It had been a while since the Ravens could hug each other on the sideline, high five and congratulate one another for a job well done.
On Sunday, they could smile a little easier and relax a little more once they accomplished what they hoped would come much sooner - their second straight AFC North championship.
A three-game losing streak, the team’s first since 2009, dampened what had been a winning start for Baltimore and put a division title in jeopardy. But with Sunday’s 33-14 win over the Giants improved the Ravens’ record to 10-5, their first goal has been achieved and they’ve secured a home playoff game.
“I’m as proud of this team right now as ever,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Really, we’ve said this before: I love this team. I love every single guy on this team. I love the way they compete. I love the way they work, the way they fight.
“This is just a really special group of men. How far we take each other, that’s what we’ll find out. That remains to be seen. They are sure a great group of guys to be around every day. For them to earn a championship like this means a lot.”
Winning it without backing in, as the Ravens did with qualifying for the playoffs, meant something to the players.
“Huge, man. It’s huge to get it this way after what we’ve been through,” safety Ed Reed said. “We knew this was a journey - this season is a journey. We still have a game left. Congrats for today, hats off to the Giants. But we just have to build on this.”
This was a win the Ravens had waited for, enduring a dreadful stretch that was somewhat because of the team’s uncommon number of significant injuries and somewhat because of poor play on both sides of the ball.
The Baltimore offense was at its absolute best and its defense wasn’t too bad, either, stomping all over a scuffling Giants team that has now lost five of seven and been outscored 67-14 over the last two weeks.
As the Ravens skidded toward the finish, it began to appear that next week’s game at Cincinnati could be for the division title.
Now, Baltimore has only playoff seeding left to play for with a first-round bye out of the question and the third seed the highest the team can claim. So that leaves Harbaugh with a decision to make about how to approach next Sunday’s regular-season finale.
“The thing we’re going to do for sure is we’re going to try and win the game. That’s the No. 1 thing we’re going to do,” Harbaugh said. “We’re also going to try and make sure we’re as healthy as we can be going into the playoffs. So I think we’ll merge those two considerations.”
The only benefit of forcing their way out of the fourth seed is the possibility of a far-fetched home date in the AFC Championship should the higher seeds fall.
With the conference’s postseason field set heading into the final week of the regular season, all that’s left to be decided is the match-ups. The Ravens are locked in to hosting the Bengals (9-6) or Colts (10-5) in the first round before traveling to likely face either the Broncos or Texans, both of whom waxed Baltimore during the regular season.
At this point, it isn’t about which opponent awaits or the tough postseason road ahead. It’s about a win that made a 10-win (so far) regular season feel all the more successful after a draining stretch brought the team down.
“It’s a huge relief,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “We work hard each and every week. We come out and we do what we’re supposed to do and we try to be ultimate pros. We focus on technique and assignment and responsibility.
“So when you get into losing streaks like we did, some teams tend to fold. We didn’t do that. I know we’ll continue to fight this season. We believe in everybody as a group and we believe in the system. So we’re going to go out and play together the rest of the year.”
Note: Harbaugh confirmed that linebacker Ray Lewis will not return next week against the Bengals.
Lewis was eligible to be activated from injured reserve last week against the Broncos, but the team has held him out as he works his way back from torn triceps surgery.
Harbaugh said Lewis hasn’t been ruled out of coming back during the playoffs.
“We will not look at him again for this week. We’ll look at him at the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “It’s an injury that is a 12- to 16-week injury. So, if you do the math going back, we thought there was a chance. He is progressing really well. I’m not saying he couldn’t have played the last couple of weeks, but it would’ve been risky to reinjure it. The fact that there was some patience on Ray’s part and our part, it turned out well.”