PITTSBURGH -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh handed out T-shirts to his players this past week that read: "Faith and Guts," not only a mantra for their AFC wild-card game, but a summation of a year defined by handling adversity.
The Ravens never wavered this season through the Ray Rice scandal, the season-ending injuries to four starters and the four-game suspension to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. This same team confidently walked onto Heinz Field, roughed up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and accomplished something that's never happened in Ravens history -- beat the Steelers in the postseason.
There have been more talented teams in Harbaugh's seven seasons. But, after watching the Ravens stomp on the AFC North champions, it's clear that there hasn't been one mentally tougher.
“We played our best football game of the year right here, and I think it’s because of what we’ve been through all year [and] the way we’ve stuck together all year," Harbaugh said. “We had each other’s backs and maintained our faith. That’s what has made the difference for us."
The sixth-seeded Ravens head to top-seeded New England for an AFC divisional playoff game next Saturday. For now, the Ravens can take a moment to savor the most satisfying win in a season in which it felt like setbacks outnumbered celebrations.
It was evident throughout the game -- from Joe Flacco escaping the pocket and making a touchdown pass to linebacker Terrell Suggs making an interception with his legs -- that nothing was standing in the Ravens' way. The Ravens offense put together scoring drives of 80, 70, 57 and 69 yards without their injured starting offensive tackles. The Ravens' defense limited the NFL's second-ranked offense to three field goals and one touchdown with a secondary that has started seven different cornerbacks and four safeties.
"When adversity shows up at your front doorstep and you're prepared for it, I feel like it's always going to be a good result," guard Kelechi Osemele said. "It kind of puts a chip on everybody's shoulder. It kind of makes you want to prove the naysayers wrong."
The Ravens didn't look like a playoff team -- much less one that could win a game in the postseason -- because of an offense that struggled the final three weeks of the regular season. But their mindset on offense changed heading into the playoffs.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak told his players in a meeting the night before the wild-card game that they were going to go after the Steelers. No more conservative play-calling. No more safe throws. No more playing tight.
Like the Ravens did in their 2012 Super Bowl run, they allowed Flacco to throw deep. He averaged 14.3 yards per completion, connecting on a 40-yard pass to Steve Smith and drawing a 32-yard pass inference penalty on a throw to Torrey Smith.
"You have to play these games to win. You can't play to not lose," Flacco said. "You have to go out there and you have to let everything go. You can't worry about the outcome."
The Ravens now visit New England in what will be their third postseason trip there in four years. They know they can win there because they've done it before. And they know they can do it again because of what they've had to overcome this season.
"You don't let adversity get you down," Harbaugh said. "Our guys have done that all year. You know over time that pays off."