Beginning with kicker Billy Cundiff’s career-damaging miss, or perhaps wideout Lee Evans’ drop moments before, Jan. 22, 2012 began a tumultuous year for the Ravens.
And still, here Baltimore stands, right back where it was 12 months ago - heading to Foxborough, Mass., to face the New England Patriots in the AFC championship.
The Ravens have endured more than anyone’s fair share of adversity since losing to the Pats in last year’s AFC title tilt. Even so, Baltimore put together a 10-6 regular season and got hot at the right time for an improbable playoff run.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be here,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “For us to overcome a lot of things, not only injuries but some family problems with (Torrey Smith’s) family, everything that has happened with our team, I think we all just understand that we’re a family here, and we can lean on each other and depend on each other. I think we are such a close team here now that we just always went against the naysayers (of) our team and have overcome a lot of difficulties.”
Suggs proceeded to miss the first six games of the season and then absorbed another major injury in his sixth game back, tearing his biceps. The linebacker missed just one contest because of that injury and has continued playing with one arm severely limited. He had his best performance of the year in Saturday’s divisional playoff upset, recording 10 tackles and two sacks.
Continuing with the injury theme, Baltimore lost top cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) and star linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) long-term in an Oct. 14 victory over the Cowboys. Webb’s torn ACL cost him the remainder of the season, while Lewis pushed himself back from surgery for one final playoff run before retirement.
Baltimore also spent significant time without linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain, cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive end Pernell McPhee, safety Bernard Pollard and tight end Ed Dickson. Each missed at least three games.
Guard Marshal Yanda sat out two, Ngata one and Reed played in every game despite a torn labrum in his shoulder.
On top of that, wideout Torrey Smith’s brother died in a motorcycle accident on Sept. 23, the morning before a Sunday night visit from the Patriots.
Tight end Dennis Pitta acknowledged that has all made this an unusually eventful season.
“I think the things you go through, through the course of a season, really mold you as a football team, define you and help you learn and grow,” Pitta said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and through all that we’ve learned a lot and we feel better prepared now than we ever have in this position.”
In part because of all the injuries, the Ravens slid to their first losing streak since 2009, dropping three in a row to start December.
But Baltimore bounced back to beat the New York Giants 33-14 in Week 16 and after resting starters the following week, kept the upswing going with playoff victories over hot Colts and Broncos teams.
“I think we’re definitely a resilient team,” Smith said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me, individually. Obviously, I have my own personal loss that my team helped me get through, but that is just how we are. You look at the games that we have been in and the games that we have come out on top - even in the games that we lost, we never laid down for anyone. We continued to fight, and that’s just how we are and who we are as Ravens.
“I think we are definitely battle-tested, and I think it starts at the top with our leaders - coaches and players - as well. Everyone’s a fighter, everyone has heart. When you have leaders like we have on our team, it is hard to not want to follow them and be a fighter and never throw the towel in. We have been through it all - whether on the field or off the field - and we became stronger for it. Our coaches always say, ‘Iron sharpens iron,’ and I think we are definitely a testament to that.”
Coach John Harbaugh said at the end of the 2011 season that it would take a lot to get back to a second straight AFC championship.
“I was right. It was a great prediction. It was spot on,” Harbaugh said. “There are challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team and make you who you are - even as a person. And our guys have handled all those things extremely well.
“Individually, a lot of our guys - and collectively - have come out of it stronger and better men, and we’re a stronger and better team.”