Ravens riding surge of momentum

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Baltimore Ravens' story is about more than just a potentially happy ending for Ray Lewis. It's about something we've seen far more frequently in recent years, the type of team bonding that often appears so magical at this point in a football season. The Ravens surely may have tapped into the inspiration that came from their leader announcing his retirement at the start of the playoffs. But they've reached the Super Bowl because they were a truer team than the one they just faced.

This is what we need to take away from Baltimore's 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. For everyone who didn't believe in the Ravens -- and count this writer among them -- there was no confusion about who was the better squad in this contest. Baltimore thoroughly dominated the Patriots in the second half, outscoring the hosts 21-0. The only question that remained by the game's conclusion was how long the Ravens would prance around Gillette Stadium before finally returning to Baltimore.

That celebration had as much to do with vindication as it did with having a chance to meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. It was about a team that was on the verge of imploding in December, one that fired its offensive coordinator and had to pray that an injury-ravaged defense could regain its swagger. The Ravens could've easily vanished weeks ago, with a laundry list of excuses to explain their fade. Instead, they doubled down on the same attitude that made them who they are in the first place.

"The thing that has been consistent ever since I got here -- what Coach [John] Harbaugh has preached -- is team, team, team," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "We have great veteran leadership, but guys also genuinely care for each other and love being around each other. We're willing to lay it on the line, and we've definitely been through a lot this season. But that's why this means so much. It's a tribute to how guys feel about the people in this locker room."

That same unity drove last season's New York Giants, who were 7-7 with two weeks left in the regular season, to a championship. Two seasons ago, the Green Bay Packers won all four of their postseason games away from home on their journey to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens had the luxury of playing their first postseason game at home this year -- a wild-card win over Indianapolis -- but that doesn't make their success any less noteworthy. They beat the AFC's top two seeds in enemy territory. In the process, they left Peyton Manning and Tom Brady searching for answers as to why their offseasons started early.

Sunday's game was even more impressive than Baltimore's win over Denver because there were no easy explanations to undercut the Ravens' success. It wasn't as if Baltimore needed a miraculous, last-minute touchdown pass to survive or an opposing coach who was willing to go ultra-conservative with the game on the line. They simply snatched the game from the Patriots as if it was their destiny all along. The most telling detail of the contest, the only one that really mattered, was that New England's high-powered offense vanished in the final two quarters.

This is crucial to note, because the Patriots seemed vastly overrated the longer this game went on. Their vaunted passing game wasn't so dangerous without one of its best weapons, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was nursing a broken forearm in a luxury suite high above the action. Their improved secondary also quickly returned to a mediocre level the minute New England's best cornerback, Aqib Talib, hobbled off the field in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. The absence of two key players was all it took for New England to become ordinary. It was almost laughable to think oddsmakers had ordained them a 9.5-point favorite when the rematch of last year's AFC championship was set a week ago.

Baltimore, on the other hand, clearly had better weapons in its passing attack, with wide receiver Anquan Boldin producing two acrobatic touchdown receptions. The Ravens' defense also rose to the occasion, as safety Bernard Pollard knocked out Patriots running back Stevan Ridley with a wicked shot in the fourth quarter that led to a fumble that Baltimore recovered. Let's also not forget the performance of quarterback Joe Flacco. Often maligned for his inconsistency in the past, he found a way to outplay Brady at the most critical moment of his career.

All these elements factored into a calm the Ravens displayed from the moment this contest kicked off. "We just came out and played Ravens football," Baltimore fullback Vonta Leach said. "That's all I can say about it. We played Ravens football. We missed a few plays in the first half. But we came out in the second half and we said, 'Playmakers make plays.' And that's what our playmakers did."

It's easy to say in hindsight that we should've seen this coming. The fact is that the Ravens' momentum has much to do with things happening far away from the spotlight. Lewis and fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs helped the cause by fighting back from injuries that could've landed them on injured reserve earlier this year. New coordinator Jim Caldwell stabilized the offense after replacing Cam Cameron. Harbaugh also found a way to keep his team focused despite consecutive losses to Washington and Denver in December.

The Ravens acknowledge that they were a team in disarray at that point. Veteran safety Ed Reed specifically alluded to that 34-17 loss to the Broncos on Dec. 16 as "the low point of the season." Said Reed: "We came off the field [during that game] and there was trouble on the sidelines. That was tough, because we knew we had the [right] team."

Nobody can dispute that about Baltimore today. The Ravens are going to the Super Bowl with a sense of destiny, and they are clearly driven by the goal of giving Lewis the ultimate going-away present. Another plot revolves around Harbaugh getting the opportunity to face younger brother Jim, the head coach of the 49ers, in New Orleans. You can already imagine the hype those storylines will generate.

But let's not lose sight of something far more important before all that hoopla begins. The Ravens had few believers when this postseason began --and not many more when the AFC Championship Game started. That will not be an issue two weeks from now, when Super Bowl XLVII kicks off. Anybody who watched Baltimore on Sunday can see it's the hottest team still standing. At this point, it's also not hard to imagine them ending up as the best.