OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens had just given up 30 points in the second half of a 40-25 loss at home to Cleveland that dropped their record to 2-2. As he gathered his players in the locker room, coach John Harbaugh was more disappointed than livid.
“John made a statement that rings in my head: ‘We’re not a good football team right now. We’re not,’” guard Marshal Yanda recalled this week.
It was a candid assessment of an underachieving squad that looked nothing like a Super Bowl contender.
Flash forward to last Sunday, when Baltimore completed the regular season with a 12-game winning streak by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-10. The Ravens rested seven starters because they had already clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Standing at the lectern following the Pittsburgh game, Harbaugh looked back at the turning point of the Ravens' finest regular season with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
“We were 2-2, and the statement was made in the locker room that, ‘We’ll find out what we’re made of,’” he said. “And boy, did we ever find out — 12 wins later.”
The Ravens enter the postseason with a first-round bye. They will open the playoffs next Saturday night at home against either Buffalo, Houston or Tennessee. Baltimore beat Buffalo 24-17 and Houston 41-7, and last year whipped Tennessee 21-0 on the road.
But in the playoffs, the past is irrelevant.
“It only takes turning the ball over one or two times, a penalty here and a penalty here. All it takes is one loss and we’re done,” Yanda said. “That 14-2 stuff does not matter.”
Back on Sept. 29, it was hard to imagine the Ravens coming into the playoffs as the favorite to win the Super Bowl. They had yielded a combined 73 points in two straight defeats and against Cleveland, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked four times and threw two interceptions.
“We pretty much said that our season could go one of two ways: We can change it and have success, or we can fold and fail,” running back Mark Ingram said.
The change came in the form of a renewed commitment to winning and several shrewd moves by first-year general manager Eric DeCosta, who realized help was needed for a defense that yielded 530 yards to the Browns.
Linebackers L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes were signed within days of that ugly defeat, and on Oct. 15, DeCosta sent linebacker Kenny Young and a draft pick to the Rams for star cornerback Marcus Peters.
Those three, along with the subsequent addition of free agent linemen Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, helped the Ravens finish with the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL.
“There's a lot of different things that went into that, but obviously, changing the personnel helped us,” defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.
The offense jelled, too. Jackson ended up rushing for 1,206 yards — most by a quarterback in NFL history — and Ingram tacked on 1,018 yards in his first season in Baltimore. Backup running back Gus Williams bulled for 711 yards, and the Ravens finished with more yards rushing (3,296) than any team in NFL history.
In addition, Jackson capped what could be an MVP season by throwing for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
So now, after going unbeaten over three straight months, the Ravens enter the postseason with the best record in the NFL.
“We’re very happy, very pleased, very proud, very grateful for where we sit and the season that we’ve had,” Harbaugh said. “It’s something that will live forever. That’s an accomplishment.”
It’s a feat that comes with a first-round bye, a reward that is not taken for granted.
“Obviously, rest is critical,” said the 35-year-old Yanda. “We’ve played a lot of physical ballgames this year and I’m an old man, so I’m not going to shy away from rest. I’ll take it. When we play our next football game I’ll have some juice. So I’m excited.”
For all they’ve done, the Ravens would consider this season a bitter disappointment if they don’t end up playing in the Super Bowl next month.
“I'm not even going to put that in my head,” Jackson said. “We're having such a great year, that's where we have to get to. We're trying to get to that Super Bowl, so I'm not going to put anything else in my mind about not going there.”