Despite what Chad Steele might want you to remember about my reporting from inside the locker room over three decades, I’ve been down this road before.
We all have.
If you’re a Baltimore Ravens fan or follower, the devastating 2019 memories of missed fourth downs and Derrick Henry still running for the Tennessee Titans seem to fade rather quickly when the next great team of hope and promise comes along.
And I thought we’d never recover from that 2007 fiasco against Peyton Manning and all of the blubbering I did in its fatal aftermath?
My over-the-top praise for this unit was actually corrected on WNST-AM 1570 earlier this week by my trusted fact checker Luke Jones. I bought in on all of this No. 1 in the Power Rankings anointing and the rarefied air of the Baltimore Ravens being the “team to beat” in January. I said “this never happens” and “this is the best team ever” and everything everyone else was saying in a day-after-Christmas heady hangover of being 12-3 and going on the road to San Francisco and thoroughly embarrassing the team we thought was the best team last week. And that was before a 56-19 throttling of the Miami Dolphins to ring in the New Year with the promise of a Super Bowl.
But as the resident sage here, Baltimore Luke, pointed out – this is not the Ravens’ first purple rodeo as the big dogs at the party. It just feels that way. And I probably don’t recall these occasions from such a lofty perch because they ended so very poorly and abruptly on a purple magic carpet ride to abject disappointment and a long offseason of what ifs.
All of the playoff losses are hard. Lamar Jackson and this version of modern purple Coach HardBall have had four bad January beats. Chargers. Titans. Bills. And they almost beat the Bengals with Tyler Huntley leading the team eleven months ago. You see that it burns in their bellies and that bile will be building up to kickoff for the first playoff game when they are a touchdown favorite at home in a few weeks.
The much-celebrated-in-Cleveland-lately Joe Flacco took on three postseason road beats in a row to begin his Ravens’ career – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh – and then threw the ill-fated “We’re going to the Super Bowl” pass to Lee Evans and the Billy Cundiff shank made him effort another 52 weeks before vanquishing Tom Brady in New England in 2013. And I don’t need to tell you about the Mile High Miracle and the lights going out in New Orleans along the way to his big payday.
I stood at Ed Reed’s locker in Indianapolis at midnight with him talking about retirement and walking away in 2010 after a particularly thuddish end to that season.
I watched Ray Lewis sob uncontrollably in a back room in 2007 and could smell the hand lotion he was applying at his Gillette Stadium locker as he shouted to “go out and do something good for someone in the world” to nobody and everybody in New England five years later after another devastating January loss for the fourth year in a row. I watched Billy Cundiff solemnly answer questions in that same space. I watched Lee Evans in a corner locker in a state of horror being consoled by teammates in Foxborough in 2012.
I’ve been there for the lowest lows – and the highest highs.
I used to be the only one who wrote books about this Baltimore sports championship stuff.
And even though I’ll be watching this January ride from the couch as the only deposed-by-force and petty fear local media member, this one certainly feels different right now because of the depleted cast of the rest of the AFC but that changes every weekend with every result. Ask every other team in the NFL this season that we thought was the “best team” in any given week.
The last three weeks and beatdowns of Jacksonville, San Francisco and Miami have been awfully impressive.
But this one – probably like 2006 and 2019 – feels different for the Ravens because of the momentum of the team but we know its oft times fools’ gold. We can only hope the rest, bye week and home field advantage paves an easier purple path to Las Vegas glory and Lamar Jackson making good on his “believe ‘dat” moment late on that April 2018 draft night.
The Ravens have been a bit of a kooky franchise in regard to what years the Super Bowl parades happen and when they’re supposed to happen. And even the anticipation or the belief of the franchise to go to San Francisco and win a game like they did on Sunday night. The same current locker room that supposedly never hears the media criticism but somehow makes a folk zero out of Mike Florio – the “we hate the media” refrain is such a tired Harbaugh family trope at this point – in a game where they began the week as 4-point underdog and most of America threw money at the 49ers side to build them to a 6 ½-point favorite at game time.
We get it. Y’all played well and are really good. That’s been on display for 15 weeks now.
But, I’ve been here a long time. Winning in December and winning in January are two different business models.
You are the favorite. And will be every week. It has been bad money to bet against you.
The expectations of expecting to win are heavy. That’s probably the biggest achievement amidst all of the cheating the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady did along their path to immortality – their greatness almost never took a weekend off in January after that Tuck Game miracle. They were a franchise of finishers for two decades.
Even in criticizing his integrity – and with great cause and inside information – I have always praised John Harbaugh’s ability to motivate and have his football team physically and mentally ready to play on game day. He’s been here 16 years and I can count on one hand times when any truly talented or healthy Ravens team went on the field and stunk all day. But it’s happened in the playoffs.
You get the feeling that this mostly healthy, veteran-laden and led Mighty Men are hungry. And mostly with nude ring fingers, they appear to be all business these days in Owings Mills and onto airplanes all over the world the past two months.
This team, perhaps because its leadership beginning with Roquan Smith on defense and the veterans like JaDaveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy, has some real edge and vivid reminders of what my eyes saw from the inside as a “real” media member back in 2000. Nut cut guys who are ready to play and study the game and the game plan impeccably during the week and coaches who get them ready to compete. And Mike Macdonald’s ability to use every piece on the chessboard in a way that is lethal for an opposing quarterback to prepare for in real time when the deception is real because the players are so versatile and mentally ready to play.
And the pissed-off-for-greatness that Lamar Jackson has displayed from the moment he walked out in the forest green tuxedo on draft night has reminded many of us of another Florida kid that was passed over right to the Hall of Fame in Ray Lewis.
Other than Justin Tucker and Van Noy, all of these guys have had their feelings hurt many times in January. Some of them like Kevin Zeitler, Morgan Moses and Roquan Smith played on mostly bad teams with poverty franchises.
And this is a not-so-subtle reminder that John Harbaugh has only two more January victories since the New Orleans parade than you and I do. It’s been a long 11 years around here for empty promises, injury excuses and failed playoff game plans and executions.
I remember back when I was a real media member, attending all of these heady press conferences and open locker rooms of double-digit winning teams during several eras of Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco and even 2019 with Lamar Jackson. I was in the locker room for every one of those games and seeing the eyes of Marshal Yanda light up talking about Mark Ingram and a vicious offensive line Big Trussing anyone in their way.
This feels like a similar level of confidence building amongst the veterans with this 12-3 team on the cusp of grabbing the best seat at the NFL playoff table next month.
I like that they’re not satisfied and that Lamar doesn’t want to discuss another MVP trophy.
The Baltimore Ravens have never played an AFC Championship Game at home. This is the year to change that.
They’re the best team right now. No one in the NFL world will debate that. Not even that grinchy Mike Florio!
The were the better team by 37 points in annihilating the poor Miami Dolphins. They will next play real football on the weekend of January 20th when rust vs. rest will be the debate right up until kickoff.
As Brian Billick once said to his original Purple Reign men: “It’s time to win a Super Bowl.”
Anything less will be unacceptable.