Play action. Torrey Smith streaked down the field, beat coverage, and leaped into the air, arms outstretched. Twenty-five yards from Flacco's hands, Smith tumbled to the ground, football tucked safely against him, in the end zone. As he rose, television cameras zoomed in catching tears in his eyes. He pointed to the sky.
Depleted by injuries
Heading into the season, the Ravens knew their defense had its work cut out. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs had suffered a torn Achilles in the off-season. While he insisted he would be back, it seemed unlikely that he could get into any sort of playing shape, even if the Ravens should go deep into the post-season. The typical Achilles tear takes eleven to twelve months to heal after the day of surgery. Add to that the time a player would need to get back into “football” shape, and it was clear that even an optimistic doctor would guard against any hope that Suggs could take the field for the 2012 Ravens.
The defense struggled early on as Suggs' absence was conspicuous and free agency losses made for a front seven that was young and inexperienced. Week six against the Dallas Cowboys,the situation became far more dire as the Ravens suffered two crushing blows. Shutdown corner back Lardarius Webb and legendary linebacker Ray Lewis both went down with injuries. In the coming days, the Ravens would be told that each injury appeared to be season ending.
Webb was placed on the IR with a torn ACL. Lewis was also placed on the IR, having fully torn his triceps. However, an NFL rule change allowed the Ravens to tag Lewis as “designated for return,” meaning that he would be eligible to play by week 15. Word in Baltimore was that this move was out of respect for Lewis and not out of any real expectation that the inspirational leader could return to the field this season.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his coaching staff had their hands full. They were forced to make adjustments, such as using outside linebackers as defensive ends, adding extra linebackers to mix up schemes, and constantly changing up personnel packages based on their reads. Pees decided that with the inexperience on the field, it would benefit the team for him to move from the sidelines to the coaches box. Because he could not expect the younger, untested players to recognize what might be going wrong during a given play, it was important for him to have a more complete view of the field. At the same time as Pees' adjustments began to come together, unlikely names, unheralded players were stepping into large roles. And week 7, a week before the Ravens bye, the morning of the game against the Houston Texans, the Ravens shocked the football world announcing that Terrell Suggs would be active.
Just five months after tearing his Achilles, Suggs not only played, but played the majority of the game, and played well. From that game on, Suggs would strive to return to dominance. When asked about his performance, teammates enthusiastically proclaimed that even if he was far short of 100%, Suggs presence on the field helped everyone. This became clear as Paul Kruger, Art Jones, Pernell McPhee and other players began to stand out. With Suggs taking on double teams, players who had formerly been rendered silent were making noise.
Suggs' return was deemed “miraculous,” and the team was primed to prove that it had a few more miracles up its sleeve.
Disappointment felt thick in the air. The San Diego Chargers had managed to take advantage of what had become the Ravens trademark inconsistency. After struggling to create any momentum all game, the Ravens trailed the Chargers by three with under two minutes remaining in the game. The Baltimore offense lined up for fourth-and-29, and the game was all but over. Snap. The look downfield. Nothing. Just Ray Rice, who had stayed in the backfield to block. Flacco checked down to Rice, and Baltimore fans everywhere gave a collective sigh of defeat. What happened next is hard to explain. Rice charged upfield. He cut to the left, barely shirking one, two, three Charger defenders. He put his head down and willed himself through two more as teammate Anquan Boldin slammed in to block the last threat just before the defender would have taken Rice to the turf. First down Baltimore.
The Ravens had lost four of their last five, including a three game losing streak that culminated in a beat-down by the Denver Broncos and left people questioning whether the team could fashion up even one more win. With four days to go before the Ravens welcomed the Indianapolis Colts to Baltimore for the first round of the playoffs, the Maryland air was thick with both anxiety and excitement.
Four days to go and Ray Lewis took the podium for the first time since he had injured his triceps. Reporters were eager to talk to the star about his potential return to the field. The typical triceps injury takes about six months to fully recover from, and Lewis had been back at practice since mid-December- less than two months after his surgery. Could the 37-year-old linebacker really pull off the remarkable comeback?
Suggs' stunning return earlier in the season had Baltimore fans and pundits ready to believe in just about anything, but no one was prepared for what Lewis had in store. What started out as a routine Wednesday press conference became much more.
Lewis started off by addressing the question of whether he would take the field for the playoff game.
“Let's just say I'm on the active roster. We'll leave it at that,” he said.
He was asked about whether this injury had affected him differently than other injuries over the course of his career. He responded by talking about how much he appreciated the time he had been able to spend with his children during his rehab. Then he paused.
“I talked to my team today; I talked to them about life,” Lewis said slowly, “Life in general, and everything that starts has an end. It’s just life. And for me, today I told my team that this would be my last ride.”
Lewis continued as the shock settled in throughout the room.
