FOXBORO, Mass. -- Like the Giants last year, and the Packers the year before, we didn't really see these Baltimore Ravens coming, did we? But maybe we should have. After all, Super Bowl teams of late aren't always the beauty pageant winners, primping and preparing for their victory lap. They're the survivors. They're the clubs that hang around, and then get hot, putting it together when it matters most. When we least expect them, they arrive.
And these Ravens fit the recent profile to a tee. A three-game losing streak in December? A change at offensive coordinator in Week 14? Devastating injuries to key defensive stars? Five weeks ago, Baltimore looked to be in disarray. Now the upstart Ravens are staring at their first Super Bowl trip in 12 years, and Ray Lewis will cap his Hall of Fame career with the biggest final turn in the spotlight imaginable.
So much for thinking Baltimore was a one-and-done playoff team waiting to happen, which was my pithy assumption after watching the Ravens get blown out at home by Denver 34-17 in Week 15. Baltimore has covered a lot of unexpected ground since its season hit its nadir that day at M&T Bank Stadium, but that just makes the view from Sunday night at New England's Gillette Stadium all the sweeter. The Ravens are going to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans because they never stopped believing a game like Sunday's complete and convincing 28-13 conquest of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game was possible.
But that's what the NFL's postseason seemingly has become. Every year a team comes out of nowhere after hiding in plain sight in December. The Ravens are this season's unlikely entry in the Super Bowl, a 10-6, No. 4 seed not too much different than last year's 9-7, No. 4-seeded Giants in the NFC, or 2010's 10-6, No. 6-seeded Packers. Come early February, you can almost count on watching a team that has been all but counted out.
"Even after those three losses [in Weeks 13-15], I told everyone 'Don't panic. We're going to right the ship,' '' Ravens veteran receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We're going to win the division, we're going to make it to the playoffs, and we're going to be a team to reckon with. This is a team of faith, and we believed all season, no matter what the circumstances were.
"We've been through a lot as a team. We've had injuries after injuries. We've had one of our brothers [receiver Torrey Smith] lose a loved one. We've lost an offensive coordinator [Cam Cameron]. You name it, we've been through it. But this team never wavered, no matter the situation. And I think today you saw that. We got down early, but this team didn't blink. We knew this was our game. We knew we were going to win.''
Boldin displayed bravado about his Ravens last week, guaranteeing a Baltimore victory in the rematch of last year's AFC title game, which the Ravens lost 23-20 in heart-wrenching fashion at Gillette. He apparently saw where this story was headed before the rest of us, and he cut to the chase. It ain't bragging if you back it up. It's believing.
"For us it wasn't a secret, what we're trying to get accomplished,'' Boldin said. "We came in here last year and left with a bitter taste in our mouths. We felt like this team took something away from us. We wanted to come back there and make that right. We thought the proper way was to come back here and win at Foxboro. And we were able to do that.''
Trailing 13-7 at halftime, Baltimore apparently had the favored Patriots right where they wanted them. The Ravens have gotten used to the uphill climb, and they relished the opportunity to prove themselves resilient once more. After punting on their first possession of the third quarter, Baltimore exploded for three consecutive touchdowns in the third quarter and early fourth quarter, stunning a New England team that went scoreless in the game's final 30 minutes.
"We hadn't gotten much going on offense, but the defense was playing really well,'' Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "But it was still a six-point game [at halftime]. We knew we didn't come here to play it safe, and hope to win. We came here to play to win. You have to play to win in these championship games.''
After sticking to the ground game primarily in the first half, Baltimore opened things up in the second half, putting the game on Flacco's shoulders. The fifth-year quarterback, almost always effective against New England, responded, finishing with 240 yards and three touchdown passes, after throwing for just 81 yards on six completions in the first half.
It helped, of course, that the Patriots' best cornerback, Aqib Talib, left the game in the first quarter with a thigh injury, leaving Baltimore an opening to exploit more downfield patterns to Boldin (five catches for 60 yards, with two touchdowns), Smith (four catches for 69 yards) and tight end Dennis Pitta (five for 55 yards, one touchdown).
"We kind of made a decision in the second half to cut it loose a little bit more,'' Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said. "We were running the ball with some effectiveness, but they were doing a good job on defense. They were stopping us. We had to get away from challenging them [up front] and give Joe a chance to make some plays.''
Nobody has mirrored the Ravens' resurgence this month more than Flacco, whose impending free agency is a case of perfect timing with this Super Bowl run (he'll get paid handsomely, one way or another). Flacco has been discounted plenty in his career, but like the Ravens, here he is, still standing, and about to play in the biggest game of his career.
"I think we've been playing good all year,'' Flacco said. "It's just that people lose, people lose football games. We've had a couple bad losses, and it just happens that way sometimes. It's a crazy season. There are a lot of good football teams in the NFL, and you have to be ready to play every week, and ready to take your lumps and deal with it. And I think that's what we've always done.''
Credit the Ravens, who have banged on the door of Super Bowl contention every year in the five-year Harbaugh/Flacco era, but only this year found the right combination and sprung the lock. Their perseverence has been rewarded. Baltimore's third AFC title game appearance in five seasons finally delivered the prize.
"These games are tough to win, and we've put ourselves in the position to win these games a lot,'' Flacco said. "Eventually you're going to push through. You're going to play the way you need to. It's kind of crazy. It's my fifth year here and this is the third one of these games we've played in and the first one we've won. They're tough games to win, but we played as a team today and that's what we're going to need to do in two weeks [against San Francisco].
"We've overcome injuries. We didn't have Suggs. We didn't have Haloti [Ngata]. We didn't have Ray [Lewis]. So I think we definitely overcame a lot. But if you look at the Super Bowl teams over the past few years, I would say they have a lot in common with that. It's about who can get ready and become their best at the right time.''
That's exactly what it's about in the NFL's Super Bowl tournament these days. After the regular season loss to Denver, the Ravens looked to have little or no shot of getting ready and playing their best at the most opportune time. Veteran safety Ed Reed called that loss the "lowest point of the season,'' and said the road Baltimore has traveled since then has been "amazing.''
"You know what, man, God has a plan to take you through something,'' said Reed, making his first career Super Bowl trip. "To make you the men you are. That was the moment that we as a team, at least defensively anyway, we had to clear up some things to understand each other. It hurt us to lose that game, and we came out there that day and the sideline was troubled, and we never had that [before]. For us to go through that process, losing those games, I saw the work of the man upstairs. Because we knew we had the team.''
The Ravens have a Super Bowl team now. It didn't seem possible five weeks ago, but Baltimore is blazing a trail that grows more familiar every year in the NFL playoffs. They're the team that cares more about where it's going than what the trip looked like every step of the way. The Ravens are dangerous, and they know it.
Somebody had best warn San Francisco.