It's deja-vu all over again for the Ravens.
Nearly one year after a Super Bowl appearance literally slipped through their hands in the end zone of the 2011 AFC Championship game against the Patriots, the Ravens will have their chance at redemption this Sunday.
After shocking the world and doing the impossible by knocking off Peyton Manning and the white-hot Broncos in Denver, the Ravens got to sit back and watch their fate unfold for next Sunday's AFC Championship game.
For the third time in quarterback Joe Flacco's career with Baltimore, they are a mere 60 minutes away from glory.
It's been a rough year for the Ravens with a plague of key injuries, head-splitting inconsistencies (especially offensively), a three-game losing streak, and to top it all off, the retirement announcement from their heart and soul, Ray Lewis, less than a week before their Wild Card matchup against the Colts, which they won 24-9.
Yet throughout the road bumps and headaches, the Ravens have fought hard and not only made the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but also hung on to claim the AFC North title for the second year in a row.
But how does a team that starts the first half of its season 9-2, and then drop four of its last five games of the year, make it this far into the playoffs, much less clinch a playoff berth?
It was one thing for the Ravens to top rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Baltimore in his first ever NFL playoff game. As soon as it was revealed that the Ravens would then travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos, many people were next to certain that's where Ray Lewis would end his 17-year career, and Joe Flacco would have to wait another year for a shot at the Lombardi trophy.
Pundits and experts were not only expressing their favoritism for Denver to win and cover the 10-point spread. No, they were downright attacking the Ravens. "Thanks for the memories...because last week was your final career win, Ray Lewis. Your career will end in Denver," wrote ESPN's Ashley Fox. Ouch!
Still, even after the Ravens proved all the doubters wrong in an historic win last Saturday evening, and arguably their most memorable victory in franchise history (aside from their Super Bowl championship, of course), the experts are still not convinced. In fact, they are just as certain the Patriots will take care of business as they were certain the Broncos would.
But before the pundits put the Ravens down...again, let's break down this game, and why the Ravens actually have a better chance to win on Sunday evening than they did last weekend.
1. The offense has significantly improved over the past few weeks. Ever since much-criticized Cam Cameron was finally relieved of his duty shortly after the Ravens fell to the Redskins, the Ravens' offense has been much more consistent and dominating than it had been all year.
Since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco's lowest yardage output has been 254 yards. Flacco and the offense have been humming for weeks. Earlier this season, Flacco might have the offense in complete control one week, only to display an ugly performance the very next.
2. Ray Lewis' retirement. This is one that will have people rolling their eyes, but if Saturday's remarkable win was any indicator, it's this - the Ravens are on a mission. Not only that, but ever since Lewis made his return after suffering a torn triceps injury in mid-October in the game against the Cowboys, Lewis has literally been all over the place.
He led the defense with a whooping 13 tackles against the Colts two weeks ago, and had a few more key tackles last weekend against the Colts. This team knows they owe their 17-year general a perfect storybook ending to his legendary career, and they will stop at nothing to accomplish that goal...no matter who they have to play against.
3. The Ravens are accustomed to Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Ravens and Patriots have met so much in the last few years that they might as well be in the same division. Sparks fly whenever these two teams clash together, but one thing that differs this coming Sunday as opposed to last Saturday is that the Ravens simply play Brady and the Patriots much more often than Peyton Manning.
Most of their matchups have only been decided by less than a touchdown. Back in 2009, the Ravens dismantled the Patriots in the Wild Card game in Foxborough, 34-14. in last year's AFC Championship game, Joe Flacco threw a pass to Lee Evans in the corner of the end zone with eight seconds left that would have sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl, but they had to settle for a field goal attempt by former kicker Billy Cundiff that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime. Cundiff missed, and that's how the season ended for the Ravens.
4. The Ravens seem to thrive and perform their best in times of criticism and doubt. Travel back to the Ravens' Super Bowl run? The Broncos? No. The Titans? Not a chance. The Raiders. No way! The Giants? You must be joking! The Ravens were heavy underdogs in every single one of those games, and still came away with a Lombardi trophy to Baltimore in the end.
Their playoff run this season is quite similar to then. No matter how convincingly the Ravens may beat the Patriots Sunday evening, the pundits and experts will never be convinced until they are world champions. The Ravens thrive on criticism and doubt because they get to go out there and prove everyone wrong.
This time, the Ravens have a shot at redemption, and though the pundits and experts may still be blowing them off, I want to see how the Patriots will perform against a very real Super Bowl contender rather than a pretender such as Houston.
They have proved to the NFL that the Patriots are made for them. Brady has never had a career field day against the Ravens' defense, and it it probable that this Sunday will be no different.
Look out, NFL, but the Ravens might just be saving their best for last in a bid for an all-expense paid trip to New Orleans in February.