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Road to Super Bowl XLVII: Ravens shook off injuries, got offensive

Perhaps the Baltimore Ravens got in the habit of leaning on their defense a little too much seeing as the formula worked so well over a decade ago.

After all, the 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens were a formidable stronghold, leading the league in scoring defense with a unit that featured names such as Rod Woodson, Tony Siragusa, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.

There was also a 25-year linebacker named Ray Lewis, who led Baltimore in tackles that season and went on to be named MVP after the Ravens bested the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Defense became the identity of the Ravens thanks to the now 37-year-old Lewis, as well as safety Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Under Lewis' watch, Baltimore put a top-10 defense out onto the field after 2002 (a run that ironically ended this season) and was a constant playoff participant.

But it wasn't enough to get the Ravens back to the Super Bowl. They reached the postseason seven times in 11 seasons following the franchise's first ever title, losing a pair of AFC Championship games in that span.

It was starting to turn into a repetitive and frustrating oh-so-close script. In the five seasons since John Harbaugh took over as head coach, the Ravens lead the NFL with eight playoff wins and six postseason road triumphs. They are the only team to make the playoffs in all five seasons.

But something was still missing.

It turned out to be a bit more offense.

Baltimore's need to put points on the board was foreshadowed when Suggs missed the first six games of the season due to a torn Achilles. He missed another two contests during the season with a torn biceps, the same injury that sidelined Lewis for the final 10 games of the regular season.

The Ravens came right out of the gate with a 44-point performance in a season- opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals and averaged 26.8 points and 385 yards per game during a 5-1 start.

Of course, Baltimore still showed it could win with defense in that time, posting a 9-6 win at Kansas City on Oct. 7 thanks in part to four forced turnovers.

And while the Ravens could still rattle opposing offenses, quarterback Joe Flacco's unit made sure to keep its defense fresh by holding onto the ball themselves. Baltimore's 16 turnovers were a single-season franchise best and tied for the second fewest in the NFL.

Flacco was a big part of that as he matched a career low with 10 interceptions despite passing for a personal-best 3,817 yards this season.

And that didn't come on dinking and dunking either. Flacco had five 300-yard passing games to match a team record and the Ravens ranked third in the NFL with 72 plays of 20-or-more yards as running back Ray Rice continued to break off big plays and wide receiver Torrey Smith developed into a constant deep threat to compliment No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin.

Baltimore's ability to go deep gave it an energy that it lacked before.

"When you give them the opportunity one-on-one to go up and make plays and they make them, it gets them going," said Flacco. "It gets the other guys going. 'Hey, Joe's going to put the ball up there today, we've got to go get it.' ... I've got to give those guys a chance to make a play. That's what they're out there for, and that's what they get paid to do."

With Flacco turning in consistent efforts and the Ravens scoring at a pace that ultimately produced a club-record 398 points this season, one would have figured that not much was needed to get the offense ready for the playoffs.

Baltimore had other ideas, however, and made a bold move prior to its third- to-last game of the regular season when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired. He was replaced by quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, though the move did not pay off right away as the Ravens were held to 278 yards in a 34-17 setback to the Denver Broncos on Dec. 16.

However, under Caldwell's direction the following week, the Ravens notched a season-high 533 yards of offense versus the Giants, the third-highest output in team history thanks to a 300-yard passing game from Flacco and a pair of 100-plus efforts on the ground from Rice and fellow running back Bernard Pierce.

Under Caldwell, the Ravens offense has averaged 406.2 yards and 26.2 points per game and Flacco has looked like a franchise quarterback set for a big payday.

"When he made that decision, that was something that the coach felt was best for the team," said Rice. "What coach Caldwell has done has kept the offense simple and basic. He put the game into Joe Flacco's hands, and Joe has done a great job -- phenomenal job -- of leading us to where we needed to be. We are right here where we want to be right now."

That was furthered proved in the divisional round rematch between the Ravens and top-seeded Broncos, one that looked as if it was going to end Baltimore's season short of its goal once again. However, Flacco beautifully floated a pass that Broncos safety Rahim Moore misplayed, allowing the ball to fall into the hands of Jacoby Jones, who raced for a game-tying 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation.

Two overtimes later and Baltimore was on to the AFC Championship thanks to a thrilling 38-35 win.

But an improved offense wasn't going to do it alone; the Ravens still needed their once-feared defense to produce. That wasn't happening for most of the regular season as Baltimore yielded 20.6 points and 382.3 yards per game through its first 10 contests while battling injury. Baltimore was still 8-2 over that span, but that kind of production would not hold up in the playoffs.

In fact only Reed and cornerback Cary Williams were able to start all 16 games on defense this season and Harbaugh's defense got contributions from youngsters such as Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Arthur Jones and Courtney Upshaw.

"We've probably never tested it as deep as we did this year since we've been there. Our young guys always came through," Harbaugh said of the defense.

Thankfully, as Suggs got healthy the Ravens' defense started to click despite losing Lewis to injury. Cornerback Lardarius Webb also landed on injured reserve because of a torn ACL and hasn't played since Oct. 8, but Baltimore gave up the fourth-fewest yards per game (299.0) over its final six.

Then came the return of Lewis, who had announced he would retire at season's end. That brought the defensive unit together once again and the former Defensive Player of Year made a game-high 13 tackles in a 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the wild card round.

He also got to do a victorious "Squirrel Dance" one more time in front of the home crowd.

"Ray is a Super Bowl MVP. His leadership, obviously, is really important for us. His leadership off the field and understanding how to approach a game like this is big for our younger guys," Harbaugh said. "Also, as a football player, he has played really well. He's played just like he's always played."

And while Denver did put up 398 yards of offense the following week, it was two interceptions by Corey Graham that contributed to the win. His second pick, in fact, helped set up the game-winning field goal.

Up next was an old nemesis in the New England Patriots, who knocked the Ravens out of the AFC Championship Game the previous season when then-Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal try wide left.

Baltimore was still a confident bunch. It had won in New England before in the playoffs and had handled Pats quarterback Tom Brady before. The former MVP had two touchdown passes to five interceptions in the previous two playoff meetings and would not have his day in the rematch.

Brady threw for 320 yards with a touchdown pass, but was picked off twice as the Ravens posted a 28-13 win. Baltimore's defense shut New England out in the second half and yielded only one touchdown in the Patriots' four red zone trips.

Finally, the Ravens had gotten back over the hump.

"There are a lot of people in this league that can't say they've ever gotten to this point, so it definitely feels good to get here," Flacco said. "We've got a lot of guys on our team that have played long careers, and this will be their first time here. So, we realize that opportunity and realize how special it is. That's why we've just got to work hard and make sure we make the most of it."

The most recent effort may not have been the Ravens' best statistical showing, especially on defense this season, but it was certainly the biggest.

And a perfect fit to Baltimore's new winning formula.