BALTIMORE 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 undoubtedly will start with when the team hit rock bottom.
That came 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 citywide 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 them readying for a matchup against the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII at the Superdome in New Orleans.
How did the Ravens turn things around in time? Their postseason run can be traced to four decisions over the past six weeks:
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 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins, but the defeat couldn't be pinned on the offense. Joe Flacco threw three first-half touchdown passes 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 less than 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 conversation. But the next day, Cameron 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."
In fact, the decision was based on more than just one game, and any sideline disagreement between Cameron and Harbaugh television cameras clearly showed one just accelerated the move.
Flacco wasn't progressing as much as the team hoped, and he was never going to be on entirely the same page as Cameron. Rice was overlooked in key spots too many times, and the offense was far too inconsistent from one drive to the next, never mind one game to the next.
Enter Caldwell, who has simplified the offense, used the middle of the field more, established the run early in games and impressed on Flacco the importance of moving in the pocket.
Flacco has one interception in six games since Caldwell took 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 averaged 30 points and 425 yards of offense.
Inside linebacker Ray Lewis tells his teammates and then the media that he's retiring at the end of the season.
Lewis, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and the longtime face of the franchise, said he decided when he was home in Florida rehabilitating his surgically repaired torn right triceps. He informed his teammates 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 (title). 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 different team since, and the emotion and intensity in Lewis' final home game was too much for the Colts to handle.
Lewis has made 44 tackles in three playoff games, so he's providing much more than emotion and leadership.
Ravens unveil a new-look offensive line in the playoff opener against the Colts.
We might never know whether Harbaugh would have juggled the Ravens' offensive line had left guard Jah Reid not injured his toe in the regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, but that's probably not important.
What matters is that the current group with Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, rookie Kelechi Osemele at left guard, Matt Birk at center, Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at right tackle has dominated in the Ravens' playoff run.
"They are the heart of our team," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "They like to give the quarterbacks, the receivers and the running backs all of the credit, but if it wasn't for those guys, we wouldn't have anything. When they play well, we go well."
During the regular season, Flacco was sacked 35 times. Only seven quarterbacks were taken down more. Rice averaged just over 71 rushing yards per game. In three playoff games, Flacco has been sacked only four times, while Rice has averaged 82.3 rushing yards.
The offensive line didn't just limit vaunted pass rushers such as the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. They rendered them nonfactors.
Trailing the New England Patriots 13-7 at halftime of the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens put the game in Flacco's hands.
The Ravens waited a year to avenge last season's AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots, so the last thing they wanted to do was go down passively. That was the message in the visiting locker room at halftime after the offense looked especially sluggish for the first 30 minutes.
"In the first half, we were probably a little bit run-heavy, and they did a good job of stopping it," Flacco said. "We didn't come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win. We came here to win the AFC Championship Game, and you have to play to win."
Flacco was 6 of 12 for 81 yards in the first half as the Ravens accumulated just 130 yards of offense. In the second half, he was 15 of 24 for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens' three second-half scoring drives lasted 24 plays. Flacco, operating in a shotgun and out of the no-huddle, threw on 18 and scrambled for a first down on another.
Baltimore returned to a run-heavy attack late in the fourth quarter when it had a two-score lead and was running out the clock. By then, the trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl was well in their grasp.