BALTIMORE -- No one is crowning the Baltimore Ravens as the team to beat in the NFL after gutting out a 23-16 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. Where the Ravens stand above everyone else in the NFL is resiliency.
The Ravens have dealt with the death of their former owner. They've dealt with the death of Torrey Smith's younger brother. And they've dealt with four games in 17 days. The first four weeks of the regular hasn't been particularly pretty or easy, but Baltimore isn't complaining about the results. The Ravens are 3-1 and have put themselves in position for another Super Bowl run because they refuse to wear down physically and mentally.
Overcoming adversity has been the calling card for a team that spent an entire offseason facing questions about falling short in the AFC Championship Game. Perseverance was the reason why Baltimore came from behind to beat the Patriots on Sunday and held off the Browns on Thursday night.
Cary Williams, the cornerback who had been labeled the weak link of the defense, returned the first interception of his career 63 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter, which proved to be the difference in the game. Joe Flacco shook off his first red-zone interception in three years to throw a touchdown and run for one. And a team which had played 92 hours earlier held tough through the final seconds, surviving two potential game-tying passes to the end zone.
"Adversity does one of two things: it either drives a team together or drives a team apart," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "In this case, because of the people that we have, it’s driving us together. We're a close group."
To put in perspective what Baltimore has gone through, Thursday night was the first home game in which the Ravens didn't have a moment of silence for someone they lost.
Art Modell, the former majority owner, died four days before the season opener. The players wore T-shirts listing his accomplishments under their uniform for their Week 1 win over the Bengals.
Then, on Sunday, Smith's younger brother, Tevin, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Smith helped rally the Ravens to a one-point win over the Patriots with two touchdown catches and scored his third in five days on Thursday.
"It’s a true family," Smith said. "That’s the greatest thing about this game. It brings a lot of men together that comes from a lot of different circumstances and they create a brotherhood. That’s the Ravens culture. The only thing that separates us is blood."
There were doubts about the Ravens' mental toughness last season. That's the impression made when a team follows big wins in 2011 with deflating losses at Jacksonville and Seattle. Judging how this team has performed in the first quarter of this season, the Ravens are not going to let such letdowns happen again.
It looked like Baltimore was primed for an upset a couple of times until someone stepped up to respond. After throwing a first-quarter interception in the end zone, which ended his streak of 125 red-zone passes without a pick, Flacco came back on the next drive to complete all four of his passes for 87 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown to Smith. Flacco then scored early in the third quarter on third-and-goal, when he faked out Browns linebacker Scott Fujita before running for a one-yard touchdown (Flacco's celebratory spike does need some work, though).
"You have to shake [that mistake] off," Flacco said of the interception. "There was a lot of time left in the game. You can't let it affect you too much."
Football can test you mentally as much as physically, especially at the cornerback position. Williams, who has seemed to wear a bull's-eye on his jersey instead of No. 29 this season, gave up a 43-yard catch to Browns wide receiver Greg Little on the Browns' only touchdown drive of the game.
One quarter later, Williams jumped a Brandon Weeden pass and ran back his first career interception for the game-deciding touchdown. Williams, who was criticized heavily this week for getting picked on by Tom Brady, went from media punching bag to the one delivering the crucial blow.
"I'm proud of that kid to fight through what he has fought through," safety Ed Reed said. "He's more deserving of an interception touchdown than any other person on this team."
This early-season grind has taken its toll on the Ravens. Flacco bruised his ribs a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia and he was walking gingerly in the locker room. Reed needed around-the-clock treatment for a sprained knee in order to play Thursday.
This pain, however, doesn't compare to what this team has had to deal with emotionally.
"When you have things that makes times tough and makes times tough for individual, it kind of helps us through those times because everybody has a great relationship," Flacco said. "We’re able to rally around those guys."
The Ravens have done all of this under the national microscope. They've had prime-time games on Monday night, Sunday night and Thursday night. The reward is some well-deserved rest.
The players will report to team headquarters Friday for a meeting before getting the weekend off. They will get to recuperate physically, but not emotionally. Some of the team will attend the funeral of Smith's brother on Saturday.
The Ravens needed a strong start in order to position themselves for a fifth consecutive playoff berth. They play two of their next three games on the road, which includes a showdown at undefeated Houston, before their bye. Baltimore has a second-half stretch in which it faces the Steelers twice in three weeks with a cross-country trip in between. Then, there's back-to-back games against the Manning brothers in December.
If these first four weeks have told us anything about the Ravens, it's that this team is ready to fight when faced with challenges.