By the time the Ravens boarded their chartered jet back to Baltimore on Oct. 19 following a punishing 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins, they had restored their confidence, evened their record at 3-3 and began serving notice to the NFL that they were to be taken seriously after halting a losing streak.
After winning eight of their next 10 games since dispatching the Dolphins behind linebacker Terrell Suggs' interception return for a touchdown and a running game that stacked up 140 bruising yards, the Ravens (11-5) have forged a path to the playoffs and are poised to grant a rematch to the AFC East champions on Sunday in an AFC wild-card game at Dolphin Stadium.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins (11-5) have won five consecutive games in going 9-1 since losing to Baltimore and look like a much stronger opponent now behind quarterback Chad Pennington, an unpredictable Wildcat formation that features running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and a defense led by pass-rushing linebacker Joey Porter.
"The Miami game was a turning point," veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "We all bought into the brotherhood of fighting. Everything was against us, no bye week. The world was saying we were done after that three-game losing streak after we got smashed in Indy. I think the turning point was Miami, and I think it was the turning point for them."
One day removed from a convincing 27-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that clinched the sixth and final AFC playoff berth for the Ravens, coach John Harbaugh remained true to his nature in declining to reflect back on the meaning of a game taken care of just over two months ago. For Harbaugh, it's all about concentrating on the next obstacle.
"Turning points and all that kind of stuff, I haven't even thought about it," Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. "We're thinking about this Miami game, the one coming up, and that's where our focus is."
That mantra of not dwelling on the past has been recited by Harbaugh ever since being hired by team owner Steve Bisciotti in January, and it propelled the Ravens past an early-season series of stumbles defined by narrow defeats to the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers and a 31-3 loss to the Colts.
Plus, the Ravens have endured playing 15 weeks in a row without a bye because their Week 2 game against the Houston Texans was postponed because of the destruction inflicted by Hurricane Ike on Reliant Stadium.
Nearly one year after former coach Brian Billick was fired following a 5-11 campaign, the Ravens are beginning to resemble the 13-3 team of two years ago that set a franchise record for victories in a single season.
Harbaugh's influence and hard-nosed approach ultimately rubbed off on the players.
"We couldn't see it at first," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who has played through the pain of a dislocated left shoulder to catch 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns. "We kept fighting as a team, learned to trust in one another and learned to have one another's back. It's been paying off throughout the whole season. We just continue to lean on one another."
The motivation stemming from last year's humiliating franchise-record nine-game losing streak has fueled the Ravens all season long.
"It was miserable," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "Nobody wants to play when you are that bad, but to have something to play for this late in the year is something special. You have to keep winning. That's how sweet it is."
Instead of spending his time Monday delving into introspection, Harbaugh, a Coach of the Year candidate, deflected credit toward his players and a good coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
"We have good players," Harbaugh said. "When you have good players, you have a chance to be a good football team. I think we have the best staff in the National Football League, and it's top to bottom and sideways."
As the Ravens launch preparations for the Dolphins with the coaching staff working overtime Monday and today to install a game plan Wednesday when practice resumes, they're unlikely to devote all their film study time to watching Suggs' 44-yard return for a touchdown or how in the span of eight minutes and 22 seconds they transformed a 3-3 tie into a 17-6 advantage.
They'll likely put more resources into breaking down the Dolphins' recent success, including a 24-17 win over Brett Favre and the New York Jets that claimed them a division title after going 1-15 a year ago with their lone win coming at the Ravens' expense.
"They are what they were last week, and you try to anticipate what they're going to be next week," Harbaugh said. 'They're a different football team. We're a different football team. We'll find out who the best football team is on Sunday.
"They're better. They're that many weeks better. You can tell they work hard every day to get better. So, we're impressed with them."
Added Mason: "I'll guarantee you they're a much better team than they were earlier this season. They were a hard team the first time. They're much better now."
The feeling is mutual with the Dolphins, who haven't forgotten how the Ravens' defense neutralized the Wildcat offense and held them to 71 rushing yards.
"They play with a lot of passion, but we do, too," Dolphins offensive tackle Vernon Carey told Florida reporters. "They play fast, we play fast. They are physical, but we are, too."
The Ravens appear to be well-prepared for the travails of the road, which is where they'll compete for the entire postseason should they advance past the Dolphins this week because they are the last-seeded team in the AFC.
Baltimore is 5-3 on the road, including an impressive 33-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens also emerged with a 2-1 record after three consecutive road games earlier this season, which includes a 30-10 setback to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Since that loss, the Ravens won five of their next six games.
"Our team's prepared for anything right now," Harbaugh said. "Our team feels very confident in any kind of circumstance or situation they would face. We faced three road games in a row this year, so our guys will be ready for it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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