“I’ve played the game at a very, very high level and a very rough pace. But for me to be where I am standing as a man now and to make my own declaration and say it’s time for me to go on, then I make this last run with my team. I give them everything I’ve got. That’s one thing I shared with them in that meeting: ‘I am going to give you everything that I’ve got, because this is our last one.’ And wherever it ends, it ends. But, I didn’t come back for it to end in the first round.”
Seventeen years ago the Ravens were born. Over seventeen years, coaching staff changed, management changed, players came and went. For seventeen years, there was one constant and one constant only: Ray Lewis. Ray Lewis had just announced his retirement.
His teammates were as shocked as anyone.
“It’s just one of those days where you just don’t prepare for these kinds of things,” said running back Ray Rice. “Emotions, everything, we could talk about all of that. We will give all we’ve got Sunday for Ray. We owe it to him. We owe it to the organization. He’s done it for 17 years. What he gave to this city, what he gave to his fans, what they’ve given back to him, it’s something that I got to witness.”
Rice, his teammates, and the whole city began to prepare for what would be more than another playoff game. When the Ravens played Indianapolis it would be the last time “Ray Ray” would run out of the tunnel at M&T Bank stadium, and potentially the last time he would step on the football field to line up with his team.
The Ravens-Colts game was not Lewis' last. After a convincing Ravens victory, M&T Bank Stadium remained at max capacity as Ray Lewis ran a victory lap to the cheers of a grateful and elated crowd. With the Houston Texans win over the Cincinnati Bengals earlier in the day, Baltimore knew they were headed to Denver, and Lewis knew he would wear 52 for at least one more game.
So came the Miracle at Mile High Stadium, where the Ravens stunned the nine and half point favorite Denver Broncos with a historic overtime victory, 38-35. Ray Rice proclaimed the Ravens a “team of destiny,” and the typically uncertain playoff landscape began to take on a different feel for many Baltimore fans. As the national media continued to doubt, Baltimore geared up for a rematch of the previous year's AFC Championship game. Headed to New England, Rice's team of destiny was once again a heavy underdog.
It had been a clinic in defense as the Ravens smothered Tom Brady and the most prolific offense of 2012, picking Brady off twice and denying the Patriots any points in the second half. Flacco had shown poise and precision, disecting the Patriots defense. Two minutes and five seconds left in the game, the Ravens held a 15 point lead. New England. First and ten. Shotgun. Brady's pass complete for ten yards. Brady and Co. continued to parade down the field, racking up three more first downs to arrive at Baltimore's 22 yard line with just over a minute to go. Brady fired into the end zone. Cary Williams, mid-stride, bent his knees, reached out, and pulled in the football. He dropped to the turf and his body slid along the white on navy cursive writing: “Patriots.” The Ravens, against all odds, were Super Bowl bound.
Team of Destiny
The Ravens up-and-down season has been marked by tragedy, resilience, and bold decision-making. Torrey Smith's decision to take the field hours after the death of his brother; Terrell Sugg's decision to return so early in the season, which allowed him to reach peak performance for the Super Bowl run; John Harbaugh's decision to fire Cam Cameron in week 14 and promote Jim Caldwell, who had never called plays in the NFL; Caldwell's halftime decision to unleash Joe Flacco in the AFC Championship game, which led to the Ravens outscoring New England 21-0 in the second half. Every choice, every loss, and every victory has brought the Ravens to where they now stand, on the cusp of greatness.
Harbaugh has long used a quote from the bible to guide his team and it now describes his team: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Harbaugh and his players frequently refer to the team as a family. They stand by each other, they support each other, they trust each other, and they make each other better. What fate has in store for the Ravens will come to fruition on Sunday, but one story has already been told. It is a story of a group of men that fought together, not just side by side on the field, but side by side through life-changing events and in the face of uncertainty.
When Ray Lewis spoke to the media about telling his teammates he was leaving after this year, he said, “I think they respect the fact that I didn’t come to everybody else before I came to them. I came to them. It was more of a brotherhood that I really wanted to discuss with them. That’s what I was talking about – about being a man, about understanding the things that a man should be able to carry in life. The game will fade one day, but being a man will never fade. You came into this world a man; you’re going down a man.
“My teammates respect that to the ultimate, and I had to respect them by giving them that courtesy by coming out and saying, ‘You all deserve this first. You guys deserve this first that I’ve ran my course with this.’ Now, I’m overwhelmed telling you inside out. The emotions are very controlled, because I never redo one day. I never try to redo one day.
“Every moment I’ve ever had in this building, what this organization has done for me, what this city has done for me, what my fans have done for me, what the mutual respect for different players have done for me around this league, I can never take any of that back. That’s the ultimate when you leave this game. You leave it with one heck of a legacy.”
Whatever happens Super Bowl Sunday, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens have left one heck of a legacy.