The story of the Ravens' remarkable turnaround from losing four of five games to close the regular season to winning three straight to get to the Super Bowl will be told many times before Feb. 3. And the story will undoubtedly start when the team hit rock bottom.
It was Dec.16 when the Ravens were booed by their home fans during an embarrassing 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. After the game, veteran safety Ed Reed, whose frustration boiled over on the sideline when he threw and then kicked his helmet following a Broncos' touchdown, stood in front of his locker and apologized.
"As a single player, as an individual, right now I am embarrassed to come out and perform the way we have," Reed said. "We're not the only team that lost today and we still have two more games. But as a player, I am embarrassed for our city."
A little more than a month later, that embarrassment has turned into a city-wide celebration. The Ravens rebounded from the Broncos' loss to beat the New York Giants the following week, setting the stage for the postseason run that has the Ravens readying for a matchup with the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII next Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
How did the Ravens turn things around in time? Their postseason run can be traced back to four decisions made over the past six weeks.
Dec. 10: Ravens fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replace him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.
The timing of Cameron's dismissal seemed odd. A day earlier, the Ravens endured a 31-28 loss in overtime to the Washington Redskins but the defeat couldn't be pinned on the offense. Joe Flacco threw three first-half touchdowns and completed 16-of-21 passes, Ray Rice rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown and the offense put together a clutch touchdown drive to take an eight-point lead with under five minutes to go.
It was the defense that faltered, allowing Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and then his backup Kirk Cousins to drive the length of the field in the final minutes for the game-tying score and two-point conversion. However, the next day it was Cameron who was out of a job.
"It's what I believe is best going forward for our offense and for our football team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at the time. "Cam was doing a heck of a job here. He did a heck of a job here for a long time. I believe that and I also believe that right now at this time, the timing says that this is the best thing."
The reality was that the decision was based on more than just one game and any sideline disagreement between Cameron and Harbaugh — and television cameras clearly showed one such moment — just accelerated the move.
Flacco wasn't progressing as much as the team hoped and he was never going to fully be on the same page as Cameron. Rice was forgotten about in key spots too many times and the offense was way too inconsistent one drive to the next, never mind one game to the next.
Enter Jim Caldwell who has simplified the offense, utilized the middle of the field more, established the run early in games and impressed on Flacco the importance of moving around in the pocket.
Flacco has only one interception in six games since Caldwell has taken over play-calling duties and that was in the first half of Caldwell's first game in his new role. In three playoff games, the Ravens have totaled 90 points and averaged 425 yards of total offense.
Jan. 2: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis tells his teammates and then the media that he's retiring at the end of the season.
Lewis, a future Hall of Famer and the long-time face of the franchise, said that he made the decision when he was home in Florida rehabbing his surgically-repaired torn right triceps. He opted to let his teammates in on it four days before the Ravens' playoff opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
Lewis' announcement first stunned and then inspired many of his teammates who openly talked about wanting to send their leader off by helping him get to the Super Bowl.
"I think we all just put our pride aside, and if we are going to ride it, we are going to ride it," said Rice, Lewis' closest friend on the team. "But, we are going to go out there and give it our best shot for our guy. He's done it for us for 17 years and led our guys to one Super Bowl. You are talking about a pioneer that has laid a platform for the whole NFL. We would like to send him out the right way."
Perhaps, too much has been made of the emotional lift that Lewis' announcement provided but it's hard to argue with the immediate results. The Ravens, who played so poorly in December, have looked like a completely different team since and the emotion and intensity in Lewis' final home game was too much for the Colts to handle.
Lewis has also made 44 tackles in three playoff games so he's providing much more than emotion and leadership.
Jan.6: Ravens unveil new-look offensive line in playoff opener versus the Colts.